With the amount of young, conventionally attractive white (doe-eyed, tall, slender, definitely cis) men wearing pink crop tops and black nail polish despite the frightening possibility of backlash from their less progressive counterparts, I’m fairly confident toxic masculinity is now a thing of the past—you know, like cable TV or the urgent need for women’s lib. How lucky are we to be living in a time when the ideal man, or boy, is improved and fragile in all the right ways? Today’s boy-next-door is in tune with his emotions, well-read (looove a guy who also reads poetry; seeing Bukowski in his bookshelves is a huge turn-on), non-toxic, and wrapped in pastel; kinda like a box of Crayola, emblematic of gentler times—wait, you know what, exactly like a box of Crayola.
The chicken or the egg, which came first? Who’s to say if the prevalence of soft boys both onscreen and off-screen is life imitating art or the other way around? They’re everywhere, that’s for sure: your ex, your recent crush (sorry, but we’re all in this together), and of course, the leading man of your newest Netflix hyperfixation. But with so many shows and so little time, how can you possibly satiate your craving for shy, lanky fictional boys who hang movie posters (e.g. Reservoir Dogs, or Donnie Darko if they’re slightly more self-aware so as to not obsess over Tarantino) in their meticulously messy bedrooms? Fret not, for we have taken the selfish vocation of collecting them like little keychains and deliberating each one. Here are the soft boys of Netflix, ranked.
- Joe, You
When you date a soft boy, you’ll no longer be forced to sit through episodes of The Bachelorette because the soft boy knows self-respecting women don’t watch that shallow trash. And really, aren’t we ready for a man who loves women? The soft boy is just woke like that. He owns a pussy hat. He posted a photo of him at the Women’s March. He lives in Brooklyn and works at an independent bookstore that hosts weekly poetry readings.
He’s old-fashioned and courteous and would never say some lame Tinder line like “hey let’s fuck” because he treats you right. He knows that to sleep with you, he has to show you he’s not like other guys. And he knows you’re not like other girls; other girls don’t appreciate the soft boy like you do. You understand this misunderstood boy, and the way he fetishizes you for it is hot as fuck. And the best part? You never have to worry about your flaws, because he’s already projecting a fantasy onto you.
But the real secret of the soft boy is his devotion. He’ll do anything for you, saving your helpless soul from anything that might hurt you, including yourself. Enough with guys who ghost you and cheat on you! The soft boy will literally always be there for you. He’s the perfect amount of dangerous and brooding, dominant and sensitive. His misogyny is just subtle enough to be hot. Sign me up.
- Stefan, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
The soft boy has never actually done anything wrong in his life ever. It isn’t his fault he has endured so, so much pain and so, so much heartbreak because he is tender and good and kind. He doesn’t want you to experience the same tragic past he has; thus, you get messages about how he wrote you something horrible but won’t send it to you because he’d rather just keep it and the pain for himself; and how you should just detach yourself from your toxic past and open your soft, rosy body to him so he can take a deeper look into your truest soul.
Audience-controlled Stefan, while not the author of such texts (who knows, though—he seems like the type), has also done nothing wrong in his life ever. Because he stutters, and has bad posture, and says stuff like “stressy,” and is stupefyingly, childishly passionate about video games, he is deemed unfit for the adult world: too good, too pure, too smol. He is factory-made to extract sympathy; I’m sorry I’m a murderer, it’s all circumstance. Although he is controlled by us, so maybe it really is just a matter of circumstance and not psychopathy veiled in fluffy sweaters and warm yellow socks. If only he just detached himself from his toxic past and opened his soft, rosy body.
- James, The End of the F***ing World
Isn’t a man changing for you just the most romantic thing ever? James was the textbook soft boy: lanky, British (optional, but preferred), painfully awkward—so textbook that it took a while to distinguish him from the rest. But that was before, and he’s different now, and all for you! The repressed violence gurgling underneath his marshmallow artifice remains hidden because you are just that important to him; he’ll do whatever it takes—including changing himself—just to keep you. Never mind his homicidal tendencies; he’s not killing you now, is he?
That’s what makes dating a soft boy so damn special: your presence is so life-changing for him that you induce a second puberty, where he finally owns up and grows up, all in an attempt to be better for you. It’s just so rewarding to fix him.
- Jonathan, Stranger Things
The soft boy is someone you’ll be proud to introduce to your parents: oh, he’s a sensitive big brother who listens to The Clash who’s also an artist who takes care of his entire family. He’s tall but his voice is soft and non-threatening, his shoulders a concave in an attempt to make himself smaller. You buy it. And while we like to think Jonathan is no longer cultivating his soft-boy tendencies—a lot can happen in three seasons, after all—we can’t shake the feeling that hiding in the bushes to take pictures of the girl you like while she makes out with someone else is not quite in line with his artistic vision.
Why did he get the girl, then—why is his archetype still so prevalent, in ‘80s media and recent media and recent ‘80s-inspired media? They are, in the words of frequent soft-boy victim Taylor Alison Swift, nightmares dressed like daydreams. The artifice is to gratify the women they want, and underneath is the inherent toxicity, which is ultimately self-serving. “He is emotionally intelligent but does nothing with this knowledge,” writes Alan Hanson in the essay“Have You Encountered the Softboy?” The reign of the fuckboy is over because they’ve been found out. The soft boy is more sinister, and he’s just getting started.
- Peter, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
There is a soft boy that is a different kind of seductive: the secret soft boy. Underneath the lacrosse uniform and perfect beer pong skills is someone who is vulnerable, gentle, and emotional. You really can have the best of both worlds. Sure, he still gains the cheers of his friends after you two make out, but who cares? This popular jock likes you, the quirky, quiet girl that boys never notice. It’s a tale as old as time, and you’re lucky to be living it.
The secret soft boy obviously can’t open up to his teammates because they would never understand the nuances of emotional intimacy. Enter: you. You have the privilege of being the one who really knows the layers of this soft boy and allows him to finally escape the chains of male repression. He makes you feel special, after all, and male validation is a girl’s best friend.
- Otis, Sex Education
One thing that makes soft boys so palatable is their shameless gratitude to be even sharing a space with someone as exceptional as you, or, in the case of six-foot-tall, blue-eyed Otis, someone like chain-smoking, leather-clad Maeve Wiley. They cannot communicate with the opposite sex to save their lives but are wildly attracted to them, and because you’re just so exhausted from falling in love with assholes who never know how to treat a lady right, how can you not reciprocate? The soft boy expects romance in exchange for basic human decency because he knows how scarce it is, and weaponizes it. And if he slips up and says something wrong and reveals that, oops, he’s actually just another asshole except donning a color-blocked windbreaker, you’ll forgive him because he’s afraid of girls and doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s the cutest, and it’s why he’s at the top of our list.
It’s definitely hard to pick a favorite, though. Who really cares if they reinforce notions of male vulnerability exclusive to woke white boys? They’re so good and pure, we can’t really blame them. Peter Pan syndrome has hit them hard—they’re not called soft men after all—but it’s that boyish quality that makes them so cute. The soft boy isn’t manipulative or abusive or immature; he’s just a lost kid, looking for a girl like you to take to the art museum, kiss on the forehead, and make him feel secure. Nowadays it can be so hard to find someone even half as decent as him, so his layers of toxic fragility must simply be brushed aside to appreciate the heart-melting sweetness of his romanticized boyfriend role. So I don’t know about you, but I’ll be texting back my local soft boy.
By Andrea Panaligan
Visual by Raven Yamamoto