February 14, 2020 | Feature
the era of e-boys
hard truths about soft-boys
Over winter break, I did what I promised myself I would never do: I downloaded TikTok.
I am quick to tell people it began as a joke. Some close friends from back home had started making TikTok dances for fun and, despite being warned about the app’s addictive videos and cringey trends, I wanted to see what my friends were up to—only that (I swear). But when I began swiping through TikTok’s FYP (For You Page), a feed that includes popular videos catered to a wide range of tastes and categories, things rapidly deteriorated.
TikTok’s videos are designed to be addictive. They’re short (no more than a minute), largely feature visually pleasing dances set to trendy music, and joke about relatable—and sometimes taboo—topics that people rarely talk about on other forms of social media, like eating cereal for dinner when the dining hall food sucks, or feeling the need to straighten curly hair in order to be viewed as beautiful. I remember realizing in horror that TikTok wasn’t just a joke anymore when I rewatched a video that I thought was actually really funny—and, worse, when I paused to download and send that video to a friend. Turns out, what I had initially found so off-putting about TikTok—users’ prevailing, desperate drive to go viral—in fact entertained me. And the more I scrolled and saved, the more TikTok’s algorithms tailored its FYP to appeal to my preferences, further enabling my vice. By the end of winter break, despite my best intentions, I had saved more than 30 TikToks to my phone.
During my time on TikTok (now my second-most used app after Messages), I came across many interesting trends, like the Renegade dance (what my friends back home first tried to recreate, consisting of claps, “whoas,” and other body swivels made famous by Charli D’Amelio), the Hype House (a mansion in LA that houses a collective of TikTok’s most elite and viral influencers), and, especially relevant to me, a surprising amount of content commiserating about the difficulties of being an ABCD, or American-Born Confused Desi, struggling to reconcile American culture at school with strict, South Asian parents and tradition at home.
But my most surprising find? The e-boy.
The most popular guys on TikTok are not what I expected—they lack some of American society’s most traditional features of masculinity. Many consider themselves e-boys, or as Urban Dictionary defines them, “a boy who has black painted nails, skates, wears black clothes and chains and beanies, and they sometimes have their hair parted down the middle.”
This surprised me; I expected an app that relies so heavily on physical appearance to adhere rigidly to typical (and toxic) American standards of attractiveness for men. Yet the most popular male TikTokers are not known for their chiseled abs or muscular physiques. They’re defined by their baggy dark clothing, thinness, androgyny, distinct lack of muscles, and painted nails. To be sure, the e-boys of TikTok are still objectively attractive straight white males, but their aesthetic, which has since become mainstream, draws on punk, alternative, and goth subcultures. Their viral videos often feel moody, even subversive, including intense stares at the camera which highlight their jawlines and alternative, edgy background music. Their black-painted fingernails match the aesthetic of their dark clothing and silver chains. How has TikTok, one of today’s most popular apps, managed to popularize trends that once belonged to ostracized communities?
I was first introduced to the e-boys of TikTok through Chase Hudson, a seventeen-year-old with more than 12 million followers who showed up on my FYP. I immediately noticed his painted nails and middle part (which vaguely reminded me of a young Leonardo DiCaprio) and simultaneously noticed the abundance of videos made by female users dedicated to fawning over him (just search #chasehudson on TikTok). Yet for all Hudson’s popularity and physical appeal, he’s not your typical bro-y guy. He’s not sought out explicitly for his physique; he’s also known for his emotional and edgy online persona, displaying traits which don’t typically define masculinity.
I am not a longtime TikTok user, nor am I well-versed in the subcultures that e-boys draw from, but Ka’Dia Dhatnubia dissects these influences in a publication of SCAD, or Savannah College of Art and Design. Despite visible similarities between e-boy fashion and emo, goth, and punk trends (mostly-black aesthetics consisting of band tees, tight jeans, and lots of layers), Dhatnubia argues that an e-boy’s style is strategically fitted to accentuate their thinness, diverging from the ill-fitting and wrinkled looks of the past era.
Unlike the various communities that have inspired them, e-boys are ultimately inseparable from the internet: The e stands for electronic, after all. What defines an e-boy above all, as one Vox article explains, is that he exists solely online in the form of posts, videos, and tweets.
Still, although e-boys may have been conceived on the internet, they are not bound to it. A recent Vox article discusses how some of TikTok’s most popular users are branching out to pursue mainstream celebrity status. Last month, Hudson signed onto WMA, a London-based digital talent agency representing creatives found on social media. Other famous TikTokers, like sisters Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, are doing the same. Given Hudson’s popularity on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok, it shouldn’t be difficult for him to continue his ascent within mainstream media. And, in some ways, the e-boy and soft-boy aesthetics exemplified by internet stars like Hudson has already permeated society’s ideals of masculinity.
Remember in 2010 when Channing Tatum was all the rage? Or even way back in the early 2000s, when actors like Brad Pitt seemed to represent masculinity—defining society’s “ideal” male celebrity as tall, white, and athletically well-defined? TV Shows such as The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl prided themselves on their chiseled male casts, as did popular young adult movies including the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises. In previous decades, the media’s most popular male characters embodied conventional attractiveness through traits like extreme physical strength, a ripped physique, and wealth.
Now, think about today, when one of Hollywood’s most desirable celebrities had his breakout role playing a lanky teen falling in love in 1980s Italy (shoutout to Timothée Chalamet), when many popular teen TV shows feature introverted, shy, or emotional male leads (think Otis in Sex Education, Jughead in Riverdale, and even Joe in You, in a creepy way). If the media is any indication, it would seem that society’s standards for attractive men are changing.
Aforementioned Timothée Chalamet isn’t your typical objectified male celebrity, at least not according to popular expectations of a decade or two earlier: He’s skinny and androgynous, exuding a certain intellectual charm, no doubt influenced by his repeated roles as smart-alecky students. According to the dozens of articles more or less titled “So Why is Timothée Chalamet So Popular?” his allure comes largely from what he is not. He’s not stoic and emotionally unavailable, but instead appears vulnerable and open.He’s attractive, not because he’s your traditional frat boy, but more because he resembles the cute, nerdy guy in your anthro class.
The popularization of increased emotional vulnerability makes for a seemingly healthy trend, to be sure, but only when it’s genuine—and in the case of the “indie soft-boy,” it almost certainly isn’t. Perhaps you know or have heard of one (I sure have), but a soft-boy is characterized by his affinity for alternative music, films, and books; his performative sensitivity and vulnerability for the purpose of receiving female attention; and, often, his pretentious love of philosophy that he’ll discuss with girls, again for the sole intention of impressing them. Intentional or not, Chalamet’s intellectualism and preppy style represent a hallmark of the soft-boy aesthetic.
In this way, the edginess and sensitivity of the e-boy and the soft-boy are not necessarily avenues of self-expression, but rather serve as ways to garner romantic attention. This could come from a popular expectation that vulnerability and “niceness” will guarantee romantic success, as illustrated in an SNL skit entitled “Girl at a Bar,” which portrays men pretending to be feminists and boasting about their political engagement against Trump to get girls to sleep with them. Instagram’s @beam_me_up_soft_boi account also sharply captures the superiority complex attached to soft-boys. Personally, even I have received a fair share of Tinder messages inquiring about my thoughts on “philosophy and the universe” or suggesting we cry over Frank Ocean songs.
An Atlantic article published this past October points out that today’s soft-boy is not new—popular forms of white male angst can be traced back to the likes of Kurt Cobain and Leonard Cohen—but their recent resurgence has been fueled and exacerbated on the internet by Instagram, Tinder, and of course, TikTok. Though e-boys and soft-boys may appear to subvert traditional images of masculinity, the article argues that this trend continues to portray “women as emotional suppliers rather than people,” cloaking toxic masculinity in apparent sensitivity. The pattern is particularly prevalent in music, where lyrics of beloved artists such as Rex Orange County and Hobo Johnson repeatedly rely on the woman of their desires to carry out all of their emotional labor.
Still, none of this is to say that truly nice guys don’t exist. In an interview with Iona Erskine, the creator of @beam_me_up_soft_bois account, she says the difference between soft-boys and genuinely vulnerable men is that “the softboi would try to lord his nicheness over people. They have blind faith that the people they want to impress will fall at their feet simply because they’re different.” Additionally, this is also not to say that soft-boys are limited to cisgender men—emotional exploitation isn’t dependent on gender, which is why the term “soft-boi” rather than “soft-boy” is sometimes used to capture the fluidity in gender expression.
TikTok and other social media platforms hold immense power over popular culture; if you’re not on TikTok, you may not realize how many of today’s top songs were made viral through TikTok trends and dances. For the moment, TikTok’s popularity doesn’t seem to be letting up, but perhaps, as all trends tend to do, the faux-intellectualism and angst of e-boys and soft-boys will die out eventually. In the meantime, I’ll continue scrolling endlessly on TikTok, admiring the e-boys I encounter from afar.