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The 'Radical' Soft Masculinity of Straight Boys on TikTok

(L-R) Donnoven Nguyen and Chase Hudson
(L-R) Donnoven Nguyen and Chase Hudson
Image: Araya Diaz (Getty Images)

“I’m taking a stand against toxic masculinity,” Tik Tok celebrity and Charli D’Amelio’s ex-beau, Chase Hudson, wrote on Instagram earlier this spring. “I want people to wear whatever tf it is they want to wear.” Lil Huddy, as Hudson is known, was responding to a comment on a photo of him dancing around in a crop top from his own merch line, which read, “What’s up with all the guys wearing crop tops?” Lil Huddy routinely defends his fashion choices as if they were political gestures. “black nails are the move idc what anyone thinks they are so badass dont @ me,” he tweeted in February. These decisions come in loops; for each critique of his subtle fashion plays there are fans that celebrate Hudson for what are deemed courageous stylistic choices.

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In 2019, when journalists realized they needed to pay attention to Tik Tok, a slew of think pieces emerged, questioning if e-boys and softboys and other various subcultures on the platform signaled a new, open-minded generation of woke young men. The boys of the TikTok teen celeb hub The Hype House painted their nails, they dyed their hair (cut into a Boy Meets World-meets-K-pop butt cut), they got their ears pierced to wear the single dangly earring (when worn in the right ear, once a trope signifying queerness—now just an accessory). Some experimented with makeup and wore women’s jeans, as confirmed in a Tweet posted by Tik Tok celeb Jaden Hossler. Perhaps this new group, whose personal style looked more like that of BTS or an accessible interpretation of Harry Styles’ pop androgyny, was subverting the traditional image of a muscular, macho heartthrob.

Maybe there is a cause for celebration in the theater of a young, straight Tik Tok celebrity wearing clothing traditionally viewed as un-masculine. Or maybe I’m just cynical.

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Long before the phrase “toxic masculinity” was rendered nearly meaningless with use, conceptual considerations of men’s masculinity have informed feminist thinking. Society can only benefit from a world where boys and men are taught to express emotions openly, that “feminine” and “feeble” are not synonymous, that speaking in a fake Batman voice and puffing your chest out a la Nick Jonas in “Jealous” is small dick energy. However, the conversation often veers away from meaningful interrogation to performative feminizing: frat boys in docs and painted fingernails, doing the bare minimum and being cheerleaded for their valiant efforts to destroy patriarchy, one dangly earring at a time. Maybe this is a movement, not simply the final evolution of “nice guy” behavior—he looks tender and gentle and like he won’t hurt you, girl, but to his friends, the locker room talk flows freely.

Illustration for article titled The Radical Soft Masculinity of Straight Boys on TikTok
Screenshot: The Hype House (Fair Use)

But this particular interpretation of a “soft man” is not new. Fifteen years ago that description would fit emo and pop-punk musicians of the ‘00s, those personalities like Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, known for his “metrosexual” style and his “guyliner” tutorials, what critics called a “sensitive guy” aesthetic. Except, of course, these same musical men wrote violently misogynistic lyrics, adhering to a patriarchal status quo. (Let’s not forget FOB’s 2003 song “Tell Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today,” a fantasy about an ex-girlfriend wrapping her car around a tree.) In comparison, cadres of young men on Tik Tok—those cheerfully deviant and impeccably choreographed band of boys—wearing skinny jeans feel wholly innocuous.

Chase Hudson, 2019 - Pete Wentz, 2007
Chase Hudson, 2019 - Pete Wentz, 2007
Image: Araya Diaz/Mat Szwajkos (Getty Images)
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In an article titled “Can Social Media Moguls Redefine Masculinity?” for 34th Street, writer Eva Ingber argues that these gestures—traditionally feminine styles worn by men who are famous in heteronormative communities—have real-life influence. “Seeing a TikToker like Quinton Griggs, an otherwise regular guy, sporting an earring and nail polish has a different effect than seeing pictures of the iconic, inimitable Prince doing the same,” she writes. “That being said, many of these boys still otherwise engage in actions that perpetuate gender stereotypes—like talking about their workout grind, flashing their muscles, often posing shirtless, disclosing their sex lives, and doing dangerous stunts on camera to prove how “macho” they are.” In that case, is their outfitting merely an expression of fluidity in gender roles? Or is a performance, orchestrated to generate the most clicks and garner the most clout, in a system filled with stars needing to constantly engineer envelope-pushing moves?

The application is another way that straight male heartthrobs appropriate from queer celebs who’ve likely informed their dress. “Internalized misogyny is ingrained in so many of us and we don’t even realize it because it is so normal,” YouTuber and TikToker FlawlessKevin said in a vlog. “When a straight guy, or even a masculine guy, has anything remotely feminine about themselves—like, I don’t know, Timothee Chalamet, they’re wearing makeup, girly clothes, feminine clothes, skirts, dresses, whatever—[it’s cool.] But when a queer or feminine or gender non-conforming person does it and has been doing it, it’s like, ‘Oh, you were supposed to be doing that.’” I tend to agree. Perhaps it’s not just that gender-neutral fashions on Tik Tok are purely ornamental, but that they only read as championing a “soft” or “new” masculinity when straight, white, and conventionally attractive young men are doing it.

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If there are voices truly challenging preexisting and damaging images of “toxic masculinity,” it’s probably not found in the Hype Houses of the world. A new TikTok “trend,” labeled by Vice, “femboys” are “people who identify as male or non-binary but present themselves in more traditionally feminine ways, such as through their appearance, personality or general disposition.” They take the cyber goth-esq. e-boy aesthetic of nail polish and dangly earrings and throw in an element of drag: dresses and skirts. It seems a more direct expression of gender fluidity—wearing clothing traditionally thought of as feminine is evident, but accessorizing can go unnoticed. “Men often conflate femininity with weakness, when that is not at all the case,” Seth, a teen on TikTok who went viral for a #femboyfriday post, in which he posed in a tennis skirt, told Vice. “People need to see men disregard traditional norms to deconstruct the toxic beliefs they’ve been taught—visibility is the first step necessary for change.”

Illustration for article titled The Radical Soft Masculinity of Straight Boys on TikTok
Screenshot: Tik Tok (Fair Use)
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Of course, any fashionable feminizing may simply be indicative of young people reflecting or influencing popular trends, and putting their own spin on it. In an interview with The New York Times late last year, WSGN senior men’s wear editor Nick Paget identified the trend of “soft” masculine in fashion popularizing outside of queer spaces. “We’ve been talking for a couple of seasons about a different kind of masculinity—soft but not fragile,” he said. “It’s for men who aren’t afraid of experimenting with their look and will probably have enlightened views on gender roles, or at least be comfortable enough with their own sexuality.” The distinction of “not fragile,” strikes me as accidentally gendered, the idea that tenderness is effectual when it is free of vulnerability, a distinction femboys—and women—might scoff at.

All that said: it is exciting to see young people play with their masculinity and femininity, expressing themselves however they see fit—as long as it is not purely costume, engineered for clicks and little depth.

Senior Writer, Jezebel. My debut book, LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands, is out now.

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DISCUSSION

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freethebunnies

But this particular interpretation of a “soft man” is not new. Fifteen years ago that description would fit emo and pop-punk musicians of the ‘00s, those personalities like Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, known for his “metrosexual” style and his “guyliner” tutorials, what critics called a “sensitive guy” aesthetic.

Exactly this. I knew so many (straight) guys from my late teens and early 20's who were artist/musician types so stylish clothing, jewelry, make-up were all part of the package. And though I’d say they were generally nominally better than frat guys, I wouldn’t assume any of these dudes are more woke because they wore an earring (and some I know for certain are disappointingly conservative now). As Maria pointed out above, the ability to truly and honestly embrace and express emotion is far more important indicator in expanding the definition of “masculine” than deciding to embrace any kind of fashion usually deemed “feminine”.