As the long days of summer melt away like a half-demolished 99, it’s time to take stock. On the small screen, the holiday months this year were dominated once again by the goings-on in the Love Island villa.
This season, the most popular dreamboats on the ITV2 dating show took on a new form; yes their teeth were still bleached the colour of a showroom toilet, and their bodies followed the regimented V-shaped torso (like an inverted block of Toblerone). But this year, our fantasy summer crush moved into decidedly less macho terrain – emotionally at least. 2019 was truly the summer of the Soft Boy.
There was a keen sense of national pride as we watched Limerick lad Greg O’Shea swoop in, late to the game, to woo the show’s sweetheart, Amber Gill. They quickly became the most charismatic coupling, winning viewers’ hearts and walking away with £50,000 (€55,000). With his silky hair and cheeky grin, Greg exudes Hot Priest Energy: the same romantic optimism and easy-going charm of another Irish Soft Boy: Andrew Scott’s smiley priest, who captivated Phoebe Waller-Bridge – and the BBC sitcom’s legion of female fans – in Fleabag earlier this year.
Greg’s amiable attitude and genial, gentlemanly demeanour was a refreshing change from the toxic dumpster fires that surrounded him; young knuckle-headed bros like Michael and Jordan, who flexed their masculinity by gaslighting the girls they were “coupled” up with, and generally behaving as if they were on a human stud farm. The Limerick rugby player joined the permanently placid Ovie and the goofy, bouffant-haired Chris as fan favourites, the most lovable boys in the villa.
The island’s Soft Boys treated their female counterparts as humans. They were not afraid to have a personality beyond chatting about gym routines and how many women they’d bedded. From Ovie’s ironing obsession to Greg’s exuberant Conor McGregor impression, or Chris throwing himself into the pool with his signature “salmon” move, they were silly and vulnerable and fun.
Twitter lit up nightly in praise of the island’s Soft Boys, marking a mainstream acceptance of a cultural phenomenon that has seen heterosexual women and gay men grow weary of the empty macho archetype constantly sold to them. Instead, they were fantasising about swooning into the arms of someone more sensitive.
If we are currently in the court of the Soft Boy, then doe-eyed actor Timothée Chalamet is king. With his pre-Raphaelite curls and long eyelashes, Chalamet – who will play the hopeless romantic Laurie alongside Saoirse Ronan in the hotly anticipated adaptation of Little Women, coming in December – is the cinematic cherub that embodies this movement.
Far removed from the moody, capricious bad boy of teen-dreams, he is the Soft Boy Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand memes. From his depiction of a fragile teen in the flush of first love in Call Me By Your Name to the troubled, young addict in Beautiful Boy, he is the antithesis of the old-school sexed-up teen idol.
With the Chalamet-effect steamrolling through Hollywood, there has been a move to encapsulate this mood, with film and television becoming more enthralled with this sympathetic son.
This summer saw Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) from Netflix’s Stranger Things making his complete transformation from jock-jerk to soft-serve Soft Boy, as the ice-cream-slinging sweetie in the third season of the supernatural dramedy. His character arc has developed from young Tom Cruise cocky-slickness, to bumbling babysitter, to this almost dorky iteration of the one-time high school heart-throb who now constantly fails to get the girl.
Then there’s Marvel’s sweetest superhero Tom Holland swinging around in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Holland has openly stated in interviews that he would like to see more LGBTQ+ representation in the extremely heterosexual superhero universe, and would be fine with Spidey being gay.
If the tide is turning against the outmoded and ludicrous concept of the “man’s man”, then it is the inclusive, younger generation that is ushering in this much-needed change. After the revelations of the #MeToo movement, it’s no wonder the idea of “traditional masculinity” is being slowly crushed by its own toxicity.
In the future, the rigid, characterisations of gender in popular culture will hopefully become less binary, in an era that embraces more fluid ideas of sexuality. We may finally be presented with a full spectrum of representation, rather than the narrow perspectives that have become suffocating.
If Love Island – the last bastion of heteronormative nonsense – is able to embrace less conventionally “masculine” personality types – and with great success – there’s hope that the Soft Boy will not only be a summer sensation, but an all year-round reality on our screens.