From Homer to Harry Styles: deconstructing the softboi through epic poetry

It is the wee hours of an otherwise unassuming Wednesday night when the ghostly spectre of my phone screen lights up the dark. The texts arrive slowly at first and then all at once:

And in the final analysis it’s quite possible that I’m a massive c*** / I blame that on having very little intellectual relationship with my environment t/ Maybe I’m suffering from anhedonia / Maybe I need to rest my head on a tit

A cursory Google search reveals that anhedonia is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities’. I feel a distinct lack of pleasure at the thought of his head resting anywhere near my body. I turn off read receipts, put my phone face down on the table. A week later, the fifth text comes:

U also make me vomit.

‘Softboi’ is a term ingratiated firmly within our generation’s lexicon, due in large part to the popularity of beam­­­_me_up_softboi, an Instagram account dedicated to sharing their angst-ridden, cigarette-fuelled, and pseudo-intellectual musings. They’re distinguishable by their often-condescending nature — incredulous that you’ve heard of their favourite indie band/philosopher/novelist. Other softboi tendencies include romanticising mental illness, verbose aggrandising declarations of love, proclaiming to understand a unique truth about the world, and, as in the case above, responding poorly to rejection.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in London, I was stopped short by The Judgement of Paris, a painting by Rubens depicting the eponymous scene from Homer’s The Iliad. Paris, a Trojan mortal, is tasked by Zeus to determine the most beautiful of three goddesses: Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. He emphatically declares it impossible to judge their beauty while they remain clothed and convinces them to appear nude instead. This request is likely not unfamiliar to women in 2020.

What struck me most, however, wasn’t even that a mere mortal man was designated the ultimate arbiter over literal goddesses. Rather, it was the improbability, yet factuality, that Rubens had depicted Paris in the spitting image of a generic twenty-first-century softboi. Think Harry Styles in a toga; think Timothée Chalamet without cheekbones. I began to spiral.

In the three months since that encounter, I’ve been occupied by a single burning question – what if softbois aren’t a contemporary construct, but have actually been around for millennia by a different name?

Paris isn’t the only softboi type that exists in the Ancient Greek and Roman epic poems. Time and again, characters in The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey exhibit softboi-adjacent behavior, extrapolated to its very extremes.

In Book XVII of The Iliad, Achilles’s searing grief upon the death of Patroclus manifests as abject mania (‘with both his hands he took the dark dust and strewed it over his head… on his fragrant tunic the black ashes fell… and himself in the dust he lay…’) and rage, waging a bloody war against Hector and the Trojans. These visceral emotions seem to hold a disturbing sort of appeal to softbois, perhaps out of their own yearning to experience something immense and powerful.

This wish is great to the extent that even overwhelmingly negative emotions can be romanticised as desirable. In the words of someone who, against the odds, I remain good friends with, ‘you’ll probably end up resenting me for my destructive romantic intensity but think of all the great poetry you’ll write’.

The annals of literature see few romances more resentful or destructive than that of Dido and Aeneas in The Aeneid. The pair’s politically controversial relationship serves to alienate all of Queen Dido’s allies, a sacrifice she willingly makes out of love. In contrast, Aeneas attempts to leave her by taking his men and setting sail in the dead of night.

Dido famously self-immolates as she watches her lover sail out of the harbor and away from Carthage. The pinnacle act of being governed by all-consuming love is complete.

The entire scene is the stuff of softboi fantasies – evoking a hatred so passionate within someone who loves you so much that she sees no alternative but to end her own life when you inevitably crush her heart.

A man once informed me with pensive stoicism that he had been ‘meditating on why the intoxicating compassion, love, and desire women once had has disappeared’. I laughed and then felt sad. In the absence of self-awareness, he had chosen instead to take aim at women-at-large as the reason for his own inability to form strong emotional bonds.

Women as scapegoats for the failings of men recur in the epics. Odysseus is sidetracked from his journey home to Penelope by ‘the lustrous enchantress Circe’, practitioner of ‘wicked witchcraft’ and a ‘nymph with lovely braids’.

Homer painstakingly delineates the ways in which Circe lulls Odysseus into a sense of security: plying him with fine wine, clothing him in gold, feeding him on plates of silver, bathing him in an iron cauldron, and ultimately taking him to bed.

In Book X, the god Mercury warns Odysseus of Circe’s beguiling ways:

When she has got you naked she will unman you and make you fit for nothing.

To expound the multitudes contained within this ascerbic one-liner is a gender theorist’s paradise. Here, Homer acquaints us with Odysseus the victim. Our prodigious hero has been denigrated to a helpless simp, a man overly desperate for a woman, ravaged by a temptress exerting her will over him. Not only is he weakened, but he has lost his manhood entirely, and a man without his manhood is, of course, fit for nothing.

The glorified infliction of distress on oneself, at the hands of a woman, is a recurring motif within softboi discourse. Perusing ­beam_me_up reveals gems such as, ‘let’s listen to tame impala while u ruin my life’, ‘why do I always attract chaotic women haha’, and ‘alas, I wither and die in the absence of your love’.

Perhaps in the context of mythology, weakness in the face of witchcraft is par for the course had Odysseus caved to Circe’s feminine wiles for a single night of passion. Yet he stays with her in Aeaea for an entire year, only departing after the disgruntled urging of his men. It raises the question: when does involuntary magical seduction end and lustful voluntary cohabitation begin?

In setting forth Odysseus’s apparent lack of agency at the hands of a seductress, Homer whitewashes the reality: after years at sea, a tired and wayward man loses sight of his mission and finds solace in the arms of another woman while his loyal wife awaits his return.

In fact, it is this double standard between the behaviour of Odysseus and Penelope that truly epitomises the softboi mentality.

While Odysseus cavorts on Aeaea with Circe, Penelope holds down the fort in Ithaca while fending off the advances of innumerable suitors. Despite total uncertainty that her husband is even alive, she remains the image of the pious wife.

The trope of such a woman is held loftily in the softboi imagination. Women who aren’t chaotic life-ruining sources of destruction are delicate precious petals, to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. Softbois extoll the virtues of these pure snowflakes in a brilliantly depressing textbook display of the Madonna-whore complex.

And yet buried in all this diatribe and sardonicism, amidst the loquacious spiel and false intellect, I sense earnestness.

I once dated a man who, very early into the ‘talking phase’, made me promise never to screenshot his texts to my friends or, god forbid, submit to beam_me_up. It’s out of respect for this promise that I’ve foregone reproducing here the myriad submission-worthy messages I received over the course of our brief courtship.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the self-awareness required to make such a request — the knowledge that he conformed to a trope and yet pressed on unrelentingly. Such self-awareness would indicate sincerity far exceeding what we give softbois credit for.

Because yes, there are the softbois who exude toxicity, who spit vitriol and perpetuate misogyny with every misplaced backhanded compliment. But there are also the ones who, by waxing poetic, may simply be seeking a truer form of expression than what the social contract has given them the language for.

The end result may be misguided, laughable even, but is it really a crime worth our judgment? Perhaps in our mockery, we deride them for their attempt to be their most authentic selves. Maybe a better approach would be to celebrate the normalisation of male vulnerability.

Epic poetry is evidence of the fact that male sentimentality isn’t a novel contemporary phenomenon. For as long as men have been writing about themselves, they’ve depicted moments of fragility and tenderness both, even amidst the heroism. In Book VIII of The Odyssey, Odysseus weeps before an assembly of Phaeacians. In Book XVIII of The Iliad, Achilles publicly mourns Patroclus with ‘great moans’ of grief. It’s a powerful tribute to open displays of emotion. Perhaps this is what the softbois are trying to revive.

In fact, softboi narration seems even to mimic the language of epic poetry. Homer and Virgil are masters of the extended soliloquy, waxing lyrical on all manner of the human condition. Such speeches are replicated in the musings of softbois abound, tenuously applying vocabulary such as ‘labyrinthian’, ‘mechanoid’, and ‘crepitation’ into informal text messages.

Their choice of vernacular (particularly in this age of shorthand) hearkens to a period of grandiose storytelling with an almost tender nostalgia.

One softboi on beam_me_up summarises everything aptly: just saying, you give me shit but you’re the one watching Netflix while I read the Odyssey.

The mistake softbois make in their attempts to replicate the passion found in epic poetry is the blind glorification of any powerful emotion, including misery, pain, and rage. This plagues their romantic interactions, fostering hostility in the hopes of provoking such reactions in the extreme.

Their desire to be as great as the epic heroes may be an earnest and noble cause. We may encourage it even, as a preferred reality to generations of emotionally repressed men. The difficulty is in replacing long and terrible soliloquys about why you suck (and don’t understand their music taste) with other types of grand gestures that spark joy instead.

I like to think of contemporary softbois as the founding fathers of a cultural movement comprised of men in touch with their feelings. It’s flawed, as movements often are in their conception, but it’s my hope that with time, self-selection will occur in favour of fervent sincerity instead.

I eventually Googled the opposite of anhedonia in the hopes of crafting a witty retort and was surprised to see hedonism. It’s a truly Homeric coincidence that in The Odyssey, Calypso enchants Odysseus for seven years with unlimited delights of the senses – the purest form of hedonism.

And yet if we’re to believe the narrative that softbois are merely hedonists living in pursuit of pleasure, then Odysseus would have stayed on the island with Calypso forever. His defiance of this rhetoric, in favour of returning to Penelope, is testament to the devoted lovers that softbois could become if they channelled their energies into intense positive emotions.

There may be hope for softbois yet. In the words of our favourite Homeric softboi, Odysseus:

For I too have a mind that is righteous, and this heart of mine is not of iron, but hath compassion.

About the author
Penny Peng