Illustration by Lucinda Drake

2018 has been “the year of the soy boy”. The term was coined back in 2017 after a study on soy products found that they contained a high level of estrogen. While research found that the extra estrogen had no effect on the male body, the internet quickly adopted the term “soy boy” to describe men who had no “masculine qualities,” presumably as a result of soy consumption. The official definition as taken from Urban Dictionary is, “Slang used to describe males who completely and utterly lack all necessary masculine qualities. This pathetic state is usually achieved by an over-indulgence of emasculating products and/or ideologies.”

While words that describe men who do not subscribe to the traditional definition of masculinity are nothing new, effeminate men are increasingly treated as some sort of epidemic, especially by alt-right media. A Youtube search for “soy boy” will pull up videos of people proclaiming the death of masculinity, and the shame that is men with such feminine qualities. There are dozens of attempts to explain why masculinity is in danger, and even more suggestions for how to solve this apparent crisis. The main solutions suggested include engaging in hyper masculine behaviors and activities, as well as returning to strict traditional gender roles to restore masculinity and femininity to what it once was. The fear that true men are disappearing is very real in some circles, and carries heavy consequences. One of the more relevant reactions to “soy boy” is the hyper masculine “ladies man.” These self-titled heartthrobs are essentially urban frat boys, and they exhibit every trait that we now associate with toxic masculinity.

The “pick-up artist” is one such hyper masculine character. Essentially, the pick-up artist is a man who seeks to capitalize on weak men by selling them the secrets to attracting women. Often times Youtube channels are created to demonstrate these skills, featuring videos of the man approaching women seeking anything from a phone number to a kiss. The viewer is then linked to the “artist’s” website where they sell more in-depth videos. These channels don’t always sell tips and tricks. Sometimes they simply do it for views or to flex their “superior manhood” and make a point to other men. These types of channels are far more disturbing for a couple of reasons. First off, these pick-up artists are treating women as objects of conquest, and pursue them in an inarguably predatory way.

Putting women in uncomfortable situations by approaching them on the street and asking them for phone numbers or favors is disrespectful and promotes the idea that being a man entitles one to the attention of women. It also pushes the idea that engaging in harassment is a defining characteristic of masculinity. Videos from these types of channels can amass tens of thousands, or even millions, of views. Thankfully, many of these views can be attributed to critics, but there’s still a portion made up of young and vulnerable boys and men who are searching for ways to feel more like a man. They look up to these content creators who appear to possess everything that society tells them they should have to be a man. Not only does being exposed to this hyper-masculine behavior break down self worth and confidence, but it replaces them with misogynistic ways of acting and thinking that perpetuate toxic masculinity.

Many who believe that effeminate men are a problem argue that traditional masculine values and characteristics are under attack. As the defining lines of masculinity and femininity continue to blur and society begins to push back against harassment, many interpret these changes as anti-male. It’s argued that the movement restricts what men can do and expands female privilege, allowing them to do and say whatever they want. An example of this backlash can be seen in the Gillette ad controversy. The ad showed boys fighting and men nodding while saying, “boys will be boys.” The voiceover described some of the problems that arise from toxic masculinity such as bullying and harassment. The ad ended by reminding the viewer that the boys of today are the men of tomorrow and asked, “is this the best a man can get?” Reactions were polarized, with many praising the message and countless others vowing to boycott the brand for “demonizing” men.

The problem with labeling the criticism of toxic masculinity as anti-male is that it misses the point. Toxic masculinity isn’t an inherent quality present in men, rather, it is behavior more commonly exhibited by men that negatively impacts others and is normalized by society. While every man is not directly guilty of the actions now being condemned, it’s important to address men about them as they are in a position to influence change when it comes to the behavior of other men. Going on the defensive when some of the aspects of traditional masculinity are called into question prevents positive change and inhibits masculinity from evolving to be healthier for everyone. Additionally, by refusing to call out men who are responsible for the harm being done, men who don’t actively participate become compliant with those who do.

As the way our society handle traditional gender norms and values continues to change, we will inevitably have to deal with the relationships between femininity and masculinity, and how they relate to how people choose to best represent themselves. Hopefully, as we continue to reject the harmful and restrictive aspects of gender identity, anyone can choose for themselves what parts of each represent them without fear of being branded as less than a man or woman, or being given a name like “soy boy.”

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