He may not really exist, but we see him in our young Jewish men every day. I’ve been called one, and I grew up surrounded by so-called Nice Jewish Boys. At its best, his existence is a reminder of our Jewish exceptionalism, our chosen-ness, our elevation above the other nations. Our boys do not fight, they are not aggressive, and they would never “grab them by the pussy.” No, our boys are different… right?
Not so much. In today’s America, the supposedly exceptional characteristics of the Nice Jewish Boy are more common than ever before. In fact, these characteristics are so prevalent, a new archetype of American masculinity has recently emerged. In an August 2015 article filled with poetic prose, writer Alan Hanson described a new kind of American masculinity he dubbed the “Softboy.” Hanson’s description of the Softboy quickly spawned numerous think pieces, articles, podcasts, and quizzes by people who could finally put a name to a widespread phenomenon that Telegraph called “undeniably real.”
According to the original article, the Softboy is “Nice yet Complicated….neither Bro nor Nerd. He is sensitive yet amusingly crass. He doesn’t want you to know he has feelings. He wants you to know that he has feelings and he is completely okay with that.” Melissa Kullman describes the Softboy as “nice,” “sensitive,” and “self-aware.” She continues, “He hears you. He opens up to you…. He’s as disarming as a puppy and he would never disrespect you.”
The Nice Jewish Boy has officially gone mainstream — and it’s no wonder why. Today, as feminist values continue to gain traction in modern American society, there is increasing awareness and condemnation of traditional masculinity’s toxicity, violence, and misogyny. In this cultural environment, it is unsurprising that alternative forms of straight masculinity might develop.
That this new Softboy would mirror many of the characteristics of the Nice Jewish Boy is only natural. Where toxic masculinity has promoted feats of physical strength, decisiveness, and violence, the Nice Jewish Boy is a well-defined masculine archetype prized for opposing characteristics. As outlined by Daniel Boyarin, Aviva Cantor and others, these characteristics of diaspora Jewish masculinity also have deep roots dating back to the Talmudic rabbis and even earlier. In America, this long-standing archetype transformed into the Nice Jewish Boy, as Jews struggled with pressures to assimilate. Creating an appealing picture of marriageable Jewish boys was imperative to prevent intermarriage and the eventual destruction of the Jewish people. By the 1980s, the archetype was making its way into popular film and television, and has prominently contrasted the norms of toxic masculinity in the United States ever since.
Yet, if the Softboy mirrors the lauded characteristics of our Jewish boys’ archetype, it is also instructive in exposing the underlying misogyny of the Nice Jewish Boy.
As you might imagine from its name, “Softboy” was always meant to be a pejorative label. Though seemingly nice and self-aware, Hanson says the Softboy “is emotionally intelligent but does nothing with this knowledge. He is artistic. He is aware. He is still a dick.” This becomes even more apparent in the difference between the Softboy and toxic masculinity’s Fuckboy: “The Fuckboy is perplexed that you were upset when he forgot to text you for three days then sent ‘what are you up to’ at last call. The Softboy knows this behavior is selfish and cruel, though his desire to get laid can trump this. He feels shame. He does it again.” As Kullman puts it, this is dangerous because “the softboy is acting. He is emotionally available and sensitive for the sole purpose of fucking you.”
The Softboy was created in opposition to toxic masculinity, not in opposition to misogyny. Stripped of the chest-thumping, dick-measuring aggression, his relationship to women remains one steeped in patriarchy. Women are objects to be possessed, bodies to be controlled, and mysterious Others not to be trusted.
Can we say much better about the Nice Jewish Boy? Sadly not. Patriarchal assumptions undergird the society envisioned by the Talmudic rabbis where men would be studious and thoughtful while women dealt with domestic tasks and followed their husbands’ commands. And when the Jewish male ideal was attacked for centuries for being weak and effeminate, we answered with the toxically masculine Zionist New Jew, “tough” Jewish movie characters, and strong defenses of the superior masculinity of Jewish men, all to avoid the horror of being called that most terrible thing: “a woman.”
That misogyny still exists today — in myself, in the men and boys I’ve known, and in those Jewish men I’ve never met but know all too well. It persists in the logic of the Nice Jewish Boy, in the Softboy’s mantra, and in my own inner voice: If I am nice, I will get the girl. If I study, if I respect my elders, if I go to school and get a good job, then the girl will want to be mine, and I will succeed in society. Being nice and Jewish remain tactics to be performed in service to the goal of acquiring a woman and therefore becoming a successful Man. This implication is not subtle. The only reason the Nice Jewish Boy exists is as a potential mate.
In operating by the maxim that “being nice” will (or ought to) result in sexual gratification and woman-possession, the Nice Jewish Boy joins the great pantheon of America’s mainstream misogynistic male archetypes, right alongside the Softboy, the Nerdy Boy, the Nice Guy, the Fuckboy, and every male movie character that has won the girl by being the better man. Mainstream as it may be, this logic is not benign—one only needs to look at what happens when men fail to get what they’re told they deserve for good behavior. Suddenly, Nice Jewish Boys are no longer nice. They become frustrated, belligerent, manipulative, controlling, and in a many cases sexually and domestically violent.
In the final analysis, we remember that the Nice Jewish Boy was always just a myth. Our boys were never so exceptional, never so different from the goyish men we strategically maligned — not in terms of what matters most. Scratch the surface, and almost all our boys are perpetrators of misogyny and patriarchy, if not toxic masculinity.
My blog post here, though, will not change anything. Not really. If the advent of the Softboy is to teach us anything, we must learn that deconstruction alone is not enough. The Softboy knows misogyny, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity are bad. He’s maybe even taken a Gen-Sex course, or at least read think pieces in the Atlantic. He has learned by heart the dangers of society’s messages about how men should behave. But this awareness doesn’t ultimately change his behavior, in part because he has nothing with which to replace those toxic masculine messages.
The Softboy still adheres to the same codes as the Fuckboy because the Softboy isn’t really a new archetype. He is just a repressed version of what has come before. This is one of the reasons Softboys tend to be so quiet and dull — they lack positive models of non-toxic masculinity and, having already deconstructed their toxic impulses, they end up completely evacuated of personality. Thanks to his clear cultural roots, the Nice Jewish Boy tends to have more personality than the Softboy, but both still lack positive models of non-misogynist masculinity.
When push comes to shove, no matter how well they know that it’s wrong, our boys will continue to objectify and oppress women, because that’s all they’ve ever actually seen “succeed.”
Feminism, womanism, and queer movements have found success in not just critiquing patriarchy, but also generating new ideas about womanhood and non-binary identities. These positive models have been key to fighting the misogynist norms (and laws) constraining what people of all genders can do for work, their dress and physical appearance, who they can love, their responsibilities in relationships and households, how they can speak, their rights, and who has control over their bodies, sexuality, and futures.
As the violent originators of the patriarchal world order, men will be the last to abandon it. But if we are to ever excise misogyny from masculinity, deconstruction is not enough. Without new, generative, positive models and ideas about how to be men, we will continue to fall back on the tropes we have always known. Men will need to learn hard lessons from those around us, follow the lead set by feminist and queer movements, and work on reconstructing a masculinity that is tied to neither violent toxicity nor mainstream misogyny.
Joshua Wolfsun is a writer, filmmaker, and progressive organizer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.