In the late aughts, toxic masculinity was all the rage. The movie 300 hit theaters and convinced every young man in America that the coolest thing you could do was kill people while wearing a loincloth. Friday Night Lights graced our televisions, introducing a generation of women to bad-boy running back Tim Riggins. FNL’s female lead, Minka Kelly, was an “it couple” with legendary New York Yankee (and playboy) Derek Jeter. The NFL became a fertile dating ground, with Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, Jessica Simpson and Tony Romo, and Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush all getting together. These men were ultra-dominant alpha males, just oozing testosterone and barely concealed insecurity — “no homo,” they said, as they made each other protein-powder smoothies.
But that man’s time has passed. These days, the highest praise a guy can receive is being called a “babygirl,” and physical prowess no longer exerts the same cache. Just ask Jacob Elordi, Saturday Night Live’s very own babygirl, who offsets his imposing 6-foot-5 frame by carrying purses and paperbacks. Or Paul Mescal, who pairs his hulking thighs with a deep appreciation for sad girl music, regularly posting Mitski and Ethel Cain songs on his Instagram stories. Not to mention the cozy, bordering on queerbaiting behavior these two have exhibited with co-stars (Barry Keoghan and Andrew Scott, respectively) in their latest press cycles. When these men redirect attention from their washboard abs to their soft underbellies, they convey that they’re nothing like the problematic archetypes of yore. They’re sensitive, nonthreatening, and apparently Princess Diana-coded.
Lately, this softening has also infiltrated the white-hot center of toxic masculinity: the locker room. Whether it’s Travis Kelce and his unabashed simping for his girlfriend, Taylor Swift; or Miami Heat power forward Kevin Love balancing his mental health advocacy with his fine-art collecting; or Love’s teammate and emo king Jimmy Butler, who spends his free time working on a country music album, playing dominoes, and practicing his latte art — they’re giving way to a new platonic ideal of man.
Say hello to the Soft Jock: athletes (or athletic-looking men) who choose to forgo alpha-maledom and instead embrace sensibilities their teammates might once have decried as “beta.”
These are jocks like Rebecca’s* husband, who grew up playing football and now loves his fantasy league as much as he did the Barbie movie. “He’s 6 foot and solidly built, so no matter how lazy he gets, he’ll always have biceps. But he loves to listen to classic Disney soundtracks at work, [like] the original Beauty and the Beast, gives our dog more treats than I do, and sobbed throughout The Last of Us Episode 3,” she tells Bustle.
Or like Hillary’s recent ex: “He was a 5’9” gym rat who coached middle school girl’s basketball and told me he was on antidepressants, so that’s why he couldn’t stay hard when we had sex. How could I be mad at that? Tender king!”
Men have learned they can cut a formidable figure while maintaining a decidedly unformidable vibe — or, more simply, they can have their sports and their feelings, too.
“I do think a lot of [the appeal] is feeling safe, not scared of this physically powerful person. And personality seems to be a big part of it,” says Hannah, who meets a steady flow of Soft Jocks at her Brazilian jujitsu gym.
“I do think a lot of [the appeal] is feeling safe, not scared of this physically powerful person. And personality seems to be a big part of it.”
While many of the women I spoke to only just started swiping right on Soft Jocks, the archetype isn’t entirely new. We’ve witnessed the rise and fall of similar tropes in the recent past: the wife guy, the golden retriever boyfriend, the himbo, and even the yogurt male. But while the Soft Jock shares many of his predecessors’ positive attributes — like their optimism, admiration for their partner, and self-secure confidence — he sidesteps their faults: He’s (usually) not dumb as a rock like the himbo, and not over-eager to identify with his partner, like the wife guy or golden retriever boyfriend, or as pretentious as the yogurt male. Instead, he’s effortless, hot, and kind but not self-consciously so. (One does not try to be a Soft Jock; one simply is.)
He has progenitors in pop culture, too. Just ask Kirsty, who grew up in Edinburgh, where “teen boys look like they’re made from spaghetti,” and often fantasized about the Soft (American) Jocks she saw on screen. “Like Ryan from The O.C., who was a soccer player strong enough to lift Marissa from a car wreck but soft enough to cry as ‘Hallelujah’ wailed in the background. Alex Karev in Grey’s Anatomy, who was an ex-wrestler with a soft heart,” she says. Nowadays, she looks for guys who love their little hobbies as much as their sports — like her ex, an American soccer player turned potter: “I dare you to find a sluttier Soft Jock combination.”
Sluttier, maybe not, but there are certainly plenty of Ryans and Karevs in the cultural consciousness, be it the heroes of the newly popular book subgenre, hockey romance novels, or current Bachelor Joey Graziadei, who worked as a tennis pro before his reality TV tenure. (It was actually fellow Bachelor nation member Tyler Cameron who led me to my Soft Jock awakening, given his big-brother-like friendship with JoJo Siwa and ability to carry a 220-pound boat through a river on Special Forces.) And then, of course, there is the man of the hour: Travis Kelce. Whether he’s making his own friendship bracelets to court Swift; cooing over his young nieces (“hey, girly!”) on his New Heights podcast; or sharing tender, emotional exchanges on the field with his brother, Jason — Kelce has earned legions of fans and inspired tweets like “Is there a phrase for the opposite of toxic masculinity? Soft masculinity, gooey masculinity, explosions in the sky-scored masculinity.”
Those I spoke to had two opposing takes on what he means for the state of the culture: Either the Soft Jock is a refreshing change of pace, or he is a false sign of progress — proof that male softness is only desirable if it comes with biceps the size of your head.
Among the optimists is romance novelist Lyssa Kay Adams, author of The Bromance Book Club, in which a baseball player joins a secret romance book club made up of all alpha males to help spice up his marriage. “To me, the Access Hollywood tape was [the turning point],” says Adams of the romance genre’s move away from Christian Grey-esque alpha males. “It was the compilation of everything we had feared, that the minute we left a room full of men, they immediately resorted to that most toxic of male bonds: the sexual degradation of women.” As for the state of 2024’s romantic heroes, she adds, “These books, or even Ted Lasso’s characters, give us hope that there are men out there who disprove the lessons that many of us were raised with that equate physical masculinity with unkindness.”
Journalist Michelle Ruiz, who recently wrote an op-ed for Vogue titled “I Followed Taylor Swift Into Her NFL Era—And I Haven’t Looked Back,” thinks there’s some doublespeak going on. “There’s a basic, primal thirst for [Travis Kelce]. In my texts with other people… they think that he is a large, attractive, beef-ish man on a very base level,” she says. “Softness is definitely more palatable, societally or culturally, in a Travis Kelce-shaped package. He can be vulnerable, sweet, and adoring in interviews and stuff because he kind of presents as this Herculean, traditionally typically attractive 6’5” NFL tight end.”
“[Travis Kelce] can be vulnerable, sweet, and adoring in interviews and stuff because he kind of presents as this Herculean, traditionally typically attractive 6’5” NFL tight end.”
Meaning, anyone can be soft, but unless you also bench press 250, don’t expect to be celebrated for it. “The people we hold up as great examples of challenging gender norms are often people who have what you might call ‘psychosexual capital,’” says Jason Rogers, an Olympic medalist and regular contributor to Men’s Health. “It’s also a bit of a status flex, like ‘I’m so off-the-charts masculine in certain ways that I can depart from the masculine archetype without any fear of judgment. In fact, I can accumulate more social capital for doing so.’”
Yet in an Internet culture where we’re so eager to flatten people — and men themselves, more often than not, fall flat — there’s still power in the Soft Jock’s ability to resist our ready-made molds. Or as Rebecca puts it, “Humans are so hard-wired to categorize that we get confused when things don’t fit neatly into one box. So fundamentally, the celebration of the Soft Jock is acknowledging that people aren’t one-dimensional.” Men: They’re people, too.
*First names have been used for purposes of anonymity, and pseudonyms were given where requested.