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Long Live the E-boy

By Hillary Kang

Softbois, the progenitor of e-boys, are typically identified by their willingness to be in touch with their emotions. Actor Noah Centineo embodies the archetype with his role in the “To All The Boys I Loved Before” series.
 
Netflix\Bettina Strauss
Softbois, the progenitor of e-boys, are typically identified by their willingness to be in touch with their emotions. Actor Noah Centineo embodies the archetype with his role in the “To All The Boys I Loved Before” series.

A group of lean white boys dressed in ripped black jeans mean-mug in front of an iPhone, in turn running their hands, some tipped with black nail polish, through their heavily dyed hair and throwing bloodless hand signs. Between the writhing, they lip sync to a trap song by Savage Ga$p, an artist whose most popular song on Spotify with over 80 million streams is the adroitly named “E-girls are ruining my life!” The video has been played over three million times and has close to half a million likes on TikTok.

Separately, TikTok legend and certified e-boy Noen Eubanks posits, in a video to his 11 million followers: “Weird things girls find attractive: The eye roll thing, choking, chain biting, veins.” He demonstrates each point, then asks the camera, smiling: “Did it work?”

Once a subculture that existed merely within the confines of snappy video clips uploaded onto the frenzied platform that is TikTok, e-boys have since entered the mainstream. In 2019, e-boys were among the most popular Google searches of the year, according to the platform’s annual Year in Search report.

They also dominate screens and runways alike. Givenchy’s Fall ’21 collection — replete with leather outerwear, pastel shades and metallic accents — was dubbed as an “e-boy wet dream” by one journalist. Eubanks himself was tapped by Hedi Slimane to be the new face of Celine in late 2019.The aesthetic of an e-boy is decidedly androgynous: think fringes that coquettishly come down past the eyes and baggy sweaters — the black-and-white stripe pattern being the most frequently parodied — all paired with svelte midriffs that they aren’t afraid to bare.

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This, coupled with their penchant for emotional, vulnerable disclosures about mental health issues on TikTok means that e-boys most certainly don’t fit society’s ideal of a desirable heterosexual man. And yet these e-boys are most certainly desired — or in internet parlance, thirsted after — by fans and marketers alike, if their millions of followers are any indication.

Experts say that e-boys first rose to prominence in the late 2010s as a direct response to the glossy, idealised Instagram influencer. As internet culture researcher Crystal Abidin explains, there is an element of “pushback” inherent in e-boy culture — one that influences their fashion, and the topics that they choose to discuss.

“E-boys are pushing back on influencer culture, that aspirational aesthetic where you acquire expensive goods, travel, and celebrate that life,” says the associate professor of internet culture at Perth’s Curtin University. “With e-boy culture on TikTok, a lot of it is self-deprecation — you’re stuck in your bedroom, you’re engaged in a hobby like gaming that doesn’t really have connotations that suggest you have an outside life.”

E-boys might be aiming for believability, says Abidin, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t performing a persona like the Instagram influencers of yore.“The culture is extremely postured — these e-boys are remixing ’90s trends, non-American pop culture like anime, and it is all a display of their social capital,” Abidin says. “It’s all a mediated persona. Plus, being in touch with your non-cis, non-heterosexual side will to appeal to people for sure.”

It’s a fact that e-boys are not unaware of, Abidin adds. She says a definitive trait of the culture is how “self-reflexive” many e-boys are. “It’s not uncommon to see, for example, memes of how to be the ‘correct’ type of e-boy on TikTok, where these e-boys satirise their own aesthetics,” says Abidin. “They say: ‘You drink e-boy juice’, you’re from an ‘e-boy factory’ — there’s definitely a strong consciousness that this is all a persona that’s manufactured.”

CelineTikTok superstar Noen Eubanks became the face of Celine in 2019, signifying the subculture’s shift into the mainstream.
TikTok superstar Noen Eubanks became the face of Celine in 2019, signifying the subculture’s shift into the mainstream.

Yet for all their self-awareness, for all their subversion of gender and societal norms, researchers say that e-boys — like the over-processed Instagram celebrities they scorn — are but cogs in the same capitalist machine. As observers explain, e-boys have carefully constructed their online personas to win them internet clout, and, more importantly, views — views that can be translated into real earnings.

At the University of Leicester, Dr Melanie Kennedy teaches a module on media and celebrity. One of the first things that she teaches her students is that celebrity is a commodity. “Celebrity exists within capitalism, it exists to make profit, and TikTok is an extension of that,” says Kennedy. “These TikTok stars with millions of followers — they are commodities. They are there to make money for the platform, for their own brands.”

The unscripted look typical of many e-boys’ TikTok videos where they appear as if they’ve just rolled out of bed — with tousled hair, speaking to their iPhone cameras in the mirrors of their messy bathrooms — all feeds into an image of relatability, of being a “real” person.

“The aesthetic of TikTok is very different from Instagram — we see messy bedrooms, the videos are made to look like they’ve just been created on a whim, it’s not very polished,” says Kennedy. “But it’s still very carefully constructed, because so many of these videos have the same look. These are very big houses, the makeup is very similar, the clothes are very similar. So although it is made to look fun and mundane, it is still being carefully constructed.”It is why some critics think it is hypocritical — even exploitative — for these e-boys to be talking about mental health on a social media platform like TikTok. After all, it is such platforms that have been frequently shown to fuel anxiety, depression and a host of other mental health issues.

GivenchyGivenchy’s Fall ’21 collection has been named an “e-boy’s wet dream” for its use of dark leathers, chains, and pastel shades.
Givenchy’s Fall ’21 collection has been named an “e-boy’s wet dream” for its use of dark leathers, chains, and pastel shades.

Still, Kennedy says that there is “a lot of value” in e-boys and their public discussions of these topics — even if they are just doing it to increase their own star power. “Just the fact that they’re talking about issues like mental health, LGBTQ rights, and [movements like] Black Lives Matter — that in itself is really powerful, and I really think, a first key step in creating change,” she says.

But critics cannot help but note an uncomfortable truth about e-boy culture, no matter how liberal it may seem to be: The fact that the culture is overwhelmingly white. “On TikTok, the most followed stars are still very traditionally attractive, usually heteronormative white stars,” says Kennedy.

Abidin agrees. “E-boys are a very white subculture up till now, in terms of both coverage and mainstream [figures],” she says.

The “pushback” that Abidin refers to doesn’t just reference a desire to buck the glossy ideals of Instagram, but also “middle class, even white, respectabilities.”

“An e-boy can definitely be from another racial background, but are they going to be identified as such?” asks Abidin. “Japanese subcultures have been doing this for a long time, as have emo and punk cultures — but we don’t see that same exceptionalism heaped onto them. These types of expressions have existed for a very long time by non-white people, but they just aren’t classified in the same way.”

Asian men, says Abidin, are often perceived as effeminate. So when they open up about their emotions online — as their white e-boy counterparts are wont to do — they aren’t given the same sort of credit, because they are assumed to already be in touch with their emotions.

Despite the varied criticisms surrounding the culture, academics agree that e-boys do signal that an important step is being taken forward in broadening society’s view of masculinity. “Looking at whatever is happening around the world now, to have an e-boy is to have a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Abidin. “It shows that there is an alternative to traditional masculinity — that men can be another way.”


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