Hugh Grant was the original softboi of 90s rom coms
The actor's on screen roles from 'Notting Hill' to 'Love Actually' laid the groundwork for what would soon become the archetypal softboi.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
It’s hard to believe that Hugh Grant is nearly 60, and happily married with five children, when our collective image of him is that of the eternally thirtysomething, lovestruck, posh British boy of the 90s. His first major appearance was in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, begging engaged Andie McDowell to marry him, and it didn’t take long before he was turning up absolutely everywhere. Five years later, his floppy hair was breaking hearts again in Notting Hill, before he played against type as a womanizing cad in 2001's Bridget Jones’s Diary, and eventually graduated to the role of prime minister in Love Actually. It was the decade of Hugh and he quickly became synonymous with charming, hopeless romanticism and bumbling Britishness.
These films, written by Richard Curtis, shaped pop culture and although we’re no longer living in the rom com golden age, the stories have had a lasting effect on the collective British psyche. Through his characters in these films, Hugh instilled a false sense of romance and also, perhaps more importantly, laid the groundwork for what would soon become the archetypal softboi.
The term softboi (or softboy) was first coined, in its current usage, in a 2015 article published on Medium. “He is emotionally intelligent, but does nothing with this knowledge. He is artistic. He is aware. He is still a dick,” wrote Alan Hanson.
The softboi can be sensitive and has a love of all things pretentious and alternative. His interests might include rolling cigarettes, reading classic literature, making music and patronising behaviour. He is a “woke ally” who weaponises language to “get what he wants -- which is you, into his bed, and then out of it,” writes Morwenna Ferrier for VICE. The fuckboi is the softboi’s less emotionally literate younger brother, who might be “embodying something akin to the 'man whore' label, mashed up with some 'basic' qualities” and a “light-to-heavy sprinkling of misogyny,” writes Sara Boboltz of Huffpost. Though there is certainly overlap -- both can exhibit entitled, commitment phobic and narcissistic behaviour.
"For too long, women haven't had a name for this kind of behavior,” author Adelle Waldman says. “We've had little in our highbrow culture to offset these narratives by men in which their bad behavior toward women is valorized. I think these names fill a very real need.”
Hugh's characters exist along this spectrum of softbois and fuckbois. Grant’s character in Notting Hill, Will Thacker, owns a travel bookshop and orders demi-cappus; Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary works in publishing. In one scene, Daniel demonstrates all of the above traits, by taking Bridget for a romantic weekend getaway where he recites poetry on a boat, smokes a rolly and then bails on her early, while patronising her in the process. It’s true: early Hugh characters were the blueprint for the modern-day softboi. And if you look closely enough, Hughs really are all around you.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is a film about a group of upper-class Brits whose lives revolve around the elaborate nuptials of their wider circle of posh friends. Grant’s character, Charles, lusts after American Andie McDowell who leads him on like the puppy dog he looks like. From the very beginning Charles voices his commitment phobia during his best man speech. “I am, as ever, in bewildered awe of anyone who makes this kind of commitment,” he blusters. “I know I couldn't do it and I think it's wonderful they can.” Later on in the film, Hugh leaves his fiancé at the altar. If Four Weddings and a Funeral was set today, Charles would definitely go on to be the ex who texts you when lonely at Christmas, and then disappears in January.
The concept of long-term commitment is antithetical to the softboi. It goes against everything they stand for, but they will only tell you this in roundabout, confusing ways that often involve mixed signals. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget (Renée Zellweger) decides to take charge of her life by keeping a diary of her sexcapades throughout single life, which include falling madly in love with her textbook womaniser boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), who inappropriately flirts with her over IM, and of course, there’s the good guy played by Colin Firth.
Daniel jokes that he and Bridget are not a long-term thing -- and then follows up this sentiment by taking her away for a romantic weekend and cheating on her with a woman who soon becomes his fiancé -- all in the alleged pursuit of true love.
“Well, the truth is… the truth is... we're the same, Bridge, you and me,” Daniel stammers. “You know? We're two people of a certain age… Looking for the moment to commit and finding it really hard. And I just think that in the end… it's got to be something extraordinary.”
Daniel is probably the most recognisable modern day softboi -- he is the one who will incessantly message you at all hours of the night, baring his soul via text, but will downright ignore you in person. He ignores Bridget when she says “I love you”, or tries to talk about any real feelings or labels. But as soon as Bridget plays remotely hard to get, being unavailable for the first dinner he suggests or by choosing Mark Darcy over him, he is suddenly willing to fist fight for her.
Relationship expert Emma Kenny believes women viewers and characters alike often forgive less acceptable traits in Hugh because they’ve envisioned men like him who are searching for the perfect relationship all their life. “He is forgiven, not because he doesn't do things that are bad, negative or disloyal,” she explains, “but because it's always positioned in a way where he's seeking this idealised perspective of the potential relationship that he knows is out there.”
“We're all, particularly as women, from a very young age, brought up with this idea that the perfect man is waiting for us,” Emma adds. “And [Hugh] is thinking that way as the guy who's transversing poorer relationships to find us, and that's really powerful to some degree.”
In rom coms at large, the focus is almost always on achievement and attainment of a particular person, but also ignoring the very real problems that exist. “They play with this idea that you can tame somebody when the likelihood is that it will just be painful for you in the long-term, and will always mean that you don't feel quite safe in the place and space that you are in," Emma says.
Perhaps forgiving Grant’s bad behaviour is actually the most relatable part of the films, because according to Emma, most of us unfortunately end up treating others poorly somewhere along the way. “And also he's very good looking, you think he's got money and he has floppy hair,” she says.
As the prime minister in Love Actually Hugh is rich, very very charming, and also leading the country, but his fuckboi tendencies are often overlooked. “Who do you have to screw around here to get a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit?” he asks before Natalie, his junior employee, who he later goes on to date, walks in with both. But we forgive him for abusing his power because of, well, his Hughness.
When the US president literally assaults Natalie, Grant’s character says nothing to confront him or to comfort her and passively stands there. The film was released in 2003, but really? He gives a veiled angry speech where he berates the President for “taking exactly what he wants” — women are not objects! — before asking his staff to "redistribute" her. He later changes his mind and goes on a carol-singing tour of West London with his driver to find Natalie and profess his love.
“What we perpetuate is that if there's not emotional struggle and wrangling within a relationship that somehow, it wasn't hard enough to achieve,” Emma explains.
In Notting Hill, Hugh plays debt-laden bookshop owner Will Thacker, who manages to seduce Hollywood star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) by unsuccessfully selling her multiple travel guides to Turkey and spilling orange juice on her. He then falls in love. But when she is standing in front of him declaring her love in the most heart-wrenchingly vulnerable speech ever, he can’t commit. Will was the original pioneer of the chase. Only later does he decide to race across London to profess his love for her at a press conference.
Even real-life Hugh has a similar affinity for the lead-up: "When I was younger, the great excitement in pursuing women was the sense of seduction and romance and chase,” he told The Telegraph in 2002, noting that since becoming famous that chase has waned. "That's one of the disappointments I've had since becoming a single man again,” he added.
The terms softboi and fuckboi may have become part of our vocabulary quite recently, and no disrespect to Hugh, but these roles might have helped define them. Or at the very least, can illustrate them well. Though these films present a lovely escapist realm which is enjoyable on screen — maybe the myth can live on there, and only there… at least until quarantine is over and we are welcomed back to the terrifying world of 3D fuckbois.