I encountered an old colleague online and was surprised to see that the life he chose to display consisted of Marvel movies and similar artefacts from mass culture. As I scrolled through the images, I realised that the popular stereotype that has bled out from the imageboards—the bloated bearded man with an open mouth—is entirely accurate. I suppose I will forever be surprised that stereotypes are accurate, though admittedly this is a new stereotype: the soy boy.
They are named for soy-substitute foods in general and in particular the popular drink Soylent, marketed as a convenience drink—an all-in-one meal, so you can work longer; or, more probably, watch all the Avengers movies in a marathon session (OMG! Totes amazeballs!). Soylent is itself an arch and ironic name; it comes from the 1970s catastrophe film Soylent Green, in which a worldwide famine is resolved by secretly reprocessing humans from an overpopulated earth into a supposedly algae-based foodstuff.
“Lol. That could never happen in real life. That’s why it’s a funny name. Duh,” chuckles the soy boy. And yet the other day I saw a TikTok from inside some Virginian industrial plant where pig feed is produced; the man behind the smartphone showed how every day he shuffled packets of expired food into a shredding machine which produced the feed. “People say we take the food out of the packets. Hell no!” It was a literal case of “how the sausage is made”; admittedly, the sausage was not “full of people”, as in Soylent Green, but it was filled with plastic and cardboard. So the paranoid heroes in the movie—considered mad when they tell the truth—are much closer to the mark than the soy boy thinks. To be “soy” is really to accept the substitute for the real; to accept sugary plant-based anti-food for meat and milk—and this applies to more than food.
The soy boy is a child; except he is without the redemptive features found in childhood, such as innocence, naïveté, and guilelessness. Rather, he retains affection for the material trappings of childhood; he collect figurines, revels in cartoon heroism, and adopts a dualistic view on life where there are “goodies” and “baddies”. He retains the worst aspects found in children: the tendency towards eating too many sweets (replaced by the equally sweet craft beer); a sentimental rejection of reality, where everything is for the best (“Of course your food is healthy! There are government regulations. Duh!); and a certain mobbish and conformist playground cruelty. To these he adds the worst aspects found in teenagers: irony and sarcasm—he takes nothing seriously, and mocks the sincere and authentic. He is too weak for the real; so he snipes at it with irony and pushes it away with sarcasm.
There is a status element at play here too. My acquaintance with a fondness for Marvel had a PhD and went to an elite school, so what was he doing enmeshed in what reactionary Germans would call schund—cultural trash. Around the 1990s, it became popular to read mass culture through a high postmodern lens; Žižek is a man who did this extensively. The real status purpose behind this was for people who are steeped in Wagner and Kafka to say: “Look, I’m so cultured I can write about trash, I can write about Die Hard, but still be considered culturally elite. I have cultural capital to burn—of course, I don’t like it sincerely.”
Soyism is not entirely attributable to this phenomenon, but the entire idea that mass culture can be enjoyed ironically by highly educated adults is partly explained by this status game—further, not everyone gets irony; so to be permanently ironic signals higher intelligence and social status. This is what is unhealthy about their figurine collections; they are not engaged in sincere childhood play with these toys, nor are they wistfully reminiscing about the lost world of childhood—rather they are playing a phoney game to look clever.