On Netflix right now, you can watch a TV series about an awkward, adolescent British boy who keeps trying to do the right thing, but ends up torturing himself internally when things go wrong. He’s slim, pale, preternaturally intelligent, but fumbles when talking to other people, especially girls. He’s supposed to be high-school-aged, but played by an older actor, though unlike his American cousins on the CW, he doesn’t look like a walking ad for protein powder high-intensity interval training. I’m talking about Asa Butterfield in Sex Education, by which I mean Fionn Whitehead in Bandersnatch, or really, Alex Lawther in The End of the F***ing World.
Like the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian legend, Netflix’s ever-mysterious, somewhat algorithmic decision-making process seems to have landed on a new kind of hero to lead its TV shows: the British Soft Boy. It’s a character type that has existed before in many other forms, but has risen to prominence at the intersection of many trends, including the rise of the twink, and streaming’s Americanization of British TV. He’s often coded as queer, but in a way that associates queerness with approachability to both straight women and gay men; he’s also usually white, in a way that connects whiteness to imagined British qualities like politeness and delicacy. The British Soft Boy will be sweet. The British Soft Boy will not hurt you. He is made to be streamed; you will enjoy spending several hours with him and his soft British life.
When you watch Sex Education, which stars Asa Butterfield as the awkward child of Gillian Anderson’s sex therapist, the British Soft Boy comes into the clearest (soft) focus. Butterfield’s character Otis fumbles into giving shagging tips to everyone in his high school, even though he himself has trouble masturbating. He bonds with an outcast cool girl, Maeve (played by Emma Mackey), and develops a crush on her that he’s convinced she’ll never reciprocate because, well, he’s a dork and she’s a dead ringer for Margot Robbie. You’re meant, of course, to still root for Otis, because even if he is a dork by TV standards, he’s charming by the standards of actual reality. It helps that Asa Butterfield has the eyes of someone who looks as if he was replaced as a small child by faeries who use the fancy spelling of the word.
Unlike many British shows that are produced by the BBC or ITV then brought to America, Sex Education originates with Netflix. It was loosely inspired by a Channel 4 documentary about “these teenagers talking to a sex therapist about their teenage sex lives,” according to creator Laurie Nunn, and it feels very much like a show based on the broader concept of British television: a purposeful blend of Skins or Lovesick with ’80s-inflected John Hughes Americanisms like prom and letterman jackets. In this context, the British Soft Boy provides a palatable angle into the show, especially for audiences who aren’t British. A dorky guy who talks about sex? Boring. A dorky guy who talks about sex with an accent, which means he calls it shagging? How sweet!
Other highlights of Netflix’s British Soft Boy programming include The End of the F***ing World, where Alex Lawther plays a possible psychopath who ends up wearing cute Hawaiian shirts, and Black Mirror’s interactive Bandersnatch, where you can make Fionn Whitehead (the guy from Dunkirk who was not Harry Styles) kill his father and also throw his tea on his computer. In a darker context, this kind of character acts as a conduit for the audience’s sympathy. The British Soft Boy is often in peril, more complicated than he seems, and relies on you, the viewer, to understand him. Often, a key element of the British Soft Boy is the sense of gratification to your intelligence, as a viewer, for understanding him in the first place.
Many of the contestants on The Great British Bake Off are British Soft Boys; the more awkwardly they construct pastries, the better. Hugh Skinner has played Soft Boys in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and W1A, and an exaggerated parody of one in Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must enjoy poking fun at the type because she also included a Soft Boy in Kenny in Killing Eve and Fred in Crashing. Elsewhere on Netflix, the harder-edged Derry Girls includes James (Dylan Llewellyn), an awkward “wee English fella” who’s stuck at a Northern Irish girls’ school for his own protection. Dev Patel was a British Soft Boy up until he grew out his mane of hair and crossed the line from soft to hot. Daniel Radcliffe taught a generation to crush on Harry Potter, who started soft, got grizzled, and fathered a very soft son, according to Cursed Child. Starring Johnny Flynn, Lovesick is about a British Soft Boy gone to seed. If you are wondering if someone is a British Soft Boy, consider whether they seem like an import from a storybook, a grown-up version of either Artemis Fowl or Edmund, who sold out his family for Turkish delight in the Narnia books.
Ben Whishaw was the Ur-Soft Boy, from whose British softness all softness extends, though Whishaw offers a useful guide to anyone considering the trope of British Soft Boyishness, as he’s both graduated to projects that are more sexy (A Very English Scandal), or so soft as to achieve a new peak of the form (Paddington 2). Whishaw has the awkwardness, approachability, and inherent sense of goodness. Whishaw is also white, and with many of his characters, and with many a Soft Boy in general, his paleness is associated with his essential fragility. Here, too, whiteness comes into contact with a Peter Pan syndrome: These characters are boys, not men — even if they are in their 20s — always unfit, in some way, for the adult world. But Whishaw has an interest in queer art and an intellectual energy that pushes the envelope of the type. Whishaw is openly gay, and though many of these types of characters are coded as queer, as many twinklike characters are, that’s usually not explicit. The British Soft Boy is meant for everyone, and thus all his hard edges are sanded off; the British Soft Boy does not offend.
A show on Netflix doesn’t necessarily need to win you over with plot dynamism or aspirational characters, when it may just as well succeed with comfort. This, one imagines, is an incentive to write characters and cast actors that project comfort, warmth, coziness, and other words you might associate with descriptions of both antique furniture and Hobbits.
In an environment that prizes those attributes, like streaming TV, the muted charm of the British Soft Boy is on the rise. He may not be enough to get you out of your house and to a theater, but when offered up at the top of your streaming queue as relaxation viewing, the British Soft Boy is far more appealing. He’s the facsimile of the idea of Britishness, too pleasant to be real, but also there for you, fumbling along, probably wearing a nice sweater and offering up some tea.
A previous version of this story failed to acknowledge Derry Girls’ Dylan Llewellyn, the self-described “king of soft British boys,” whose co-star requested his inclusion. Vulture sincerely regrets the omission.