Since the Chinese first began cultivating soybeans some 5,000 years ago, the “Yellow Jewel” has spread across the planet, becoming one of the most important crops for human use. The humble soybean boomed across Europe in the 18th century, then arrived on American shores and grew into a staple there, too.
Everywhere it went, people heralded the bushy soy plant, which proved hardy, tolerant of poor soil and resistant to pests and disease. It proved instrumental during World War II, when U.S. oil supplies were cut and the nation turned to domestic soybean stock to create cooking grease for the masses. In the 1950s, the new use of soy as a low-cost, high-protein feed for cattle and poultry helped kick-start the livestock industry and lowered meat prices for consumers.
As such, it’s become the “king of beans” in America, which now grows and exports more soy than any other country. All of this makes it incredibly ironic that, for the last four years, Extremely Online® right-wingers and Boomer conservatives alike have been using “soy boy” as an all-purpose slur against anyone they deem unmasculine.
My colleague Miles Klee argued in 2017 that “soy boy” was the logical evolution of “cuck,” taking the latter’s air of servile impotence and making it something innate. To some, being the kind of guy who eats tofu a lot meant that you were compromised from the inside out, poisoned by estrogenic compounds and literally made into less of a man. In this worldview, the all-meat “carnivore diet” is the apex of masculine consumption, and eating soy is its polar opposite. This is a metaphor that knows no bounds. Wearing a mask can be a sign you’re a soy boy, as can something as innocuous as embracing your troubled son in a hug.
No wonder that, when it became clear that Joe Biden was going to win the presidency, a heartbroken poster took to the r/Trump page on Reddit to declare: “The Age of Men Is Over. The Time of the Soyboy Has Come.”
It’s not much of a surprise that the men who love Donald Trump also love tossing this banal insult at those they perceive to be less manly than them, even if it requires the mental gymnastics of equating Trump’s bloviating tantrums to strength and Biden’s quiet calm to weakness. But as tempting as it is to lean into the comparison and hail Biden, and the next four years of his administration’s leadership, as ushering in a gentler America, I just don’t think that’s the case. The progressive left, whether we’re talking those in government like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, scholars like Cornel West or the anonymous protesters in black, isn’t soft or gentle or kind — they’re full of fire and fight (sometimes literally so). John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8 lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, has the energy of a man who would break your fingers if you jabbed him in the chest.
And frankly, I wish all these people were eating more soy. As someone of East Asian descent, the whole panic about soy consumption leading to man-breasts and estrogen imbalances isn’t just bunk science — it’s indicative of how Trump’s America really doesn’t get how the rest of the world operates. For one, we Korean men are notoriously noisy and aggressive as a cultural stereotype, and eating an insane amount of soy products doesn’t seem to help. But second, metaphors aside, soybean products are flat-out delicious, whether we’re talking a savory fermented miso paste or silky, custard-like tofu made from scratch. Crunchy soybean sprouts make for a great side dish, and on hot days, I crave the simple pleasure of chewy noodles in cold soy milk. If you have to pick a staple crop to symbolize a movement, you really could do much worse, to be frank.
I know there’s no use in attempting to make sense of why “soy boy” remains in circulation as a favorite conservative gotcha, but the view of Biden as Soyboy-in-Chief is both deeply hilarious and fundamentally insulting to the soybean plant. We can only hope that the new administration will be as useful to American history as soy has been. And no matter how much conservative voices cling to this half-assed punchline as an indictment of weakness, I also hope that they see the inevitable in the distance — a wave of soy boys looking to push politics leftward along with a literal wave of soy.
I mean, it’s ironic that 2020 has seen a soy boom for American farmers, isn’t it?