Nothing is permanent, least of all in language. A cool bit of slang moves through a cycle. Initially, it’s formed and used in the social environments that needed such a word or phrase for communication of a shared experience. Then it moves into a wider network — the internet being the widest we have at the moment — where a struggle over its import then follows. There are explainers and trend pieces of varying merit. But, inevitably, the term will lose some of its cachet as other people seize, flaunt and misapply it. That could be read as the “gentrification” phase.
After the idiom has been wrested from its origins, it’s ready to be commodified. Cue HBO Max’s reality dating show FBOY Island, the final four of its 10 episodes streaming as of August 12, 2021, six years after peak interest in the word “fuckboy.” (The cast are not permitted to say “fuckboy,” though, and make do with the “fboy” coinage.)
Two understandings of the “fuckboy” archetype have been at odds ever since white people appropriated it from the Black community and hip-hop. It was in 2015 that we came to know the version that HBO is perpetuating: An attractive straight guy who likes to fuck, and is maybe kind of good at it, but fundamentally doesn’t respect women and uses them for his own gratification, disregarding their emotions or needs. Previously, however, “fuckboy” had been a rapper’s diss, popularized by the likes of Cam’ron and Killer Mike, that had nothing to do with selfish dating behavior. Pushing back against the emergent re-definition at the time, writer Kara Brown argued in Jezebel that the force of the word lies in its reductive contempt. “A fuckboy is a man who is lame, who sucks, who ain’t shit. Insults don’t need to have some deeper meaning,” she wrote.
Alas, culture doesn’t listen to reason, and “fuckboy” had already achieved escape velocity. Part of the issue is that we wanted a catchy epithet to describe Lotharios in the age of Tinder, and here existed one that you could twist to that purpose — if you ignored what connotations it had among Black in-groups for many years prior. This development raised an additional problem: While “fuckboy” was still technically derogatory, it left room for men to proudly identify as such. Nobody wants to be seen as a guy doing the “dumbest, weirdest, lamest possible shit ever,” per Killer Mike’s own gloss on the label, offered in a 2014 interview, yet many guys would happily claim to be alpha studs who treat women as conquests. You might say the true “fuckboy” died here, when he became the figure of sexual dominance, the Chad, the irresistible manipulator.
From another vantage, that death wasn’t final until HBO planted its corporate flag in the concept, taking the self-styled fuckboy to his illogical extreme: a dude who goes on TV with the explicit intent of duping women. In addition to further distancing “fuckboy” from its roots, FBOY Island has so far failed to reckon with the patent unreliability of the male contestants who showed up as rival “nice guys.” Every straight woman is aware that a man who declares his niceness can be just as toxic, if not more so, than a career playboy. It’s a tension woven into the DNA of every dating show that came before: Is he here for the right reasons? The meager novelty is that these dudes come packaged with identity markers which count for little, and the men assigned to play villains are continually gifted with opportunities to redeem themselves, disavowing a lecherous past.
No wonder the bachelorettes in this show have trouble separating one camp from the other; the very premise sets forth that there is no material distinction between the two. There’s even a case to be made that all the men are fuckboys, but only half are honest about it. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t those men be the desirable suitors, as they’re further along in the process of maturing?
Should the series follow this narrative and try to rehabilitate the repentant fuckboys (while ultimately exposing the smug “nice guys” as anything but), it will be the final nail in the coffin for “fuckboy” as it first entered the lexicon. No longer the nameless, abject loser checked in rap verses, he is now on the path of personal discovery, cruising into responsible adulthood, collecting praise for giving up his sleazy old habits (at least while the cameras are on).
Really, it doesn’t matter what HBO producers do. Their muddled take on fuckboys is but an expression of the semantic ooze to which all fashionable words return after overuse. It was wrong to spin the flatly dismissive “fuckboy” into the sort of lifestyle brand that certain men aspire to, and this is what it got us: Entertainment in which they perform victimhood, swearing they can change. Either way, the fuckboy’s dominion is at an end. We’re ready for someone else.