Dance Dance Danseur, Ted Lasso, and Healing Masculinity

There’s a problem when it comes to toxic masculinity, and I don’t just mean that it exists. Rather, the recurring issue is the fact that it gets easily misconstrued by detractors as meaning “masculinity is inherently toxic,” which then gets extrapolated to be an insult towards men as a whole and an attempt at widespread emasculation. The counter to that erroneous view is to point towards non-toxic examples of masculinity, but often they exist in the abstract. Recently, however, I’ve watched two shows, one anime and one American live-action, that go beyond toxic masculinity or even non-toxic masculinity, all the way to what I’d call “healing masculinity.” Those are Dance Dance Danseur and Ted Lasso.

To clarify a key definition to start, toxic masculinity mainly refers to the damage done to men and those around men by the dread of not living up to societal standards of manhood. “Boys don’t cry” is the classic example, as is the general reluctance to open up to others emotionally out of fear of being vulnerable. Dance Dance Danseur and Ted Lasso each address this in somewhat different ways, but the result is encouragement for guys to not be held back by what men are “supposed” to be like.

Dance Dance Danseur takes a more overt approach to addressing toxic masculinity. Its main character, Murano Jumpei, is a boy who fell in love with ballet when he was little. However, a combination of seeing other boys ridicule the style and his own wish to live up to the memory of his martial arts actor father leads him to suppress this passion—and take up Jeet Kune Do instead. It’s only after a female classmate notices that Jumpei’s supposedly kung fu–influenced spins look suspiciously like ballet moves that he sets back on the path of his true love. Even after starting practice, Jumpei initially tries to keep his training a secret for fear of his friends knowing, but he’s forced to confront the fact that maybe they’re just close-minded, and directly deal with their preconceived notions.

Jumpei carries a lot of classically “manly” traits. He’s loud and aggressively outgoing, and he’s very athletic. His love of ballet is expressed the same way a guy might get excited about his favorite sports team or band. However, instead of trying to play off these emotions, he embraces them even to the point of tears—all while his peers remain in their proverbial boxes.

Ted Lasso addresses toxic masculinity less directly, but arguably provides a more robust counterexample to it. Its eponymous protagonist is a successful small-time American football coach who gets hired to instead work with a soccer/association football team despite his utter lack of experience or knowledge in the latter. The English team he ends up with is full of all the expected problems: egos, lack of mutual respect, and a recent history of failure. But rather than trying to whip them into shape like a drill sergeant, Ted Lasso encourages his players to share their feelings and to develop camaraderie through emotional bonding—even the most hypermasculine among them.

Ted’s own personality is cheerful, laid-back, and optimistic to a fault (which does come into play as a point of contention). When it comes to leading by example, though, he excels and gradually changes the way his players see themselves, the sport of soccer, and their world. And while his attitude might appear to make him a pushover, Ted is anything but. He will step up to others, not out of excessive tough-guy pride, but instead a desire to lift up others in pain. This applies to his coaching style as well: Ted’s main drive isn’t wins and losses, but to make everyone on the team the best versions of themselves.

Both Jumpei and Ted remind me a bit of Guy Fieri, a figure who helped make cooking “okay” for a lot of guys. Beyond that kind of “dude-safe” presentation, however, what I think contributes to them being strong models for a less damaging conception of masculinity is that they try to aid others find their own ways out of their own trauma, all the while being far from infallible. Their approaches to life don’t come without setbacks: Jumpei’s hot headedness gets him into plenty of trouble, and Ted’s American Midwestern positivity can sometimes leave certain problems unanswered. Yet, both are able to help others by being supportive, defiant, imperfect, and vulnerable. They provide a form of masculinity that isn’t just neutral but actually heals.

G…lee…COOOOOOOO

When it comes to the musical arts, I have to admit that I am quite lacking. I’m a novice in regards to musical theatre, and I am far from knowledgeable about popular music from my own era, let alone from decades prior. So it might seem unusual that I consider myself among the many who enjoy Glee, a show about a high school glee club populated by misfits which combines both of those elements and adds a large dose of teen drama to boot. But not only is Glee fun, it appeals to me on both artistic and intellectual levels as well.

The vast majority of fictional TV shows and films attempt to mimic reality. This does not necessarily mean that they are realistic or that they could be confused for anything but fiction, but that they attempt to create a simulacrum of the real world to facilitate their audiences’ suspension of disbelief, whether it’s Law & Order, The Expendables, or The Andy Griffith Show. Glee is different. Whereas most other shows want you to ignore their existence as “television programs,” Glee revels in the fact that it is fiction first, a portrayal of high school second. The method of characterization, the cinematography, the storylines, the acting, and, yes, even the music, all work together to create an experience where the viewer can practically see the strings and enjoy it for that reason. Its candor is something I can really appreciate, and when watching it I can feel myself picking up on the clever elements of its production while also engaging its story and characters.

Going back to how Glee fosters its self-image as fiction, I want to highlight how characterization is handled in particular. Let’s take Rachel Berry, the talented singer so driven by the pursuit of perfection that she can be incredibly abrasive even to the few friends that she has. In one episode, you learn that she is so constantly focused that she wakes up early every morning to the tune of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” and jumps on an elliptical for half an hour while staring at a self-made motivational note. Here, you can see how the show really exaggerates her personality traits almost to the point of tangibility. Other good examples include Sue Silvester, the cheerleading coach so Social-Darwinist in her beliefs and so ruthless in her methods that she practically comes across as a supervillain, Emma Pillsbury, the attractive guidance counselor whose neurotic obsession with cleanliness leaves her incapable of eating her own lunch without wearing gloves, and Kurt Hummel, a male soprano so accustomed to being bullied that he can plan his day around it and still remain outspoken. However, while these aspects make up a good portion of their characters, it doesn’t dominate their portrayals. They’re still allowed to grow and develop over the course of the series, and maybe learn an important lesson or two along the way.

If anything, the characterization in Glee reminds me of how many anime and manga approaches characters. There is a similar sense of over-the-top portrayals that are still able to create strong emotional connections and give room for genuine character growth that you might see in 70s sports shoujo (Aim for the Ace!, Swan) or the works of Imagawa Yasuhiro (G Gundam, Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still). In fact, I think that if someone were to adapt Glee into an anime, they would barely have to change a thing, and I mean that in the best way possible.

So despite the fact that I can’t recognize songs 9 out of 10 times unless they’re anime-related, I can recommend Glee. Well, at least the first season. I’ve yet to experience the second.

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