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.

Why the Term “Toxic Masculinity” is a Double-Edged Sword

“Toxic masculinity” is an extremely useful term. It describes a recurring problem with men and boys, which is that the societal pressure to appear and act “manly” can often harm not just others, but the guys themselves. Even the most naturally hyper-masculine individuals can benefit from awareness of this concept because they can at least know that crying, or not being confrontational all the time isn’t a sign that they’re not men. It’s also good for pointing out when media, be it films, video games, anime, etc., reinforce harmful notions of what being a “man” is. Unfortunately, the men who suffer most greatly from toxic masculinity, are likely least receptive to it. I believe the reason for this is that, ironically, the term “toxic masculinity” doesn’t sound masculine enough.

Many phrases that have come out of feminism, or have been embraced by feminists, take on a certain tinge that brings feminists to mind. This isn’t inherently a problem, but whether it’s due to association of just the word choice, it can come across as something concocted in a feminist lab (whatever that might be); perhaps it’s a little too clinical and, well, “feminine.” Part of coming  across as a “man’s  man” is one’s vocabulary, and I believe that the perceived feminist quality in “toxic masculinity” as a phrase prevents more men from using it.

On some level, I want to say, “Get over it and just embrace what the term is trying to say,” but I also understand that it’s not always so easy. Masculinity, toxic or otherwise, is tied to one’s identity. That being said, I think there already exists a phrase that embodies much of what “toxic masculinity” implies that is, for better or worse, more palatable to men concerned about maintaining their image of manliness: “When keeping it real goes wrong.”

Coming from an old Chappelle‘s Show skit, “When keeping it real goes wrong” is used to describe people who refuse to back down in even the most trivial or disadvantageous scenarios, which then leads to dire (and hilarious) consequences. Essentially, it communicates the idea that trying to be “real” 24/7 is a recipe for disaster because the need to have the world see oneself as a proper man who won’t take guff is going to, at some point, end in tragedy.

Do I think “When keeping it real goes wrong” should supplant “toxic masculinity” as the dominant phrase to describe the harmful aspects of male performance? Not really, as it’s kind of unwieldy and doesn’t match 1:1, but I think it has its place. The irony would be that using it could help more men understand the notion of toxic masculinity while also subtly reinforcing it.