Winter 2018 Anime and Wholesome Masculinity

One thing I’ve talked about before is that while today’s critics love to talk about “toxic masculinity,” in popular media, no one ever seems to call attention to it when we get the opposite of that. Now I guess it’s nice if a show doesn’t have toxic masculinity at all (depending on what that even means.) But let’s go one step further: what if a show not only avoids toxic, evil, ugly masculinity, but instead has wholesome, healing, warm-and-fuzzy masculinity? Is that even possible?

Because, it could just be me– or more specifically, it could just be the shows I’ve chosen to watch this season. But it feels like, this anime season, there are a whole lot of male characters who are portrayed as masculine while still being allowed to be compassionate, vulnerable, nurturing people; furthermore, these traits are seen as being part of their masculine nature, not exceptions to it. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

Before we go any further, important disclaimer: I haven’t been watching everything this season. Maybe if I watch DARLING in the FRANXX, it’ll turn out to be a bunch of shirtless dudes beating their chests and firing machine guns or something? (I admit, I have no idea what that show’s about.) I’m just calling attention to a pattern, not claiming that it covers every anime airing.

With that out of the way, here’s a list of shows this season that feature “wholesome masculinity;” a term I coined because “wholesome” is an antonym for “toxic.” The fact that I had to invent a term for it is kind of interesting by itself.

March Comes in Like A Lion— You could probably talk about masculinity in relation to almost every arc on this show, but I’m going to focus on the recent bullying arc. When one of the Kawamoto sisters is bullied in school, main dude Rei takes it upon himself to help her, only to confront his own powerlessness. At first he thinks of ripping apart the bullies “limb from limb,” but realizes that even if he were actually to do such an absurd thing, it wouldn’t help Hina at all; just present her with a different kind of problem. He then considers using his money (since, as a pro Shogi player, Rei has a lot more cash than a boy his age typically would), only to realize his mistake; even if he were to give Hina money for a private school or private tutors, she wouldn’t accept it, and he’s not going to try to trample her pride. Basically, he soon realizes that force, in any form, won’t solve anything.

While the failure of his early attempts at helping Hina do frustrate him, instead of letting that frustration fester, he eventually comes up with another solution; to simply be there for Hina, as much as possible. He’s there for her in a very physical sense, showing up while she’s on a school trip in Kyoto just to say hi and give her some medicine. But he doesn’t shadow her, doesn’t overstep his bounds; simply lets her know that he’s there for her, and demonstrates it repeatedly. When the bullying situation is eventually resolved by the school administration, Rei is left feeling like he didn’t do enough for Hina; naturally, she knows better.

I don’t want to say that serving as a pillar of support for someone else is a uniquely masculine trait, because that’s clearly not true. However, there is something masculine to me about Rei’s way of going about it; what he primarily offers is his very presence, his physical constancy. He can’t really help Hina by talking out her problems with her (he doesn’t know what to say), but he can help by simply being there when his presence might offer some comfort. That kind of silent vigil, as though saying “I won’t interfere in your life because I know it’s not my place, but I will ALWAYS be there for you, even if being there is literally all I can do,” is a way of using your power to help protect someone while making sure that they won’t ever feel like they need protection from you. It’s the “toxic” idea of the controlling/dominating male turned inside out.

It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find a reference to the quote anywhere now, but I could swear I remember reading that Kentarou Miura, creator of Berserk, once said that March Comes in Like a Lion was one of the “manliest” manga around. It seemed like an odd take at the time, especially considering the source, but I think I’m beginning to see what Miura meant.

Sanrio Boys–As an advertisement for Sanrio products, I’m not sure if this show is working out so hot; we don’t learn a whole lot about the different brand characters, and the episodes tend to fall on the dull side. The show’s overall quality aside though, it makes a few important points about masculinity, and does so repeatedly.

There’s the most basic message, which is that males who like cute or “girly” things don’t have to be any less masculine than males who don’t; an appreciation of something traditionally feminine does not cancel out masculinity, and boys should not carry around any fear that it somehow might. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that all of the Sanrio characters represent points of vulnerability for the main characters. For Kouta, Pompompurin represents his bond with his grandmother, and his fear that he let her down before she died; for Seiichirou, a driven overachiever who is pushed hard by his father, Cinamoroll represents the care-free childhood he was forced to abandon too fast. Each boy has a similar story.

The Sanrio charms the boys carry around aren’t just cute tchotchkes they collect as a hobby, but constant reminders of their vulnerabilities. Once you get past the “it’s okay for a dude to have a Hello Kitty keychain” level, the show really seems to be about how becoming stronger is about accepting and embracing your vulnerabilities, not running from them; that you don’t truly become strong until you stop being afraid of weakness.

Appropriately Ryou, the least traditionally masculine looking of all the boys, has the most problems with accepting this, because he has the most to lose. As a beautiful boy who gets babied by his older sisters, he feels like he has to fight for every shred of perceived masculinity he can get; he doesn’t think he can afford to admit to liking cute mascot characters the way the muscular guys can. When Ryou finally admits to and accepts his love of Sanrio, it seems like he’s become more mature and more manly in the process, because he’s exploring his vulnerability instead of running away from it.

As I said above, it’s probably not a great show. But as a delivery vehicle for the message “Masculinity doesn’t have to be what you always thought it was,” it might just be peerless.

How to Keep a Mummy–This show is mostly just an adorable little ray of sunshine, to be enjoyed and not really thought about much; really, I think trying to analyze this show too much would be doing it a disservice. However, that said, I don’t think I’m being too analytical by pointing out that the male characters on this show are portrayed in caretaker roles; they’re not changing diapers, exactly, but taking care of the little monsters that fall into their lives requires a fair amount of nurturing. Some are more nurturing than others, but there’s no question that they’ve been assigned caretaker roles.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually kind of surprising that this wasn’t a “cute girls doing cute things” series; seeing cute girls take care of cute little monsters sounds like it would be very marketable. In any case, I’m glad the series turned out this way instead. Mummy isn’t didactic about breaking apart old-fashioned ideas about masculinity the way Sanrio Boys is, but just by putting the boys in caretaker roles– in a rather casual way– it challenges negative masculine stereotypes. There is one female main character, but considering the fact that she isn’t treated differently at all, I don’t feel like there’s anything to add about her.

School Babysitters–Now in this anime, boys are changing diapers. Again, we have boys in nurturing caretaker roles. However, one interesting wrinkle that Mummy doesn’t cover is we get to see how the boys are perceived by their classmates as caretakers. Despite the fact that he chases after toddlers and sings lullabies all day long, Ryuuichi is considered one of the hottest guys in school by his female classmates– and the other boy in the babysitting club is a close second (although Hayato isn’t such a great babysitter, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So, not only does taking care of babies fail to hurt Ryuuichi’s chances with the opposite sex, it seems to be helping; the implication is that the girls like him in no small part because he’s so demonstrably nurturing. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the girls consider him more masculine, but they certainly consider him a nicer and more interesting person than a lot of his classmates. I don’t think the show is really trying to say “take care of babies and chicks will totally dig you, because kindness trumps toughness in manly appeal,” but hey, there are worse takeaways.

Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family– This show is an odd-duck, the oddly bucolic food-porn spin off of the Fate/Stay Night franchise. I don’t have a lot to say about it other than the fact that main guy Shirou is constantly cooking for the other people in his life; primarily women, like Rin, Saber, and Illya. Sometimes the girls cook as well, but Shirou is clearly the main chef.

Being a chef certainly isn’t anti-masculine (as watching any amount of celebrity chef television will show), but it is notable that Shirou’s whole role in this show is to provide food for the ladies in his life. Rin could be all like “Bitch, get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” and he would just shrug, because he’s already in the kitchen making her ten sandwiches.

Laid-Back Camp– Now we’re getting into shows that don’t even have much of a male presence, but what presence there is has some significance. There are barely any male characters in Laid-Back Camp; the only one who makes much of an impression is Rin’s grandfather, the man who gave her her first set of camping equipment. So Grandpa decides to inspire his granddaughter not by getting her some cutesy little present, but a tent. So she can go out and camp, alone, independent, in the wild.

Apparently the concept of trying to limit his granddaughter’s autonomy for her own protection has never occurred to Laid-Back Grandpa. He must have missed that day in Toxic Masculinity class.

A Place Further Than The Universe– Another show with a minimal male presence, but that absence is interesting in and of itself. The Antarctic expedition is led by women, but while the civilian expedition is considered controversial in the world of the show, the gender of the leadership seems to have nothing to do with it. People take issue with the fact that it’s a civilian expedition, or that the finances are too tight, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to be worried that the leadership is all-female; it’s just a non-issue. You would think there would at least be that one token dude who’d say something like “In a tough place like Antarctica, you need a MAN’s strength!”, but the show doesn’t even bother with that.

I like this show, in part because it’s one of the relatively few shows where having the leads be four teen girls actually accomplishes something other than ticking a demographic box. It doesn’t have much to say about masculinity, but I think it’s worth noting that it doesn’t feel a need to, even in passing.

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles– Okay, including this here is really a stretch, since it’s only tangentially related to the theme of this post; maybe I’m trying to justify to myself the fact that I’m still watching it. However, I do think it’s interesting that the kind of stereotypical “dim guy who just doesn’t get that the pretty girl isn’t interested in him,” character is another girl. All of the creepy behavior targeted towards Koizumi is from Yuu, her female classmate; even when it seems like a guy is after Koizumi, it’s a false alarm and they’re more interested in the ramen she’s eating.

There is some creepy, arguably even toxic behavior on this show, but pretty much all of it comes from Yuu; the guys are pretty blameless. I think guys are sometimes surprised by how much ramen Koizumi can put away, but that has more to do with respect for the laws of physics than gender stereotypes, probably. Anyway, it’s not that this show has anything particularly meaningful to say about toxic masculinity, wholesome masculinity, or otherwise, but it’s kind of cool (in a weird way) that Yuu is providing us with some rare toxic-femininity. How’s that for representation?

So yeah. The next time I hear about how anime is just chock-full of toxic masculinity, I want to hear an explanation of this season. Like, did a whole bunch of anime writers just wake up and forget to be toxic one day? Something in the water? I need to know.