FREE! and Masculinity



I didn’t keep up with the second season of FREE! while it was airing; I liked the first season well enough, but the second one felt a bit dull. However, in a recent burst of “Let’s watch all my unfinished anime series because that’s a great way to avoid doing real work!” sentiment, I picked up FREE!: Eternal Summer again and watched it to the end. It’s still largely a retread of the first season, but it does pick up and get more interesting during the latter half.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that the series, in general, presents the exact opposite of the so-called “toxic masculinity” that many media critics complain about. The show is full of guys being empathetic, talking to each other about their most deeply-held feelings, expressing high levels of affection for each other, and relying on each other for emotional support rather than trying to go it alone.

Some people have said that as a product of a studio known for producing shows about cute girls being friends, FREE! is just a gender-swapped version of that; that the boys of FREE! are just the plucky girls from Afternoon Tea Time dressed up in impressive muscle suits. I think there’s some merit to that idea– KyoAni has developed a particular style when it comes to depicting a kind of idyllic high school life populated with cute people, and FREE! has that in spades– but on the other hand, it’s pretty darn sexist and depressing when you actually think about it. “A show about guys being emotional and affectionate? That’s not believable– they’re just girls who are drawn to look like guys!”

There’s also the fact that the so-called “male gaze” is completely inverted; male bodies are seen as objects of desire, both to appeal to female viewers (which has been widely recognized and commented on), but interestingly, even within the world of the show itself. Gou, the team’s female manager, likes looking at men’s muscles, and we sometimes see things from her perspective; however, while several male characters express interest in her, she seems to have zero interest in a relationship. She appreciates men for their bodies, full stop.

This was all true of the first season, but what’s especially interesting about Eternal Summer is that the closest thing the show has to a villain is also the closest thing the show has to traditional masculinity. Since the shark-toothed Rin dealt with his issues last season and is now on the side of the angels (err, dolphins?), stone-faced Sousuke steps in to serve as the boys’ antagonist. Sousuke is terse, tends to keep his feelings to himself, speaks in a voice so deep it makes metal vibrate, and tries to carry all his burdens alone without relying on his friends for support. When he and Rin finally have a major confrontation late in the show, Rin chews him out for trying to be so masculine.

Okay, Rin doesn’t literally say “Why are you trying to be so masculine? Keeping all your negative feelings inside, without asking for the support of people who care about you, is creating this toxic, festering wound– symbolized by your shoulder injury– and it’s making you act like an asshole and drive people away. Your (traditional) masculinity sucks!”, but I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that the subtext is there. It’s especially strong coming from Rin, who was the closest thing the show had to traditional masculinity during the first season. Rin is almost incredulous while reaming Sousuke out, like he can’t believe that someone as strong as Sousuke still believes in this so-called masculine bullshit that he himself got over last season.


Not showing your deepest feelings like a proper FREE! boy? GIT GUD, son.

That’s not to say that the boys in FREE! live in this world of perfect emotional maturity; they do, at times, act like teenaged boys. Late in the show, Rin’s angst about having to share a hotel bed with Haru is typical teenaged insecurity; he knows damn well that there is no problem with sharing a bed with his old friend Haru (who is about as sexually aggressive as a postage stamp), but just the idea of sharing a bed with another male makes him uncomfortable and defensive. Nagisa, the most openly affectionate of the boys, is often chastised for calling everyone ‘chan,’ creeping them out with his presumed intimacy, even though they’re all pretty close to begin with. When Nagisa and Rei start bawling their eyes out, the brotherly Makoto taps them on the head and gently says “Hey stop crying– aren’t you men?”

Still, despite the occasional appearance of teenaged insecurities, in general the boys of FREE! (minus Sousuke) display an unusual emotional maturity; they know the importance of love between friends, and they don’t think that expressing their feelings makes them lesser in any way.

My question is, why has this not really been talked about? I know I’m making the obnoxious mistake of saying “Why isn’t the media talking about this?” when I am in fact part of the media and I’m talking about it, but still; I find the apparent dearth of commentary on FREE! intriguing. If you haven’t watched the show and just go by what anime critics have said, you would probably think that FREE! is just bait for shallow fangirls, and there’s nothing else notable about the show whatsoever. If toxic masculinity is such a problem that it needs to be brought up frequently when talking about media, why isn’t the replacement of it with this kind of warm, inclusive masculinity celebrated? Why aren’t people pointing at FREE! and saying, “this is what we want from our male characters in anime”?

Or could it be that complaints about ‘toxic masculinity’ really aren’t about toxic masculinity at all, so the absence of it in an extremely popular show didn’t set off any alarm bells for anyone? And if these complaints were never about toxic masculinity in the first place– then what were they really about?

Basically, if we have to constantly hear terms like “toxic masculinity” and “male gaze,” FREE! should be pointed to as an example of how to break out of the regressive mold and depict healthy male characters. Instead, the show seems to be treated as a basically harmless, but mildly embarrassing blight on anime to be deftly sidestepped by all intelligent fans. “Oh, the show with the swimming dudes that drives the fangirls nuts– hahahah, whatever.” Why? If this isn’t what socially conscious critics want, then what do they want? I’m all ears.

5 thoughts on “FREE! and Masculinity”

  1. I actually know a fujoshi who disliked Free! 1st season. She watched the first 3 episodes and stopped. It felt too cheesy for her and she’s Japanese by the way. She also probably wasn’t the target market (fangirls in teens to maybe late 20s?).

    I do remember she told me that she didn’t like seeing the Iwatobi guys to act a bit too much like girls or that it’s super-evident about the suggested pairings. It’s funny because she watches series like Haikyu!, Yowapeda, etc.

    Granted I don’t think she’ll watch Eternal Summer, but I guess I’m wondering what is considered to be too emotional. I think my friend’s age (in her mid-40s’) doesn’t want to deal with certain types of young people drama, though I’m sure that’s all of us at a certain point.

    1. I can definitely understand FREE! coming off as cheesy; to me, the series has enough humor and even self-parody that it cancels out the innate cheesiness of the “Hahaha look at these dudes who are TOPLESS because they are SWIMMING, GEDDIT?!” tone. But it is funny that a viewer who dislikes FREE! for that reason likes Yowapeda, since that series is about 90% starry-eyed boys calling each other’s names while cycling furiously– or at least that’s what it felt like when I was watching it. I guess Yowapeda is much less overt about the fanservice though, considering that cyclists tend to be clothed:)

      For some reason, despite getting older, I still don’t mind watching shows all about high schoolers and their drama; I think I feel like I hibernated through most of high school, so maybe watching these shows is like getting to take part in an experience, on some level, that I missed in real life? Hmm, food for thought I guess.

  2. Nothing pisses me off more than mention of “toxic masculinity”. For women to designate what are “tolerable” and “intolerable” traits of men to me reeks of hypocrisy.

    “Don’t you dare tell women what they can and can’t be! By the way, I find your brand of masculinity abhorrent thus you are a terrible person lest you implement change as I see fit!”

    I find it both hypocritical and remarkably sexist that women can rant on about “toxic masculinity” all they want but if I (a male) so much as comment on what I perceive to be negative female traits, I am promptly labeled a misogynist and kicked out of the room.

    Not that I find either activity all that productive in the first place. It’s generalizing to the Nth degree for starters and basically amounts to nothing more than bitching and moaning about people you don’t like. People should be able to have all different kinds of personalities regardless of their gender.

    I also don’t think this so-called “toxic masculinity” is as common as people think. Well okay, maybe among the normalfags out there but really, who cares about them? I’ve cried in front of my (male) friends many times and have comforted my (male) friends in their times of need as well. Guys generally don’t like to make a big public fuss about it, but we support eachother in our own way.

    Our own way which is sometimes distinctly different from the way girls do it and there’s nothing wrong with that, thank you very much.

    Also, speaking as a man with many homosexual leanings, I’d like to also add that I’m tired of gay guys being expected to act in obviously feminine ways or agree with feminine ideals or whatever bullshit. I’m a man, I like other guys, and I embrace my own unique variety of masculinity proudly.

    1. See my whole thing is wondering what the whole label of “toxic masculinity” is really about, since it’s clearly not about what proponents of its existence like to say its about. If it were as dangerous and pervasive as many critics say it is, wouldn’t examples of non-toxic masculinity be praised to the stars? But they virtually never are. So what is the point of this criticism, exactly?

      Maybe it really is just as simple as demonizing men for sometimes acting like men instead of like completely gender-neutral pod people; I don’t know.

      1. Here’s the thing.

        I could make a fancy blog post about what I perceive to be “toxic femininity”. I could list off all the typical female traits I personally don’t like. But you know what? I don’t. Because I recognize that all the traits that I sometimes find aggravating are also equally endearing. It’s what makes “girls” “girls”, it’s special, a part of the identity.

        So why is the same respect not shown for men? I’ll tell you why, because these people love to put women on pedestal and pretend their a shining beacon for humanity, like their behavior is somehow the ideal we must all follow. I find this both damaging to women and insulting to men.

        It’s like friendship. No friend is ever going to be 100% free of traits that annoy you, right? Every friend has some aspects of themselves that you don’t really like. But you look past them, and recognize that that’s part of what makes them who they are. And while those traits might annoy you, it’s an endearing kind of annoyance. They’re your friend, and at the end of the day, you wouldn’t have them any other way.

        If one is going to condemn men just for being men, they should apply that scrutiny to females as well. It’s only fair. But as I’ve said before, I find the exercise to be unproductive and based around broad generalizations. People can have whatever personality they chose regardless of their gender.

        And I’m sorry if the previous post upset you. I can’t put my finger on it, but sometimes about your response seemed like maybe I had hit a nerve or something. If so, I humbly apologize.

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