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.

6 thoughts on “Winter 2018 Anime and Wholesome Masculinity”

  1. I dislike the idea of toxic masculinity in a general sense. Toxicity and masculinity are things they need to be addressed individually in any given context and so combining them in one term always seems like a setup for disaster. That said, I like the comparison you are making here with March Comes in Like A Lion. Rei has to apply his desires to protect in a different way from his immediate instinctual reaction. I think an appropriate term for it does already exist it just isn’t talked about much. Maturity.

    I think part of the reason masculinity in the raw, natural form it exists in doesn’t go away is because maturity needs to be communicated and acknowledged to have value. I haven’t watched March Comes in Like A Lion so I can’t comment on what it does(I really need to watch it, I know) but any idiot can pick up a stick and beat someone else with it to protect someone they care about. No or very little philosophy needs to be understood for an instinctual recognition of value. The opposite isn’t true. The more complex a reaction, the more nuance needs to be communicated for the same appeal. Basically, there is a lot more involved to get from point a to point b. The concern that it won’t be appreciated is always a risk where as the idiot with a stick is more obvious and easily addressed. Part of the problem with fictional stories is what the audience is going to understand. Everyone understands picking up a stick to beat up the enemy. The more nuance added the more people who get lost along the way.(this can also feed into why it’s so tempting to become elitist about a “stupid” audience.) It’s something special when a story is good at portraying nuance in ways most people understand.

    If stories are getting better at showing maturity in their character’s that awesome I think. It can be unrealistic sometimes, but character maturity is one of the big things I love about Japanese stories and something I never feel like I get out of Western stories. I’d argue it’s a concept Japanese storytellers have been better at for a long time, but I’ll admit I have a strong bias. I’m probably just not a big fan of what more western minded stories portray as mature, or more that they just often don’t. I expect characters in western stories to indulge in immaturity. Maybe that’s a part of what the term toxic masculinity is intended to address?

  2. I’m kind of on the fence about whether or not “toxic masculinity” has merit as a term, or whether toxicity should just be a separate thing. If we are going to use “toxic masculinity” though, we should also use toxic femininity, which we don’t.

    My thought for this post though was that IF we’re going to hear about toxic masculinity all the time (whether or not we should be hearing about it), THEN we should have some concept of what the opposite of toxic masculinity is, and recognize it when it happens. But yeah, another way of looking at this group of shows from this season is that they happen to feature male characters who are mature, or more mature than we usually see.

    As to whether or not we see characters properly mature in western media, hmm I’d really have to think about that. I think often, characters in western stuff just become more powerful so they can overcome their opposition and that power boost is sold to the audience as a form of maturity, but of course, there’s a ton of anime that does that too– hell, shonen is practically built on that. It’s something I’ll probably be watching for going forward though.

    1. Minor rant incoming about something that isn’t too important to me, but you might find interesting? I’m not trying to argue needlessly and I understand where you are coming from. On a certain level terms have value simple because they are used and not because they should or should not be used. You obviously aren’t responsible for making toxic masculinity a term and there is obvious value in addressing it… But lets talk about the should part anyway. 🙂

      I’m all for terms that add valuable nuance, but I don’t think “toxic masculinity” adds anything of value outside of feminist dogma. Which well, I have a hard time acknowledging in the first place for a mile long list of reasons. I’m willing to acknowledge toxicity in context. “Toxic masculinity” always seems to be used to define context. Like the idea that boys shouldn’t cry. It has obvious value for the boy who wants to cry, but once used it also implies that he should be crying in certain situations where he isn’t because of toxic masculinity. In a situation with a boy who isn’t crying using the term toxic masculinity overrides the personal context of said situation where you think he should cry. Why he is or isn’t crying is no longer relevant. The context has already been defined. He isn’t crying because he feels like he shouldn’t cry even though somewhere deep down he wants to cry. Any reasons more personal to an individual are immediately denied.

      The problem is with the boy who gets misunderstood for a new reason. Maybe he just isn’t all that sensitive and he will grow up thinking all the people who wanted him to cry more were a bunch of looney feminists.(and won’t be entirely wrong) That should be counter productive to feminist thinking for obvious reasons, but I never see it addressed. It’s always culture this or that. It’s like damn it all, that boy would be crying if he had better parenting and grew up in an ideal society!

      Side note, the idea of toxic femininity scares me even more than toxic masculinity. Imagine the things it would be used for… How dare that woman be happy cooking for her husband! She sets impossible goals for her daughters! How will they ever cope with needing to live in a modern society… etc etc. Of course the real toxic femininity would be the stuff coming from people whining about those things, but that goes over their head. It’s always the most immature people who scream the loudest about this stuff. It’s an irony they always seem to be oblivious of.

      Toxic masculinity is the champion of boys who struggle to mature because of stereotypes, but it’s also an antagonist of the mature man who is perfectly comfortable with gender norms. It can even be used to imply that being comfortable is part of the problem.(whatever that might mean, insert feminist dogma here) People using the term poorly? Or a poor term? I’d just like to see that addressed.

      1. I think my conception of it is a lot simpler than yours. For example, in romantic relationships, men are more likely to be overly possessive, controlling, etc., so including something like that under the heading of “toxic masculinity” makes some sense to me; it’s a counterproductive behavior that is associated with men. That’s not to say some women aren’t possessive and controlling, obviously, but it’s counterproductive behavior that’s more common from one gender than the other. I think avoiding conflict by becoming increasingly passive-aggressive could be filed under “toxic femininity” as a counterpart to that, but of course, no one actually uses the term toxic femininity. Except us, of course.

        Too simplistic? Maybe, but that’s the only way the use of the term makes sense to me. I will agree that a lot of things that get attributed to “toxic masculinity” just confuse the issue…like conflating all stoicism with repression and fear. It’s not stoicism that’s bad, it’s forcing yourself to be stoic when you really don’t want to be because you feel you have to for your pride, and people usually bulldoze all over those kinds of distinctions when they use the term.

  3. About the mangaka who said that March Comes In Like a Lion is the manliest series he’s ever read, it was Tetsuro Hara, the guy who did Fist of the North Star, not Miura. Well, that’s what I heard since I do know about that quote as well. 😛

    I also was reading something about the irony of toxic masculinity because some women want men to behave “badly” in a certain way sometimes. Women want traits in men that are still masculine, even if they are quote “bad.”

    1. Ah, thank you for the correction; I’ll amend the post. Although I can’t find a source for the quote online no matter who it’s attributed to, so I guess it’s kind of academic, lol. I know someone must have said it at some point!

      Yeah the whole toxic masculinity thing is just a quagmire, especially when you look at the fact that the fiction that’s most popular among women is filled with that kind of behavior. If you had to break down what kinds of masculine behavior really was toxic, and what is often labeled toxic but is secretly appreciated by many women, and what behavior COULD be toxic but only in large doses…it would be an impossible.

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