Can a TV series starring a genuinely kind cis-het man be an antidote to a culture of toxic masculinity? Perhaps not, but it's a welcome fantasy.
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Like many other Americans with a budget for streaming services, I watched the first season of Ted Lasso, initially with tremendous hesitation and then with ardent affection—the latter overcoming the former roughly nine minutes into the first episode. Everything you’ve heard is true: Ted Lasso is deeply charming. It’s written and performed with a kind of love that feels long lost; its artifice so honest as to feel organic; every beat and every line locking gently into place as the cast builds a world that feels like a home, one where arms are open, tears are okay, and the jokes are never cruel. That we love it so much, that we soak it up like soft rain on parched ground, is a reflection both of the collective genius of its creators, cast, and crew, and of just how deeply broken we are.
Ted Lasso is a show about a kind man, who is kind to other men, some of whom are kind in return, while others learn to be kind or struggle and suffer for their lack of kindness. The women are few, but they are respected and loving and support each other with enormous affection and zero jealousy, serving as neither reflections of nor character-builders for the men around them. They’re fully formed humans with agency that are appreciated and valued as such by the show’s men, who are, almost to a one, kind. Ted Lasso is not so much a response to toxic masculinity as a near-past historical fantasy in which ghosts may or may not exist but toxic masculinity has been all but vanquished.
Meanwhile, witness after witness attested in special committee hearings this week to the sheer viciousness and rage that animated the Jan. 6 insurgents, intent as they were on violently wresting American democracy from the voters who had chosen then-incoming President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump. We learned on Monday that a male athlete repeatedly accused of sexual assault was allowed to go to Tokyo with Team USA anyway; his fellow athletes were told that “a safety plan” is in place. Last week, just as the Ted Lasso hype was entering overdrive, we learned that an Ohio man was arrested for planning to slaughter women because he felt he’d been unjustly denied sex; we also learned that new research demonstrates that domestic abuse left unaddressed is often the training ground for larger-scale violence. Over the course of the summer, we read about the “friendship recession” American men are experiencing; watched Lil Nas X get slammed for performing with men onstage in ways that men routinely perform with women onstage; and—oh, right!—grappled with a rising COVID death toll due almost entirely to politicians, pundits, and plain old people behaving as if succumbing to a viral infection is tantamount to being a pussy. And we all know who has pussies.
You have surely begun to recall your own personal stories of what it costs us to teach men and boys that they must perform hardness at all times—no tears, no tenderness, no open need, and God forbid they do anything (run, throw, scream) like a girl. In a world in which the worst thing a man can be called is some version of “a woman,” in which those are not only fighting words but killing words, Ted Lasso landed like an alien invasion.
That the alien invasion of male tenderness and female humanity first landed as Americans were still living under the violent and hate-filled administration of a man who served his presidency as the walking embodiment of every terrifying thing that toxic masculinity can produce—not least a refusal to care for the sick and the dying—surely made every minute of Ted Lasso’s first season that much more comforting. We were grieving and afraid, abandoned by those meant to be leading us—and along came Coach Lasso, all cheesy mustache and earnest concern.
“Toxic masculinity” is just another way of saying “misogyny,” though, and neither toxic masculinity nor misogyny was invented by Trump or the violent, hate-filled hordes still supporting him in the streets and on Capitol Hill. Misogyny is the warp and weft of human society. The need to establish, maintain, and enforce an ideology of supremacy in which men must dominate and not-men are not quite human is the reality on which people of all genders are broken every day. We would not find a weird little TV show so deeply comforting if our need for comfort were not so deep.
I’m thrilled that Jason Sudeikis et al. were able to take their weird little show into a second season and would not like to admit (though by now you can probably guess) how much I’m rooting for season two to meet or exceed season one’s charm, or, dare I say it, greatness.
In an ideal world, though, or even a moderately healthy one, Ted Lasso wouldn’t need to be. “Man is nice” shouldn’t be a plot point, much less the sustaining spirit of hours and hours of television viewing. But this is the world we’ve built. “Will man continue to be nice?” is a legitimate source of dramatic tension.
I’ve spent my life wishing I could walk through a wardrobe into Narnia or onto the Starship Enterprise, but I don’t know that I’ve ever wanted to find myself in an imagined place quite as much as I wish I could wake up in the world Ted Lasso inhabits. Richmond, as the song goes, ’til I die.
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