The Netflix men acting as antidotes to toxic masculinity
(Credits: Best of Netflix / Netflix / Channel 4)

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The Netflix men acting as antidotes to toxic masculinity

Netflix may have spent the last few years slashing good shows from their roster in favour of the ones that get the most eyeballs (whether or not they are as well-written as the ones they toss), but they have been diligent in one regard: creating and curating a plethora of stories that cater to an audience that right-wingers love tagging as “woke”, as if it’s an insult to be aware of the many horrors of the world.

Among the bevvy of fully realised fictional women (the entire character list of Orange is the New Black counts) and queer characters in all shades of the rainbow (Titus Andromedon, David Rose, Eric Effiong), many cishet men, who are wholesome antidotes to toxic masculinity have also found a home in Netflix stories.

Be it honourary Derry girl James Maguire from Derry Girls or hyper-anxious moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place—Netflix has given us multifaceted fictional men who reject traditional notions of masculinity to embrace healthier, more inclusive versions of manhood. These characters are, of course, part of a broader cultural shift that doesn’t simply break the mould but reshapes it. Jason Sudeikis’s Ted from Ted Lasso may be the poster child of this phenomenon right now, but he has many others in his August company, some of whom have walked before he could run.

Unlike the Donald Drapers, Walter Whites, and Logan Roys of the world, these men are unabashedly vulnerable, understand the importance of empathy, demonstrate a capacity for emotional intelligence, and actively self-reflect to dismantle harmful stereotypes. That is not to say that they do not have their flaws, just that their flaws aren’t borderline sociopathic in nature, negated and forgiven because of their apparent genius. 

William Jackson’s Chidi ends up in the Bad Place because, hilariously enough, his rigid ethical standards and inability to lie end up hurting everyone near and dear to him. Despite being the show’s lead, Chidi is the quintessential lily-livered cad. However, his growth does not involve becoming a hypermasculine, emotionally constipated macho guy. There is no place for such empty posturing in the modern discourse around reshaping masculinity as we know it. 

Chidi consistently displays thoughtfulness, compassion, and a commitment to ethical values. He helps the others around him grow along with him while unlearning patterns that prevented him from thriving while he was still alive.

Much like The Good Place, several similar Netflix shows explore and navigate complex yet wholesome friendships these men are involved in. Chidi gets to become someone better with help from his friends: the lovable doofus Jason (Manny Jacinto), the eloquent Tahani (Jameela Jamil), an all-powerful being Michael (Ted Danson), and his chosen-through-many-reboots soulmate Eleanor (Kristen Bell). Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) friendship on Sex Education is similarly refreshingly real and evolved. It touches upon and celebrates several nuances of platonic love and acceptance through the many growing pains of young adulthood without artifice.

Dylan Llewellyn’s James on Derry Girls does a Smurfette trope reversal of his own. He is not only the only guy in a gang of girlfriends. He is often seen engaging in activities traditionally associated with femininity. He wears make-up and indulges in fashion, but more importantly, he creates lifelong bonds with friends he can rely on for emotional support as well as shenanigans.

These men, redefining what it means to be a man, are not overtly nerdy caricatures spouting random misogynist vile (here’s looking at you, The Big Bang Theory) to catch a few cheap laughs. They can give you belly-aching chortles without faltering. Son of a Polish-Arab immigrant couple, Community’s Abed Nadir (played by the phenomenal Danny Pudi), who is known for his pop culture obsession and eccentricities, challenges expectations every step of the way (even in the gas leak year when Dan Harmon stepped down as showrunner). 

The fact that Abed’s character has been praised for his accurate autism traits only adds laurels to his crown. The jokes are never at the expense of his autistic traits but at those who fail to be considerate towards him. In the recent Queen Charlotte, King George III’s (played by Corey Mylchreest and James Fleet) mental illness (which could have been acute porphyria or bipolar disorder) is similarly treated with sensitivity and respect. It is underlined multiple times throughout the show that he still deserves love and is capable of performing his duties despite not being the stereotypically stoic, kingly image of manliness.

Addressing toxic masculinity involves acknowledging the existence of a destructive pattern and then showing a willingness to make a change. It requires acceptance of healthier and more inclusive forms of masculinity that allow individuals of all genders to express themselves authentically, develop emotional intelligence, and form meaningful connections based on mutual respect and equality. It does not mean a character (or a person) cannot have flaws. The very nature of the flaws morphs into something more human and relatable, rather than unattainable, and, by default, aspirational; if a typically cool character smokes on-screen and a warning comes up that “smoking is injurious to health”, does it deter one from picking up the habit or encourage them to associate it with coolness? Everything a suave character does becomes the epitome of cool.

A few of the worst tropes associated with fictional men who are walking-talking red flags are their proclivity towards objectification of women and sexual conquests, denigration of queerness, an over-reliance on aggressive or dominating body language, and refusal to seek help. When Don (Jon Hamm) finally seems to have a breakthrough in the final episodes of Mad Men, he uses his newfound perspective on ‘hippie-dippie’ things like meditation and communal harmony to hammer out a major ad campaign for a corporate giant. And we have to bid him goodbye with the big question hanging in the air, “So, did he really learn anything?” Unlikely.

Male characters in romance fiction, often written by women, have always been more desirable to women who are into men. The good thing is our reel-life men are finally evolving in tandem with our entire gamut of fierce, flawed, soft, vulnerable and unapologetically human on-screen heroines.