Cartoons have a long history of toxic masculinity. Consider some of the earliest shorts to feature Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse. If they weren’t lobbing anvils and firecrackers at one another, they were panting after hyper-sexualized female members of their respective species. Hardly a model to set for their target demographic (children). But the trends neither begin nor end with America’s favorite cat-and-mouse chase. Superman, Bugs Bunny, Popeye the Sailor, even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have all been illustrated engaging in outlandish violence, and are often rewarded with wanton female affection, perpetuating the idea that, as a man, the only way to succeed is to be as typically, extremely masculine as possible: solve your problem with your fists, think later (if at all), and expect women as a reward.
The U.S. isn’t alone on this front. Japanese anime are often just as guilty of preaching a toxic male image. Though, because of cultural differences, the portrayals of masculinity tend to be different, if only slightly.
A prime example is the contemporary classic Samurai Champloo. The series follows the adventures of three characters, a wandering, quick-tempered vagabond named Mugen, a quiet, steely ronin named Jin, and Fuu, the youthful spitfire who brings them all together. Each of the male characters demonstrate the two opposite sides of toxic masculinity and how damaging toxic masculinity is.
Mugen is irrational, quick to anger, and is easily the least intelligent of the three main characters of Champloo (There’s a whole episode devoted to teaching Mugen how to read), while Jin is composed, soft-spoken, and incredibly distant. Both men are, in their own ways, emotionally unavailable. Mugen’s emotional range is limited to rage, hunger and sleep, while Jin is so distant and cold that in a twenty-six episode series he only comes within a few inches of real emotion with one character.
Plus, both characters solve all of their issues, internal and external, by killing them.
Toxic masculinity doesn’t get much more toxic than that, and, as a possessor of a Y-chromosome, it’s jacked up.
Yet, that was the trend for principle characters in animation. Until, in the mid 1990’s, DIC Entertainment started dubbing Japanese animation intended for younger audiences with an English soundtrack. One such series that spread like wildfire was a little ditty called Sailor Moon. Even before her stateside debut, Sailor Moon was a household name in her native Japan. The numerous series’, OVA’s and feature films follow Usagi, a clumsy, lazy, ditzy high school girl, who is granted cosmic powers and asked to lead a group of similarly super-powered high schoolers, the Sailor Scouts, in an unending battle against the forces of evil.
Sailor Moon was unlike anything ever done in animated storytelling. It featured an almost exclusively female cast who defeated their enemies by confronting their own personal and psychological issues, rather than using violence. The strength of the team came from the health and wellbeing of each individual member, as well as the bonds of friendship they shared. Finally, Japanese and (later) American viewers were shown an image of female empowerment that embraced their own femininity, not rejecting it in favor of masculinity. Powerful, complex stuff, the likes of which offered a lot for audiences to consider and (dare I say it) learn from, particularly children.
Sailor Moon also revived Magical Girl anime, a genre that had been treading water since 1979, when Mobile Suit Gundam came onto the scene and made giant robots all the rage.
Those who are more familiar with anime’s various genre and sub-genre will have heard of other, far more obscure Magical Girl anime, such as Tezuka’s Princess Knight, and the more contemporary Madoka Magica. But Sailor Moon represented both a revitalization of the genre in Japan, as well as a global introduction. Indeed, Sailor Moon and the Sailor Scouts reaffirmed that saving the world wasn’t a job just for men, and not one that could always be handled by a lone powerhouse.
But there is another sub-genre that has it’s roots in Magical Girl: Magical Boy.
As the name suggests, the main tropes and trends from Magical Girl anime are present. There’s a team of young, super-powered individuals who are charged with protecting the world from evil-doers. Except, that team is made up of boys.
There are several early-ish examples of the genre floating around out there (ranging from the early to mid 2000's), but the series that holds most truthfully to the attributes laid down by Magical Girl is a series called Cute High Earth Defense Club Love!
The title leaves little to explain. Five ordinary, though hyper-attractive, high school boys are given superpowers, which naturally come with outlandishly fabulous outfits, and are charged with protecting the world. As is common in Magical Girl anime, the team regularly calls upon the power of their friendship to solve their emotional issues and save the day. Cute High represents a radical shift in how men are portrayed not solely in anime, but in animation as a whole. They are sensitive, passionate, unafraid of failing to adhere to typically masculine stereotypes, and they aren’t always chasing after women. They illustrate the fact that it’s okay to be who you are, rather than strive toward a flawed image that leads towards violence and emotional emptiness.
However, for all of the positive male representations proliferated by Magical Boy, the genre poses a few questions, a central one being whether it’s doing more harm than good.
The most positive aspect of Magical Girl was that it took the focus away from men, empowering female characters in a medium that had been all but monopolized by distilled masculine stereotypes. Isn’t Magical Boy anime undoing everything that made Magical Girl great in the first place? Isn’t it reaffirming that boys get everything?
While critics have a point, female characters deserve to be the stars of their own shows, Magical Boy anime does empower women as well. True, the cast is very much male, but women still play a very strong role in most Magical Boy anime, and, particularly in Cute High, they’re neither sexualized nor offered to the heroes as a form of restitution. They don’t occupy stock roles, or exist solely to benefit the principle characters a la the manic-pixie-dream-girl formula. Female characters in Magical Boy are, typically, there to challenge the male heroes to achieve a greater strength, to overcome the internal issues that may be plaguing them. Men may occupy the leading roles, but it’s only due to the encouragement and (often tough) love given by their female contemporaries.