Men are good now haven't you heard? Nice guys are having a cultural moment: every online platform has lists of "unproblematic faves," men like Keanu Reeves, Fred Rogers, or Tom Hanks (these lists tend to be rather white). Pop media, too, has traded the grit and grim of traditional character types for gentler derivations: Daniel Craig's affable gay southern-gentleman detective in Knives Out, for example, or Everything Everywhere All At Once's softboi dad, played by Ke Huy Quan, who declares that kindness is how he "fights." And, of course, Ted Lasso, which features Jason Sudekis as the eponymous football coach-cum-football manager who's more superficially lovable than Paddington Bear, or a Dickens orphan.

It's not only streaming series and blockbusters invested in these new men. There are examples in literary fiction and indie film, too (Chris Bachelder's The Throwback Special, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson), plus all the work in sociology, critical masculinity studies, and literary criticism that theorizes and describes these new men and the masculinities they perform. Raewyn Connell, who famously describes "hegemonic masculinity" in her 1987 book Gender and Power as an intensity of power within a dialectical "interplay between different forms of masculinity," identified in 2005 an "element of optimism . . . that a more humane, less oppressive, means of being a man might become hegemonic, as part of a process leading toward an abolition of gender hierarchies."1 For observers like Eric Anderson and perhaps to the surprise of others this process is already underway. Anderson writes that "cultural homohysteria" and "hegemonic form[s] of conservative masculinity" are ceding ground to new, "inclusive" masculinities, "softer" and more liberal.2 Other attempts to name these new masculinities proliferate, and literary critics influenced by this work have tried to locate new masculinities in (mostly realist literary) fiction, almost always at the scale of psychology and character.

Whether academic definitions or media representations of "new men" actually locate or create anything new is contentious; "new masculinity" in media and scholarship alike often seems like nothing more than a mask, or a script, or a choreography of basic decency. Call it masculinity with a human face. What's key for me is recognizing the entanglement of new masculinity and heteropessimism, which share a point of cultural departure: namely, dudes. Without men, the pessimism of heteropessimism cannot be imagined. If we split heteropessimism discourse into first-order expressions of dissatisfaction with heterosexuality and second-order commentary about those expressions, we see that both versions are troubled by men, either locating them as the cause of heterosexual malaise or figuring them as its clearest signal, a bunch of buff, gruff canaries. Asa Seresin declares that "[h]eteropessimism generally has a heavy focus on men as the root of the problem," which is why "[p]erformatively detaching oneself from heterosexuality is particularly appealing for women."3 In fact, as represented in essays by Sophia Giovannitti and Phoebe Maltz Bovy, this suspicion of men has generated its own backlash: all this heteropessimistic side-eye (Giovannitti calls it, imprecisely, "popular misandrist left discourse") might not be wrong, but it is boring.4 For Bovy, heteropessimism relies boringly on boringness as an appraisal of heterosexual desire and, more insidiously, the women who feel it; their sexual lives become "coded" as "unusually boring," without the political edge of queerness, and are therefore flattened, dismissed. "We know we're full human beings with complex inner lives," Bove writes, "but also that the world doesn't see it that way . . . There is a danger, and not only an intellectual one, in conflating interestingness with courage. It's what's under the khakis, so to speak, that counts."5

The invitation to look beyond or beneath the khakis and the boring heteronormativity of the person wearing them is a pretty workable summary of Ted Lasso. An ad campaign for NBC Sports before it became an Apple TV series, the show is about the titular Ted, an American football coach made from milk-and-cookies cliches and Empathy™ who redeems the variously troubled masculinities of a Premier League soccer club. (At the beginning, anyway; as the show drags through its second season and stumbles into a third, which aired during the editing of this essay, the show's reasonably interesting premise gives way to a formal exhaustion, a feel-good narrative roteness, that as we'll see appropriately concludes its heteroformalist arc.) Ted isn't merely kind and patient and slow to anger; in Time, Judy Berman calls him a "happy-go-lucky fantasy creature, the kind of magical role model usually confined to children's stories," and Sophie Gilbert deems him "a Labrador retriever with a mustache."6 Whether you appreciate this unswervingly sincere vision of masculinity will depend on, among other things, what you want from your streaming media.7

But regardless of how we feel about Ted as a character, whether we think the particular masculinity he epitomizes is the "right" masculinity, it's clear to me that the show demonstrates the narrative problem that heterosexuality poses, its inescapable logic. What I mean is that even as characters, to a greater and lesser extent, change their performances of and relationships to masculinity, heterosexuality sticks around as a background, a horizon. Put differently, how we evaluate Ted's masculinity and its narrative treatment matters less than the fact that the narrative itself relies upon, remains bound up with, heterosexuality. Even if Ted were unambiguously the ideal man, the kind of man the world needs right now (which is the wrong way to think about a fictional character), the narrative that contains him is limited by its strange and stubborn coupling with heterosexualitynot only as represented object but as representational form. And it's not just Ted Lasso; so many stories of new masculinity remain in thrall to heterosexuality. They depend on its shape and structure, its prefabricated drama always the same old story.

An example: despite being about redemptive relationships between men, Ted Lasso sees its narrative energy generated and discharged by its heterosexual couples. From the very beginning it's clear how the men who play for Ted's club, AFC Richmond, will change: Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) will learn to channel his emotional intensity and reconcile himself to aging; Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh) will find confidence; Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) will, like a Superfund site, become a little less toxic. The only object of narrative uncertainty, the only thing neither Ted Lasso nor Ted Lasso can repair with masculine positivity, is heterosexuality Ted's marriage in particular, from which he intentionally distances himself by taking the Richmond job.

This is the key interchange. On one hand we have Ted's new masculinity, his flat upbeatness that prevents much narrative tension from emerging from within him; and on the other hand his heterosexual failure, the fact his wife Michelle (Andrea Anders) wants a divorce because she finds his Thomas Kinkade optimism exhausting, like staring at the sun. The only thing that lends Ted any kind of depth, to make him something other than a laserlike ray of positivity, is the precariousness and eventual collapse of his marriage. It's this discrepancy, this gap, that really constitutes the show's narrative question, at least over its first season: if heterosexuality is distasteful largely because of what its men are like, then how can it be that a man like Ted cannot hold his marriage, hold heterosexuality itself, together? If he can't, who could?

The new masculinity of Ted Lasso requires the generic drama of heterosexual failure in order to hang together as a narrative. We could call the way it hangs together something like "heteroformalism": in the show, heterosexuality is both narrative object and narrative structure, insofar as it depends on the lassoing-together of heterosexuality (specifically its collapse) and Ted's masculinity, which is both a heterosexual ideal and the condition of heterosexuality's disintegration.  In his essay for this cluster, Sean Lambert makes a related argument, reading The Worst Person in the World as suggesting "that heterosexual romance is structured around aesthetic forms, and that a poverty of those forms in popular culture corresponds to a prevailing pessimism about heterosexuality itself." Likewise, as Annabel Barry points out in her contribution, Sally Rooney's recent writing on James Joyce muses that "[t]he novel is, by definition, formally heteropessimist: gesturing towards queerness at the levels of narrative, style, and perspective while resolving upon heterosexual coupledom in the end."

This is what feels particularly heteropessimistic about the show, its formal suggestion that the masculinity required to make heterosexuality palatable also renders it unworkable. (It does, however, make for successful television, as the show's 20 Emmy nominations prove.)8

The show simply wouldn't be possible without this animating tension. To lean on the cultural gaps between midwestern Ted and his new British milieu is a gimmick capable of supporting only the original ad campaign; to show the slow victory of generous sincerity in the locker room and on the pitch might drive a ninety-minute feel-good sports movie (or it could in the nineties and aughts, anyway). But to extend the drama over a whole series requires at least the threat of negativity.9 Superficially, at first, club owner Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) provides this narrative function, herself a reiteration of Margaret Whitton's owner-villain in the film Major League. This arrangement a straight, white woman set against the collection of men she, in the language of professional sports, owns obviously plays on a set of (racialized) heterosexual anxieties and intensities. It formalizes a misogynistic and heteropessimistic suspicion: not only can men and women never get along, but in fact women will terrorize men whenever in positions of power. But in Ted Lasso, always interested in personalizing every conflict, it turns out that Rebecca's villainy itself is a heteropessimistic symptom: she received ownership of the club in her divorce from her husband Rupert, every bit as bone-marrow evil as Ted is bubbly and good.

Ted Lasso tries to take the heteropessimistic position at its word: if men as we know them are often so repellent they make heterosexuality itself begin to reek, the answer is to design a new kind of man whose emotional sextant has been entirely recalibrated. By positing a single new man as the solution, the show also shares with heteropessimism a tendency to individuate and personalize, to imagine heterosexuality, its diagnosis and cure, at the smallest scale. As Seresin writes, "dissatisfaction with heterosexuality, despite being sold as universal, always seems to operate on the level of the individual," and so "heteropessimism actually reinforces the privatizing function of heterosexuality."10 Giovannitti makes a similar point when she asks us to contextualize men's violence in larger structures of power, the violence "inscribed by police, prisons, schools, and hospitals, stamped onto men to bleed onto the rest of us."11 Likewise, narratives of new masculinity, Ted Lasso especially, are stuck in the reformist fallacy: if only a better person occupied that position (whether an identity position or a structural position). Doreen St. Felix concurs when she claims that "Ted seems to be not a character but a kind of powerful infection."12 New men are new characters fitted into the same old (monogamous heterosexual) arrangements, more a diversity-sensitive casting than a rewritten script. It's an individualized answer to heteropessimism's individualized critique.

 Importantly, it's not that I'm after "better representation," in part because the problem less of a problem, really, than a symptom, or a site of contradiction wouldn't be solved by a queer character or two. A scene in which Jamie Tartt and Roy Kent make out in the showers isn't a solution (not to this problem, anyway). The show's third season makes clear the problem with mere representation. Although queer characters see some screentimeKeeley dates Jack, the venture-capital girlboss who bankrolls her PR startup, and Richmond winger Colin bonds with writer Trent Crimm over their experiences as gay menthe show has nothing to say about them. Queerness either serves the show's clumsy pedagogical objectives (Keeley and Jack's relationship becomes a lesson in "lovebombing" and slut-shaming) or catalyzes downright gerontological attempts at narrative tension (team captain Isaac's anger after Colin's involuntary coming-out is, of course, not the homophobia the show dangles like a cat toy, but masculine indignancy at Colin's lack of faith in his understanding). These examples figure queerness as an apparatus for the education of straight people or a stage on which they can perform allyship. In both cases this kind of "representation" works as the ground to heterosexuality's figure, and always inside the narrative structures of heterosexuality. To reformat Eve Sedgwick's famous homosocial triangle: in Ted Lasso, queer characters, instances of queer "representation," are always triangulated with reference to heterosexuality, cannot escape the heterosexual geometry of triangulation. 

"New masculinity" narratives, then, are doing for heteropessimism what James Messerschmidt and Michael Messner see some masculinity studies scholars as doing to Connell's notion of hegemonic masculinity: individualizing it, imagining we can simply "replace" hegemonic masculinity like a CEO or elected official. This is to fail to recognize that gender, like any system of meaning and power, is a system, a structure, which means that hegemonic masculinity is not a "position" or "office" but part of a "dialectical relationship between structural constraint and human agency."13 Thus, sincere but limited visions of new masculinity might actually accomplish insidious ideological work, obfuscating the ongoing problem. There is contiguity here with the way that, as Jane Ward explains, pickup artistry and macho swagger have evolved into so-called "woke masculinity," the "troubling and complex maneuver" by which a man "empathizes with straight women and recognizes their need to protect themselves against the hordes of manipulative and aggressive men" in order to ingratiate himself and eventually sleep with them.14 Consider the scene when Ted finally agrees to divorce Michelle: when he tells her that he refuses to quit anything, Michelle says, "You're not quitting, Ted. You're just letting me go." Although Mark Yakich reads this as an example of the show's "literary" excellence in language, to me it's sleight of hand. It's different language with the same meaning and same effect, just as Ted is a new man in a familiar story.15

Likewise, in its second season, the show's heteropessimism manifests its own form of twisted ideological optimism: not that heterosexuality as narrative structure might give way to something else, but that heterosexuality might also structure social and economic repair. The second season wants its vision of a better (and technologically mediated) heterosexuality to possess political and ethical import. Saving heterosexuality, it turns out, must also mean saving the world. AFC Richmond replaces shirt sponsor Dubai Air, whose controlling megaconglomerate operates neocolonial resource-extraction schemes in Nigeria, with "Bantr," a text-only dating app. The fantasy of a better heterosexuality created cheaply by exchanging image for language coincides with the fantasy of guilt-free capital.

Just as the show demonstrates its new masculinities within a heterosexual narrative logic, it also envisions a "better" relationship to capitalism on capitalism's terms. In both cases it's really about feelings: we can feel good about Ted's feel-good masculinity, the show tells us, and we can feel good about replacing an obviously evil oil-extracting sponsor with a cheery unshallow dating app: no need for the shame that attaches to capitalism's universality, the recognition that we're always involved, everywhere. Reparative, clean, digital finance displacing exploitative, dirty, resource-extractive capital: call it heterosexual effective altruism. And amidst all this, heterosexual drama saturates the second season. Most notably, Sam and Rebecca (the club owner, his boss) conduct a long, app-based, and crucially anonymous flirtation, an irony from which the second season wrings much narrative tension, made possible by Bantr's text-only matches. This story about heterosexuality's ostensibly redemptive power reestablishes heterosexuality as the whole show's narrative operator, a fact only emphasized by the third season's queer characters, whose function is to reinvigorate the languishing characterological depth of the straight men around them queerness as a kind of male supplement.16

It's less, then, that Ted Lasso "is" heteropessimistic; I'm unconvinced that a specifically heteropessimist aesthetic exists. Instead, the show marks pop culture and popular media working through a tense relationship between heterosexuality and new masculinities, at least as they're often figured. Even as new-masculinity narratives cannot escape heterosexual narrative logics, they also (however mildly) threaten heterosexuality from the insidein the show's case, by laying out the narrative contradictions of heterosexuality and the masculinity it requires and ostensibly desires. If anything, Ted Lasso's relationship to heterosexuality is itself heteropessimistic: can't live with it, can't live without it.

To say that we need new stories for men stories of identity, attachment, erotics, sociality sounds like a cliché. And it's probably a further cliché, or a kind of meta-cliché, to point out that like some other men before him (William James, David Foster Wallace), Ted himself would suggest that even clichés have performative power. But it's true: we need not only new men but new stories stories both specific and imaginative, that avoid either falling into vagueness and gestural invocation or becoming stuck in a claustrophobic "realism." Just as Seresin is not "personally invested in disputing" the fact "[t]hat 'men are trash'," I'm not really interested in critiquing or defending Ted Lasso itself.17 The scale is bigger. What I'd like to see above and beyond stories about idealized versions of familiarly good men are heretofore unthinkable roles, stories, and situations for men (for all people!), who would then necessarily become "new men" because the very shape and boundary of being a man would change.

I guess, then, that what I want isn't new men but a new world. Admittedly, this is a difficult and maybe impossible demand, as evidenced by the two other examples I mentioned earlier: Bachelder's novel The Throwback Special activates a whole litany of redemptive and intimate rituals of masculinity that rearrange intimacy, eroticism, and sociality, but it also disavows women, who are not characters but occasional narrative apparatuses. And in Jarmusch's film Paterson, the quiet masculinity of Adam Driver's bus-driving poet and his untroubled heterosexual marriage take shape against the attenuated characterization of his wife Laura, who's more pixie than person, and the parodic failures of heterosexuality that otherwise litter the film.

As a bisexual man who understood his desire relatively late, who is in a relationship that appears straightforwardly heterosexual, and who has spent a long time trying to understand and revise an adolescence and young adulthood lived inside locker rooms and their cultures of masculinity, I feel heterosexuality's narrative omnipresence like a kind of tinnitus: a constant distortion often just below the threshold of consciousness. Adora Svitak, in her essay for this cluster, links this omnipresence to "[h]eteropessimism's resignation," a "belief in an outcome that is predetermined: I will be lured in, I will be disappointed." It's easy to find myself locked in a structural opposition, whereby everything I do or am must register as either oppositional/queer/cool or complicit/straight/boring. This, though, is exactly the misreading of bi- and pansexuality that's so common: that it's an inability to make up one's mind, that you're half-gay and half-straight, a composite identity. I'd like to see what's possible outside that opposition, the horizon of heterosexuality that demands everything refer ultimately to it, whether directly or indirectly.

Ryan Lackey (@rlackey15) is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. His academic work includes contributions to The Routledge Companion to Masculinity in American Literature and Culture, David Foster Wallace and Religion, and the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to the Millennial Novel. His criticism and reviews have appeared in Public Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, Commonweal, Literary Hub, and elsewhere.


  1. Raewyn Connell, Gender and Power (Stanford University Press, 1987), 183; Raewyn Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, "Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept." Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 832-833. []
  2. Eric Anderson, Inclusive Masculinities: The Changing Nature of Masculinities (Routledge, 2009), 96.[]
  3. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019.[]
  4. Sophia Giovannitti, "In Defense of Men," Majuscule.[]
  5. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, "Straightness Studies," The Hedgehog Review 23, no. 1 (Spring 2021). []
  6. Judy Berman, "Ted Lasso and TV's Strange Quest to Build the Perfect Man," Time, July 19, 2021; Sophie Gilbert, "Ted Lasso is No Superhero," The Atlantic, October 8, 2021. []
  7. My qualified affinity for the show (at least its first season) is less than totally voluntary, starved as I am for decent stories about soccer, which the British have in abundance (novels from David Peace and Ross Raisin, B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, Nick Hornby), whereas we Americans keep churning out books about baseball.[]
  8. Not everyone agrees that the show's narrative construction leaves something to be desired. Writing for Film Cred, Devin McGrath-Conwell remarks that "Ted Lasso, just likes its characters, is imperfect, but it nonetheless stands as a testament to empathetic and nuanced storytelling," insofar as it manages to "eschew lazy and damaging gendered storytelling while still attaining other genre goals." (Devin McGrath-Cornwell, "The Many Masculinities of Ted Lasso," Film Cred, January 25, 2022.)  This is a fairly common critical take, at least regarding the first season, but while I agree that Ted Lasso evinces a consciousness of masculinity as contested gender performance, I don't think we can call the show "nuanced," nor that a narrative can somehow "be empathetic."[]
  9. A fact the meandering third season reiterates.[]
  10. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism."[]
  11. Giovannitti, "In Defense."[]
  12. Doreen St. Felix, "Ted Lasso Can't Save Us," The New Yorker, August 16, 2021. []
  13. James W. Messerschmidt and Michael A. Messner, "Hegemonic, Nonhegemonic, and 'New' Masculinities," in Gender Reckonings: New Social Theory and Research, edited by James W. Messerschmidt, Patricia Yancey Martin, Michael A. Messner, and Raewyn Connell (NYU Press, 2018), 36.[]
  14. Jane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (NYU Press, 2020), 31.[]
  15. Mark Yakich, "Language is the Game in 'Ted Lasso'," The New York Review of Books, January 19, 2022. It's telling that many fans online not only cannot understand Michelle's desire to divorce Ted, but actually frame her decision as malevolent or even abusive. Even Hannah Waddingham has referred in an interview to Michelle as a "toxic wife." Devon Ivie, "With Ted Lasso, Hannah Waddingham Trades 'Shame Nun' for 'Iron Queen,'" Vulture, October 15, 2020.[]
  16. Colin's unplanned coming-out works this way: it makes room for performances of straight-dude allyship. These heartwarming, cheerily tender moments litter the third season, and they mark the show's wholehearted swerve into the vending-machine model of streaming media: viewers exchange time and subscription dollars for particular emotional experiences, what Fredric Jameson calls a "feeling-tone." All feeling-tones, including the show's warm-and-fuzziness and "the sense of destiny in family novels, are commodities towards whose consumption the narratives are little more than means." This collision of queerness and, or as, commodification feels contemporary, very much of heteropessimism's moment. Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture," Social Text, no. 1 (1979): 133.[]
  17. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism."[]