Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Apple TV+)
The locker room, both proverbial and literal, has long been considered a sacred space for men—more-rigid and woman-free than its successor, the man-cave. Nowhere is the locker room more important than in professional sports leagues, where for years woman reporters would not deign to enter without permission, lest they be treated poorly or struck down by the visage of a man not fully dressed—a sight never beheld by women until the late 21st century, when archaeologists uncovered the director’s cut of Magic Mike. The locker room reflects a specific strain of toxic masculinity, as publicly embodied four years ago, after a leaked tape revealed Billy Bush and Donald Trump had a conversation about sexual assault which the two quickly labeled as innocent locker-room talk.
Once again, those who could never enter the chapel of manhood were left to wonder: What the fuck is going on in these locker rooms?
Men’s locker rooms are, at their simplest, a holding place for men. It holds their belongings, their nakedness, their secrets. But more importantly, a locker room is a symbolic space where men feel freed to reveal their authentic selves, away from the oppressive gaze of women. Nowhere else can a man be his most manly self, the mythology goes than in a space that reeks of jockstraps and Old Spice. Because of the relatively closed-space of a locker room, it is also a place where men and their varying degrees of masculinity must confront each other. And nowhere is this dichotomy better illustrated recently than on the Apple TV+ sports comedy series Ted Lasso.
Ted Lasso, which stars Jason Sudeikis in the titular role, focuses on the Richmond Greyhounds, a fictional English soccer team being coached by an American college football coach, Ted Lasso. Though he knows next to nothing about soccer, he is relatively successful because white men are great at the job of failing up. Aside from being hysterical and laden with very attractive English men and their accents, the show centers on the Greyhounds’ locker room, where each man attempts to out-man his teammate and their new coach.
Throughout the series Lasso is presented as a manic pixie dream guy, marrying together typical attributes of machismo—sports lover who can grow facial hair and is in charge of others—with just a touch of feminine energy, making him the measuring stick for all of the other masculine identities in the locker room. Lasso is compassionate and listens, but he’s also solution-oriented. He brings an energetic balance to the locker room, and the audience is supposed to perceive him as a good guy because he is the same man outside of the man-space as he is inside of it. Lasso has no shadow personality that activates as soon as all the women are gone—not that there are many women, to begin with, in the world of Ted Lasso. But Lasso’s inner and outer balance endears him to reporters, angry fans, the team members that hate him, and even his heartless boss, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham).
Rebecca, one of the two prominent women characters on the show, plays a key role in the locker room despite—gasp—not being a man. After a messy and public divorce, Rebecca finds herself the new owner of the Greyhounds and in an unfamiliar position of power. She is above the locker room both literally and figuratively, yet she is also controlled by it. Although she is hell-bent on destroying the locker room to get back at her ex-husband, she is tasked with protecting it and the men inside—therefore she becomes complicit in any behaviors that come out of it. Later in the season, Rebecca takes this responsibility more seriously, asserting herself into the locker room, and forcing a subtle shift in the environment. The more Rebecca inserts herself in the locker room, the less time the audience sees locker-room antics like hazing and body shaming; a forewarning, perhaps, of what real-life locker rooms might expect if ever a woman were in a position to own a football club. This shift in behavior when the men are being watched is indicative of men’s self-awareness—they know what is and isn’t acceptable outside the closed space of the locker room.
Richmond players Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) and Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) are the competing alpha males, their tension creating division in the locker room as they jockey for position. In typical comedy fashion, Tartt and Kent are unable to get along because they are so similar, both skillful and aggressive but at different stages in their career. Kent thinks he deserves to be top dog because he’s older, and Tartt wants to be on top because he is younger and the future of the game. Their interactions represent an issue at the core of not just locker room masculinity, but masculinity itself: Is older dick more powerful than younger dick? This timeless debate is taken out of the locker room and into the real world when Tartt and Kent date the same woman. Eventually, aged dick prevails and Kent is able to fully realize himself as a locker room leader when he is able to put his pride aside and lead from behind, a leadership style unfamiliar to most men.
The thing about locker rooms is that they can only have a sole leader. If more than one alpha personality presents himself, the men get all mouth foamy competing for the top spot. Lasso is aware of this, which is why he attempts to maintain order by enforcing Kent’s alpha position. At the end of the day, no matter how advanced Lasso is in his own balanced masculinity, he must adhere to the rules of the locker room if he wants to be successful.
But where there is an alpha male there must be a beta male somewhere nearby. Nate (Nick Mohammed), Richmond’s equipment manager, is that beta male, and his submission to Kent and the other players in the locker room is what makes things flow. If Kent is the head of the team, and Lasso is the heart, Nate functions as the neck. His less aggressive and moldable approach to masculinity is a balm on the aggro locker room, but also provides a physical whiteboard for the other men to project their masculinity. This is made clearest by the amount of taunting Nate endures as a result of Tartt’s quest to be locker room leader. To prove his grip on the team, Tartt tells two other players to continue harassing Nate because it makes Tartt laugh. Much like Kent, Nate is able to fully bloom in his beta role when Tartt leaves the team and when he gets into a confrontation with the newly established alpha, Kent.
Ted Lasso may not win any Emmys next year, but it in some respects the show is a masterpiece. Without trying too hard, the show weaves together various archetypes of masculinity and creates a perfect locker room in which they can all work together, even through the insane notion of having a woman in charge. The magic of Ted Lasso is that although it is set in the locker room, it removes some of the worst factors of the space—overt sexism, homophobia, emotional and physical abuse—and instead reimagines a space where those dark and dirty behaviors are relics of the past. These men and this locker room are more evolved than the men and locker rooms that the audience is familiar with, and that’s accomplished through the simple addition of empathy. Ted Lasso is empathetic to the struggle of each man on his team and toward Rebecca as well. This empathy that trickles down to the rest of the locker room is what sets the show on a different path than any other series that follows men into locker rooms.
It’s not just a sports comedy—it’s a perfectly executed fantasy.