NCIS: LA, Or the Subversive Power of Male Vulnerability

The older you get, the more you notice things that, perhaps, when you were a teenager, you didn’t. The world around you gets sharper, more defined. You have a clear idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. You understand what you like and what you don’t. But more importantly, for the sake of this piece, you know what lessons you had to learn by yourself, and which of those, perhaps, entertainment could have helped you learned much sooner.

I can come up with a list – a very long list, most likely – but today I want to focus on one idea, and particularly, my experience with one show and how it should be looked upon as the example on how to do this one thing: do away with toxic masculinity tropes.

Now, I will admit, NCIS: LA is not the type of show you’d think would be doing that well in subverting toxic masculinity stereotypes, but here we are, and we should give credit when credit is due.

Take the first three episodes of Season 2, for example. Watch them closely. Realize that Kensi is never treated as anything other than a regular member of the team. No one’s trying to protect her, no one is second-guessing her and absolutely no one would even think to suggest she can’t do anything the guys can do.

Go back even further. Realize this is not a lesson this show learned in season ten, or nine, or eight.

It’s a lesson they’ve always known.

And this is not just about Deeks, though we’ll focus on him in a moment, because his character goes even further, but Sam and Callen as well, two men they could have written to be the stereotypical misogynistic soldier types and yet, from the beginning, have been anything but.

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They had a harder time trusting Deeks than they ever did Kensi. Ponder that.

Of course, this is not just about Kensi. Nell has been on the field countless times, without anyone ever questioning if she had the ability or the temperament to get it done, and that’s without even going into the introduction of Mosley, or the fact that the absolutely most lethal character on this show is Henrietta Lange, by far.

But Kensi gets the bulk of the field work, so we’ll focus on her, and on her relationships with the three men she spends the most time with.

I’ve been a fan of this show for eight years, and I don’t remember ever feeling like Kensi was anything other than a regular member of the team. No one ever tried to protect her because she was a girl, she wasn’t assigned the easy jobs based on her gender, and absolutely no one ever dared suggest it’d be better for her, the girl, to stay behind on any mission.

As I mentioned before, this is not a lesson the show learned, this is one they had clear from the start.

But, the interesting thing is that, this has not precluded them from showing Kensi as a human being with emotions. Sometimes she struggles through missions, sometimes she has a hard time, and yes, she’s been hurt and shot at and kidnapped. They show has dealt with all of that.

Just as it’s dealt with the same things happening to Callen, and Sam, and Deeks.

You sensing a pattern here? You should be. It smells an awful lot like respect.

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NCIS: LA takes it one step farther when it comes to their exploration of the relationship between Kensi and Deeks, a relationship that has arguably been heading towards the romantic from their first very charged meeting in Season One, and yet one that has never, not once, adhered to the usual stereotypes when it comes to couples of TV.

Maybe it’s because they had a progression, because they were partners first, and then friends, and then best friends, and then lovers, and now two people sharing a life together, but the show has never thrown around the idea that Kensi is less capable because she’s a woman, or the idea that Deeks can’t function with the woman he loves on the field with him, because he’s so desperate to protect her.

Oh, wait, I take it back. They did. For one episode, where Kensi punched Deeks in the face and told him to get over it. Which he did. And yes, there are arguably better ways to deal with this than punching your partner, but my argument here isn’t that the show is perfect or has done absolutely everything right, it’s that, in the subject of showing male vulnerability, they’re way ahead of the curve.

Also – both Kensi and Deeks learned a lesson there, and there’s something to be said about character growth.

Because that’s another thing the show has done better than most shows on TV when it comes to male characters – shown them as actual human beings with the capacity to communicate.

Gasp, I know. I’m as surprised as you are. The brooding thing has been the staple for so long.

But back to Kensi for a bit, and her relationship with Deeks, in particular. Season Nine of this show was spent on a long arc about how two people could commit to starting a family while working a high risk job, like Kensi and Deks are. Now, you think you know what’s coming now, right? Deeks wanted Kensi to quit if they had kids, right?

Wrong. He offered to quit himself. In fact, even when he got understandably upset about it, he was never asking her to stop being her; he just wanted a timeline and a plan for the future.

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He wanted it. He brought it up, time and time again. Marriage. Kids. The whole deal. Yes, the guy did. Because men can want that.

And men can also say, you know what, this is what I want, but I understand you don’t want it yet, so I’m going to put my dream on hold for a bit, because I want you more than I want anything else.

Did I blow your mind or what?

This is the beauty of writing characters and throwing away the stereotypes, the beauty of understanding that people can be who they are, and you absolutely don’t have to adhere to the toxic masculinity standard to write a male character men can relate to and women are attracted to.

I swear to God, I find Deeks plenty attractive, and it’s not all about that blonde mop of hair.

Toxic masculinity is just that, toxic. For many years entertainment has sold us the idea that men must behave one way to be men. NCIS: LA has been quietly saying no to that stereotype for ten years.

And they don’t get nearly enough credit for it.

NCIS: LA airs Sundays at 9/8c on CBS.

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