On Sept. 2, 2021, American rapper Lil Nas X posted his maternity photoshoot on Instagram, announcing that his new album, aka his “baby,” would be released in less than a month. The fake pregnancy quickly sparked massive backlash online.
Real Housewives of Atlanta star Peter Thomas commented that the post was “disturbing on so many levels.” Comedian Donnell Rawlings raised the question: “How do I explain this to my son?” Based on these enraged reactions, it’s clear that for many men, the concept of male pregnancy is akin to a nightmare: an attack on their manhood.
On the other side of the world, Netflix Japan’s new TV show premiered earlier this year in April. He’s Expecting (ヒヤマケンタロウの妊娠 in Japanese) — following the journey of a pregnant man — seemingly transformed the nightmare of these naysayers into reality.
Kentora is a heterosexual cis-gendered man who works as an advertising agent earning a decent income. For the most part, he seems to be just like other Japanese men in their early 30s: they are too young for commitment, too busy to take care of children, and too eager to project an appearance of manliness to do anything “unmanly.”
The world of He’s Expecting, however, exists in an alternate universe where men can get pregnant. After spending countless nights hooking up with his lover Aki, Kentaro finds out about his pregnancy at the hospital.
The news comes as a shock, but eventually, he decides to keep the baby out of pressure from his lover. The show specifically focuses on his experience as a pregnant man and tries to put a man into a woman’s shoes. By going through all the physical symptoms of maternity (nausea, vomiting, etc), discrimination from his workplace, and social pressure surrounding his pregnancy, Kentaro develops respect for women and embraces his unique fatherhood.
There has been ongoing criticism of the show, which received a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 2.3/10 score on IMDb. The most common low-score reviews call the show “weird,” “inconsistent with reality,” and “too woke to watch.”
Hunter Peterson on IMDb said, “Men can’t get pregnant. Stop being weird netflix,” and Wai Hong Mok said, “Get woke, go broke. It’s utter garbage.”
The Wolfman’s Got Nards podcast on Youtube with 485k followers also called Netflix out by saying, “Netflix went woke! Now they are going broke!” and “he’s expecting…sounds like a joke.” It’s not difficult to tell that most people who leave bad reviews are men, and their dislike of the show comes from what they perceive as its “woke” and “unrealistic” aspects.
With the word “woke” being thrown around, what exactly is woke culture, and what does it mean when something is woke? Woke culture became popular during the #BlackLivesMatter Movement when activists used #staywoke on Twitter as a rallying cry to raise awareness about injustice against Black Americans. Wokeness is the idea that we need to be alert of any oppression and discrimination against those who are considered marginalized in society, particularly underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
The term, however, is now distorted and being used in derogatory ways, especially when it comes to cinematic productions due to the excessive amount of woke TV shows/movies about race or gender that are deemed “too politically correct” by conservatives. Echoing the misrepresentation of the word “woke,” Elon Musk even noted that “the woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable.”
Surprisingly, the show hardly fits the traditional definition of wokeness. Wokeness has always been attached to liberalism and progressive idealism: it is pro-choice, pro-equality and pro-anything that frees us from social restrictions. In the show, Kentaro initially wants an abortion. According to Japanese law, however, he needs consent from the mother of the child Aki. Aki is reluctant in taking responsibility but doesn’t want to “kill” a baby. At the end, Kentaro compromises and goes through all the hardships of childbirth as a man. Pro-life it is.
Even as a part of the woke culture, He’s Expecting represents progress in Japan and possibly even East Asia as a whole. While the “poor girl that craves attention” versus “rich controlling guy falls in love” dynamic in most mainstream Asian TV shows is still reinforcing the misogynistic gender stereotypes, Kentaro’s story feels subtle yet enough to ideologically “wake” some people up.
Now let’s move on to the second reason why this “unrealistic” show is particularly triggering for men. There have been TV shows featuring men getting pregnant since the 1970s, but all of them share two commonalities: they are either comedies produced merely for a laugh from the audience or stories about transgender men (those who have still retained their female organs).
Unlike past TV shows, He’s Expecting features a much more disheartening story: a cis-gendered heterosexual man getting pregnant as a part of his everyday life. His pregnancy is not for a science experiment or for the survival of human beings. The crux of the story revolves around how Kentaro is just a regular man: someone you would pass by on the street every single day. There are millions of Kentaros in Japan and around the world. The show illustrates that what happened to Kentaro could have happened to any man.
The scariest part is that this seemingly unrealistic show plants itself in a realistic setting: what if Kentaro’s pregnancy actually happened? To men that fear pregnancy, the thought process is clear: What if I, as a man that’s manly enough, actually got pregnant and had to go through all this bulls**t like a woman? Where would my manhood end up going then?
The concept of traditional manhood in conservative evangelicalism is militant, aggressive and has god-given roles to protect. Getting pregnant puts men in a vulnerable position where they can presumably no longer assert these roles — or at least, that seems to be the dominant perspective on pregnancy. The battle against He’s Expecting is a battle in which one must participate to defend manhood.
In fact, it’s not the first time men have claimed that their manhood is under attack. After the 2020 presidential election, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) officially started his campaign to defend manhood in America. He called for the “revival of strong and healthy manhood in America” and claimed that the left stigmatized traditional masculinity — a positive trait — as toxic in his speech at the National Conservatism Conference.
Going back to Peter Thomas and Donnell Rawlings’ question on how they explain Lil Nas X’s “male-pregnancy” to their grandsons/sons, everything seems pretty clear here. Even though men hate to put themselves in vulnerable positions, manhood itself is so vulnerable that it can be easily undermined or even destroyed by the left, by a TV show or even by a photo shoot. Ironically, while manhood stands for resilience, it shatters into pieces when any outside factors interfere in the illusion.
He’s Expecting is definitely not the greatest show in the world, and it is indeed based on a hypothetical reality that is unlikely to happen. Nonetheless, it’s powerful enough to unveil the myths of wokeness, the vulnerability of manhood and, most importantly, in what ways our society can move forward. It’s time to sit down and think about what it really means to be woke and to be a man.