By Barry “IronicSnap” Neenan
I often claim there’s no such thing as a bad trope. No matter how tiresome or problematic a concept is, there is – theoretically – a way to do it ‘right’. To either treat it as appropriately uncomfortable, or somehow execute it with a minimum of awkwardness.
That’s lip service, to an extent. There’s some tropes I struggle to see as redeemable. Some have become real pet peeves for me, like the Nice Guy, a man we’re supposed to root for as he ineffectually pursues a woman who may not be interested to begin with.
And that makes it all the more impressive that I, and thousands of other nominal adults, would die for Haida, the accountant who is also a hyena.
Haida hails from Aggretsuko, a recent Netflix series expanding on one-minute animated shorts created by (of all people) Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty. It tells the story of Retsuko, an accountant who is also a red panda, and the specific trials she faces as a working woman in Japan. Trials she overcomes with the power of death metal. It is cute, funny, and crushingly relatable, and has been praised from all quarters for approaching modern, mundane issues in a smart and nuanced way.
Haida, Retsuko’s coworker, has proven particularly popular. One of the first things I heard about the show was that, hey, the hyena is the nicest character! That’s novel! But it’s so much more than that. Haida has struck a chord with audiences, practically garnering a fandom of his own. He’s beloved despite being what many viewers, myself included, have come to revile in other stories – a guy whose primary role in the narrative is to pine for a woman. Badly.
So why do I have so much love for Haida? Is it just because he’s a talking animal?
Probably. But let’s pretend it isn’t!
Jokes aside, Haida’s cuteness – imbued unto him by the same dark magic which keeps Hello Kitty immortal – is no doubt a factor. Audiences will forgive more of a fluffy animal than a human man with a sweater and a bad haircut. But something else is at play. Since it would be impossible to work out what Haida does “right” if we don’t establish what would be wrong, let’s contrast him with two of the most (in)famous Nice Guys in modern fiction; Ross Geller of Friends and Ted Mosby of How I Met Your Mother.
Friends is a huge cultural phenomenon and one of the most successful and beloved television shows ever created, for some reason. The mildly funny sitcom tells the story of six Manhattan compatriots – ‘friends’, if you will – boning a succession of celebrity guest stars and sometimes each other. Although Chandler and Monica settle into a stable marriage, the romantic centrepiece of the show is Ross and Rachel, to the point ‘Ross and Rachel’ has remained a shorthand for a major TV relationship even twenty years on.
When Friends hit Netflix, a new generation experienced the magic of absurdly sized apartments and swilling coffee at 11am on a Wednesday. But there was… cultural friction. Millennials, with their special snowflake ideals like ‘respect women‘ and ‘just saying something homophobic doesn’t qualify as a joke actually’, felt baffled. Nowhere is this friction greater than when it comes to Ross.
Ross, like Spiderman, hails from a time where being a nerd was seen as a legitimate social disadvantage. The fact he likes dinosaurs is supposed to make him more sympathetic than Joey or Chandler. But they’re far better at treating the women in their group, including Rachel, as… what’s the word… friends.
Ross, whose default method of problem-solving is to scream shrilly, inflicts various cruelties on his other, more fleeting girlfriends. But all we need focus on is how he treats the supposed love of his life. Television’s greatest romance is a shambling extension of an obsessive high school crush. As teenagers, Rachel was a popular cheerleader while Ross was a terrible nerd. As adults, Rachel eventually becomes a competent and successful professional while Ross is a terrible nerd. But because he stewed for years in a swamp of unrequited feelings, he believes himself entitled to her – a belief the writers apparently shared. Having mentally claimed Rachel as ‘his’, he sabotages her love life to keep other men away from her. And while he’s at it, he also sabotages her career.
Rachel abandoning a huge career opportunity in Paris to stay with Ross is deified as a high-point in television romance. But… why? What does Rachel get from this pompous, shrieking windbag that justifies curtailing her ambitions? Why must she sacrifice her dreams to give Ross a happy ending he hasn’t earned? Rachel’s goals, her career, are an afterthought. Next to Ross, she’s unimportant. All this, because Ross – the same Ross who literally started a ‘I Hate Rachel Green’ club because, direct quote, “I was insanely in love with you” – is owed whatever he wants from Rachel for waiting this long.
“The bottom line is,” concludes Claire Willets in a fantastic 100-tweet thread, “the Rachel Ross fell in love with was a teenage fantasy he never outgrew that may have been an illusion all along.”
In short: Ross is a terrible person and worse boyfriend.
Let’s hop ahead to his spiritual successor. How I Met Your Mother is generally considered the 2010s answer to the quintessentially 1990s Friends. After twenty years of huge social change, we went from a male protagonist who was actively awful to one who was just… dull. Progress?
Ted Mosby is also a nerd, but his friends join him in quoting Star Wars and The Princess Bride. In the 2010s, nerdiness is hip. Ted’s defining trait, then, is that he’s a ‘hopeless romantic’. He’s looking for the girl of his dreams. And boy, is it an inefficient search. Over the show’s run, he dates no less than 22 women before finding her. Please note the use of the term ‘dates’ – including less serious encounters brings the number up to a staggering 82!
Looking at the raw numbers, it’s easy to think we just got tired of watching this idiot bounce between dozens of beautiful New York women. Is the issue simply numerical? Is Haida more palatable because he neither overstays his welcome nor wanders away from Retsuko? That’s probably another factor. But let’s take a closer look at Ted himself.
Ted is boring and selfish and self-pitying and has a compulsion to share architecture trivia with people who clearly do not want to hear architecture trivia, a habit the show rightfully presents as monstrous. Despite these negative qualities, we are supposed to sympathetize with him because of his search for love. But this search is also self-serving. Ted wants ‘the One’, someone who will fit him perfectly. Flaws and all. Ted’s journey isn’t about self-improvement. It’s about spending years of your life searching for the perfect relationship, and watching dozens of imperfect relationships – actual, non-fantasy relationships – crash and burn.
Ironically, the meandering saga of how Ted met the mother of his children is actually the least entertaining element of How I Met Your Mother. We watched it for Barney, a character the show knew was hilarious but morally awful. As a foil, Ted should be boring but nice. Tragically, he is mostly just the first thing.
Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the cute hyena soon. First, let’s recap what we’ve established. The common thread to Ross and Ted – to all toxic Nice Guys – is selfishness. The man’s side of the relationship is given unbalanced importance. ‘Nerd finally lands cheerleader’ and ‘hopeless romantic finds perfect match’ are both one-sided affairs. We follow a guy who receives a woman as a prize. There isn’t enough effort to frame the relationship as mutually beneficial to both parties, as it absolutely should be.
On paper, Haida seems to fit this mould. But on a fundamental level, he’s the complete opposite. Haida is always in Retsuko’s corner, even when no-one else is. He’s helpful, conscientious, and a good friend. While he pines for Retsuko, and goes out of his way to be around her, he never does anything to hurt or even inconvenience her. The core of Haida’s character, rather than selfishness, is empathy.
There are two major moments that solidify Haida’s character, both near the end of the series. (I’d warn for spoilers, but it’s difficult to ‘spoil’ a slice-of-life show.) After Retsuko enters a relationship with another man, we see Haida’s reaction. Fenneko, mutual friend to both Haida and Retsuko, apologises profusely – she’d been trying to help set them up. But Haida says she’s not to blame. Nor is Retsuko. That part is important, so I’ll repeat it: Haida does not blame Retsuko. Instead, wistful but graceful, he admits it’s solely his fault, for not admitting his crush sooner. There’s not a possessive bone in his body. Retsuko dating someone else saddens him, but he recognizes he has zero say in the matter. She’s her own person, and Haida acknowledges that.
That moment impressed me, but what truly sold on Haida’s character was one of the show’s last scenes. After Retsuko ends her ill-fated romance (lol spoilers), she visits Haida in the hospital – he contracted pneumonia from sulking in the rain, itself a hilarious jab at melodrama. After working up his courage, Haida comes out with this:
“It’s just… I know you way better than that guy ever could. Five years now, right? So how did I lose to him? …[laughs] That’s what I wanted to say. But the truth is I don’t know you. The Retsuko I know is the idealized one in my head.“
I was floored.
Here we see honesty and self-awareness goddamn unheard of in most rom-coms. Our boy Haida is undermining the entire foundations of the genre. He rejects the selfish obsession evident with both Ross and Ted. Instead, Haida understands that the object of his affections is not in fact an object. Standing next to a woman and daydreaming of your potential life together is neither healthy nor useful. And by putting aside his possessiveness, and saying he genuinely wants to get to know Retsuko better, Haida demonstrates he is Boyfriend Material.
Neither Ross nor Ted are this honest about their drawbacks. They search for a woman who will accept all their flaws. And that, on paper, sounds very romantic. None of us are perfect. But you should be working on your flaws. You should be aware of what you do wrong and try to mitigate the harm you do to others – especially your loved ones. Ross wants someone who will cater to him. Ted wants an impossibly perfect match. But Haida is willing to compromise. He’s willing to recognize he has faults, and approach his crush as a person who has faults of her own.
What makes Haida different? What makes him popular among the generation who reject the Ross Gellers of fiction? The fundamental answer couldn’t be simpler. Haida isn’t a Nice Guy because he is a genuinely nice guy. He doesn’t just ‘win’ Retsuko; a relationship would plausibly benefit both. Haida’s not defined by his romantic life, nor does it excuse his imperfections. Strip away his crush and underneath you find a well-rounded, kind person, willing to improve. Truly, a portrait of the modern renaissance man. Renaissance hyena. Whatever.
This, however, leads me to a worrying conclusion. All three shows are comedies. Comedy is a complex beast, but a basic rule is that it arises from contrast. Contrasts like nice versus mean. Friends and HIMYM show ‘nice’ characters do mean, outlandish things because it’s funny. It’s funny to see a paleontologist scream in anger. It’s funny to see a hopeless romantic scare off dates. Examining these events more critically leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but structurally, they make sense. The goal is absurdity.
But Aggretsuko is a show about pain. The pains of adulthood, the pains of work, and the pains of love. Haida can be a perfectly lovely, sympathetic character, and the comedy will still land. No matter how nice he is, things still go amusingly wrong, because he’s punished by the world itself. (Also, Fenneko. She’s such a troll.) Might the ‘Retsaida’ ship hit the water only to explosively sink to the depths?
Perhaps not. Part of Aggretsuko‘s success is its ultimate sense of optimism. If the show continues, a flawless romance between Retsuko and Haida would be completely contrary to its tone. But the same would apply to a relationship where nothing goes right. Aggretsuko teaches nuance and perseverance. To keep moving forward, even when it hurts. And Haida, like Retsuko herself, already demonstrates this quality. Whatever challenges face their relationship, they can rise to meet them.
A hyena really can change his spots.