Netflix’s new show On My Block continues to grow in popularity. As cinematic coming of age stories of Latinx and African-American kids in low-income neighborhoods are hard to come by, the series allows us to have complex conversations about the ways in which these communities shape people with marginalized cultural and racial identities.
While the show deals with many issues, one of the less talked about themes is how the male characters embody their masculinity in ways that are both toxic and non-traditional. Main characters Cesar, Jamal, and Ruby are all born into Generation Z, and therefore their peers tend to allow room for a less rigid idea of what Latinx and Black men look like. However in many cases, their caretakers and the world around them embody more negative ideas of masculinity.
A prime example of this is Cesar Diaz, who at heart is a soft, light-hearted kid. He’s loyal to his friends and crushes on his childhood bestie, Monsé. However, Cesar was born into a family with organized crime in its blood—his older brother, Oscar, is the head of the Santos, one of South Central’s most prominent gangs. When Oscar gets out of jail, he pressures Cesar to officially join the gang, something that Cesar does reluctantly as he feels it’s inescapable.
“This life is my destiny, my family crest is, and will always be, a gang sign,” he explains to Monsé as she tries to convince him to leave. “This is all I got.”
In addition to Oscar’s influence over Cesar to join the Santos, he also encourages misogynistic behavior towards Monsé. When she goes to Cesar’s house to figure out why he’s distanced himself from their group of friends, Cesar comes at her with lewd taunts that sexualize her body. Monsé later finds out that Cesar told everyone in the gang something he promised he wouldn’t share: They had sex earlier that summer. But Cesar reveals to Monsé later in private that the only reason he told them was because his brother wanted to bag her and he had to protect her.
On the other hand, we have Jamal, an African-American kid who is the opposite of any stereotype about Black boys. Quirky and clumsy, Jamal doesn’t know how to tell his parents that he can’t fulfill their dream of him following in his father’s footsteps as a football legend. He fakes a bunch of outlandish injuries instead of letting them in on the truth. When he’s not coming up with his next crazy antic to get out of a football game, he’s trying to alleviate the tension in the group or focused on trying to unlock the secrets to the neighborhood’s hidden treasure, the Roller World fortune.
At the same time, Jamal isn’t afraid of admitting his weaknesses. He can’t keep a secret, he’s deathly afraid of Cesar’s brother Oscar, and he’s arguably closer to Ruby’s grandmother than he is to any of the kids his age, calling her his “kindred soul.”
Then we have Ruby—the resident Rico Suave wannabe, standing at a whole 5’7″ tall. While it’s obvious that he often feels a tinge of jealousy toward Cesar because he is a pretty boy with pecs, for the most part he’s a guy who knows exactly what he brings to the table. His debate skills paired for his knack for math and analytics go unmatched. But when rumors swirl about Cesar and Monsé having sex, Ruby feels betrayed and calls her a puta, or a whore. Although he apologizes about it later in the series, it’s clear how internalized sexist ideas can frame the ways in which men of color view and hurt the women they hold close.
As we anxiously wait to see if Netflix renews the series, we hope that the writers continue to challenge sexist, antiquated ideas of masculinity that the characters may have internalized in their upbringing. Not only are these narratives important for the upcoming generation to see and learn from, but it’s important that parents and older siblings watch as well to check any messed up ideas we have within ourselves.