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March 21, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Not in my Day!

Man-ifesting the Metrosexual in New Zealand’s Contemporary Sports Culture

Anyone who has been paying any attention to advertising on television in the last few months may have noticed the signs of something a little strange going on: a crisis of masculinity.

Yes, the land that wanted to “Bring Back Buck”, or head down to the local hardware store in hopes of ‘doing it themselves’, and whose favourite national identifiers are the barbecue and the pickup truck, seems to be questioning its own masculinity. Well, at least this is the premise for recent promotions like the New Zealand Transport Authority’s ‘Mantrol’ campaign, Lion Red’s ‘Man Points’ scheme, and Fonterra’s yogurt range, Mammoth Supply Co., which targets ‘real men’. In the Mantrol ads, a hirsute everyman in tight jeans strolls through a series of rooms of men engaging in stereotypically masculine pursuits like fishing, cricket and D.I.Y. building. Turning to the camera, he wonders whether “the fate of mandom is uncertain,” and asks, “what does this all mean?” The ad then goes on to cynically draw a parallel between good driving (“a manly thing”) and masculinity.

As for Lion Red, their campaign juxtaposes acceptable masculine behaviours (which are rewarded with ‘man points’) with their unacceptable opposites. These pairings include “Catch Bag / Man Bag”, “Owning a Ute / Owning a Hatchback”, “Putting together a BBQ / Cooking Tofu Sausages on it.” Finally, “Buying flowers when you’re not even in trouble” is to be punished by the deduction of 417 ‘Man Points’. An advertisement for Fonterra’s Mammoth Supply Co. Yogurt establishes a similar set of dichotomies. Men are permitted to slap each other on the behind “while playing sport, but never while watching sport”, and “can grow facial hair, but never groom facial hair.” What each of these campaigns seeks to do is put a label on things sacred to masculinity, whilst simultaneously rejecting a variety of ‘new age’ threats to it. While it might seem laughable that a generation of heirs to the likes of Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads would be having a crisis of identity (within the media at least), this debate is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. And so one must ask the question, how did something as seemingly innocent and innocuous as a slice of tofu became the subject of such intense anathema in New Zealand’s media?

In order to address this question, we turn inevitably to rugby, the veritable Mecca of masculinity for New Zealand’s ‘ real’ man—stuff.co.nz’s rugby page is called ‘Rugby Heaven’, for instance. Within the field of sport, and for this country, the field of rugby, masculinity is becoming an increasingly contested subject. Remember the national furore over Dan Carter’s underwear campaign for Jockey? And what about those pink All Blacks jerseys from a few years back? Good examples both of this as yet unnamed threat to the conventional order of all things manly within rugby. Perhaps the clearest illustration of how such a thing might play out was “eyeliner-gate”, when Ma’a Nonu upset the All Blacks management by donning eyeliner before stepping out onto the field for the final of the NPC in 2004. Quick to defend the national sporting culture (and to protect the authenticity of their brand), the eyeliner was originally explained away by the All Blacks management as a locker-room prank. Nonu didn’t seem to get the memo however, claiming that his decision was actually “a bit of a fashion statement”. To New Zealand’s older rugby establishment this explanation was unacceptable, and prompted a media frenzy in which Nonu’s behaviour was seen as emblematic of a new generation of players whose lack of competitiveness on the field could be ascribed to the loss of its “hard man” tradition. While Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads bemoaned the substitution of steak by pasta in the contemporary All Black’s diet, former All Black Norm Hewitt (whose “hard man” bona fides are guaranteed by his participation in the 2000 NPC final for Wellington with a broken arm) “pleaded” that the presence of eyeliner on Nonu’s brow was indeed a team punishment, and hoped that “he’s not going to get a nipple ring or an ear ring in the right ear next”. In a paper on the topic of metrosexuality, VUW academic Anita Brady argued that “Hewitt’s deliberate reference to an ear ring in the right ear, historically often imagined as a coded reference to the wearer’s homosexuality, is telling… Nonu’s appropriation of an unequivocally feminised cultural practice threatens a more immediate insertion of the spectre of homosexuality… into a homosocial space that is dependent on the, often violent, disavowal of its (homosexuality’s) relationship to the signified heterosexuality of such spaces”.

In other words, masculine identity in sporting culture is seen to depend in part on a rejection of homosexuality. A good example of how this plays out is in the sacred sporting space of the locker room, where male eyes are constantly able to gaze upon other naked or semi-naked male bodies. As such, the locker room is regulated by a set of unwritten codes that govern the behaviour of its inhabitants. According to these rules, one’s eyes must not linger too long upon the body of another teammate, and all physical contact is forbidden, at least until the athletes enter the field of play. This same logic can be seen in the aforementioned Fonterra commercial, which claims that no physical contact is permitted while ‘watching sport’. In this way, one set of physical practices (those of a sporting nature) are permitted, within a particular context (on the sports field), while another (anything that might be seen as ‘homosexual’) is refuted at all costs. As for Ma’a Nonu, how was he able to escape being labelled as a homosexual, given that he had admitted to applying the eyeliner himself? Here again we will turn to Brady, who argues that “the rescuing of Nonu (and of masculinity)… comes with the invocation of the discourse of metrosexuality”.

Under the metrosexual label, Nonu joins the ranks of the David Beckhams of the world, as a “new age” man, who is permitted to groom his hair, dress competently, exfoliate, and, in short, adopt cultural practices that are stereotypically viewed as belonging to the domain of gay men. Crucially though, the metrosexual is able to retain his (“new”) masculinity without actually being homosexual. What we have been watching in the media of late then, is a competition between this “new” form of masculinity, and the older “hard man” style that dates back to the early days of New Zealand’s colonial past, and that relies on a thinly veiled homophobia as the source of much of its humour.

So, within the field of sport, and particularly rugby in New Zealand, we see a negotiation between two contesting ideologies, that of the rough, and even simplistic ‘hard-man’ and that of the ‘in-touch’ metrosexual, ‘new man’; where both ideologies are carefully positioned and defined in opposition to homosexuality. However, it is worth noting that each of these positions work as commodities in advertising culture where such identities are sold back to us. We must not forget that Lion Red are attempting to sell beer in the same moment that they attempt to define masculinity. Nor is queer culture exempt from this, as its discovery by advertising executives as “the pink dollar” has resulted in its own wave of products and sales initiatives. Whether it is the threatening of masculinity through risible marketing concepts like ‘mantrol’, or the advocacy of more “open-minded”, metrosexual actors in sport (as promoted in Daniel Carter’s underwear commercials), the replay and reaffirmation of these discursive positions in contemporary advertising work to ingrain such ways of thinking into public discourse, and of course if circumstances permit—make a little cash.

In the example of sport, these discursive positions are constantly tied to a nostalgia for older forms of the game, and importantly, the players who represent them (in the case of the ‘hard-man’), and then a ‘coming to grips’ with the infiltration of metrosexuality in contemporary sport culture. This negotiation is brilliantly played out in an advertisement for no8.co.nz—a rugby website or forum for debate about rugby (and as the advertising suggests, for debate between the old and the new). In one advertisement, Colin “Pinetree” Meads faces off against Leigh Hart, aka the TV personality ‘That Guy’, in a call-and-response styled debate comparing old and contemporary features of rugby:

Hart: Protein Shake…
Meads: Steak ‘n’ Eggs
Hart: Team Physio
Meads: Vere Meads
Hart: Interchange bench
Meads: …Not in my day!

Here, the older features of the game, albeit mythical, are privileged as pure and authentic, and necessarily tied to the ‘hard-man’, exemplified in this case by Meads. In contrast, Hart’s subjectivity, which broadly stands in for that of the “new man”, is presented as the contemporary reality of the sport. By representing a more mythical form of the game, Meads adopts an ideological position that doesn’t stand for historical instances of rugby, but rather an attitude towards its culture; one tied to hardened, no-nonsense, masculine actors. However, at the end of the advertisement, both men stand alongside another rugby player from the series, Buck Shelford, interpellating the audience to remind us that both positions are legitimised. In other words, what this advertisement suggests is that both the “new man”, (or Ma’a Nonu’s metrosexual), and the “hard man” of New Zealand’s colonial past are permitted to co-exist, particularly given their implicit shared disavowal of the homosexual other.

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  1. Nicole says:

    I really liked this article. I read the title and prepared to be subjected to more man-vertising and was more than pleasantly surprised I wasn’t.

    I do want to add something which I personally feel should have been touched on, which is the underlying reason why this ‘real man’ shit keeps permeating our supposedly post 1950s culture. It’s not just that ‘meterosexual’ behaviours are perceived as ‘homosexual’, they’re perceived as feminine (as are these supposed ‘homosexual’ male behaviours).

    Here in lies the problem. God help a man who reveals his feminine side, be it cocksucking or just a penchant for the Gilmore Girls. It’s the worst thing ever to be perceived as feminine. Ponder for a second why it’s okay, ‘cool’ even for females to be ‘tom boys’, but it’s the worst insult ever to be a ‘sissy boy’. Even in the queer community there can be an obscure ranking of ‘manly’ gay men over ‘feminine’ gay men. Straight ‘progressive’ men are often ‘cool with gays’ as long as they ‘aren’t too flaming’ read: feminine.

    It’s not just homophobia; its misogynistic gender norms that are enforced the second we’re born. ‘Male’ traits like strength, assertiveness, sportsmanship, hunter-gatherer shit are put immediately onto children who are assigned ‘male’ at birth, and ‘Female’ traits like empathy, communication, softness are put onto children who are assigned ‘female’. Then, we’re told repeatedly through a variety of mediums that those ‘male’ traits are the best ones. The ones that make leaders. Not to mention the trans* invisibility all this perpetrates.

    I think your homophobic analysis is spot on, but there’s also a deeper layer. One which says that it’s not just heteronormativity, but misogyny (perhaps first and foremost) that keeps perpetrating these suffocating norms.

  2. Nic Anderson says:

    Nicole,

    Very good point. I think we gesture towards this ( “Nonu’s appropriation of an unequivocally feminised cultural practice…” etc), however, you’re absolutely correct in identifying a further avenue that this discussion should take. A follow up article from you perhaps??

    Your comment reminds me of my mother (a dancer in her day) forcing me to take ballet when I was young. I quite enjoyed the after school classes. However, once my friends (mostly male, though there were a couple females as well) found out, I was out of there! I think I was around 7 or 8 yrs old. Indeed, gender norms are forced straight away, and I think we are very aware of them early on in life.

    A link you might be interested in:

    http://www.theroot.com/views/why-i-am-male-feminist?page=0%2C0

    Thanks for your input!

  3. YY says:

    I agree that a follow up article would be cool.

    Funny, I shared that link on Facebook just yesterday… It’s a small internets.

  4. Matt says:

    What do you mean by “interpellating the audience”? Just curious.

  5. Kim Wheatley says:

    At the end of the last ad we discussed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYvR3QN1sFU) Buck Shelford addresses the viewer. This address is the moment of interpellation, where the viewer is ‘hailed’.

    By analogy, if a policeman who shouts “Hey you” to us and we respond, we legitimize the policeman’s authority to stop you (in the act of your response). As a result we are interpellated into a subject position of subjugation by the state.

    Shelford does a similar thing when he asks the viewer to “come and have your say”. Crucially, because Meads and Hart both flank Shelford in this moment, an opinion which favors either subject position (which is assumed by “having your say”) is also legitimized.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpellation_(philosophy)

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