Nearly six years ago, at the stupidly young age of eighteen, I spent three summer months wandering around South America with a few mates in hopes of stumbling across some kind of bargain ‘life experience’ I could don and show off back home like a cool leather jacket. In addition to the number of super dumb, eighteen-year-old things I did which made the matter of my survival explainable only by miraculous intervention, the summer was filled up with that budget traveller’s mostly tiresome gallimaufry of twenty-plus-hour buses (preferably overnight, to save on accommodation), mumbled, half-arsed, pseudo-Spanish, and, every so often, sights I could do nothing but photograph, so awesome were they to experience, and so little was my faith in myself to be able to appreciate them to their max saturation in real time. The geographical departure from New Zealand was easy enough to wrap my head around, but the reality of the cultural departure never really sunk in; i.e. I spent three months marvelling at every tiny boring thing, discovering firsthand the the strange new light that the humdrum of others assumes once you’re forced out of your own boring, featureless humdrum. There was the dinner time (usually like, eleven o’clock PM at the earliest); the tens of thousands of stray dogs who somehow seem to live out their entire natural lives on the street; the hot summer thunderstorms that would regularly kill two or three people with lightening every time they (the storms) rolled onto land, reports of which people would watch on the empanada shop telly without really giving a shit. There were also the new hellos. Not merely paired with a little wave or a smile or a handshake, here they came with their own lean-in, one-two, eyes-open, cheek kisses. It felt like it was every time too, no meeting was too inaugural or too regular; it was as normal and unthinking a part of the social experience as anything. And while cheek kisses aren’t of course off-limits for us New Zealanders, our version of them is probably rarer and also strictly gendered (that is, the kiss has to involve at least one woman). I can truthfully say that before I touched down in Argentina I had never, on meeting a guy for the first time, or on meeting up with an old mate for the nth time, allowed for the possibility of giving him a peck or two on the cheek. Because the fact is that you just don’t do that here. You can, of course, if you want to, but no one could say that planting a smooch on your mate’s face when you meet him down at the clubrooms for a cheeky brew was exactly par for the course. And so the question was begged—why can’t we? Why are the boundaries of male friendship delineated so boldly and policed so strictly? As with many things to do with native New Zealand psychology, the answer seems to have something to do with sex. Not that the Argentinian mate-kiss has anything to do with sex, it’s really just significant of a more relaxed set of boundaries around friendship and of social expressions. In New Zealand though, and we’re not alone in this (we might be repressed but we’ve got nothing on the English), a fuller expression of friendship is regulated by our old school ideas about sex. More specifically, how terrified we are of it.
For some wisdom about our weirdness about sex and mates our literature can shed some good light, and a good one for this case is one of New Zealand’s most well-known plays, Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament. (The title takes its name from the main character’s changing room sobriquet, though the anatomical pun isn’t accidental.) Produced in 1981, and exploring the behind-the-scenes culture of a local-level rugby team, its premiere was one of the few instances of a play exploding out of the theatre world and becoming a national cultural phenomenon. Seasons were packed out and reaction to the play even reached the front page of the paper, as well as the editorial cartoons inside. Its timing with the Springbok tour goes some of the way to explaining its instant notoriety, but more interesting than what it says about rugby and politics is the explanation it offers for the violence and fragility at the heart of New Zealand masculinity. And while most of us who read this magazine probably think that we (if we’re guys), or the guys we hang out with and love, are more emotionally sophisticated than the repressed, blokey subjects of the play, what’s important to remember is that—as Foreskin, the rugby team’s only university graduate, reminds us—it is we who are living in a bubble. The ‘average New Zealander’, with our tertiary qualifications and our appreciation of single origin coffees, we are not. Which isn’t to say that we have totally advanced beyond the emotional stunting of the play’s rugby team; after all we, like those players, still don’t kiss our mates. Drama scholar (and, to a lesser extent, brother of Sam) Michael Neill wrote an amazing foreword to the published script of the play, where he uses the full force of his impressive academic scrutiny to pick apart the questions and answers put forward by McGee. When one of the players, Kenny, announces he feels “like a real girl,” or when the team is denounced as a “pack of poofters,” Neill writes that:
The insults are not casual, but voice the deepest fears of a male-dominated society which has learnt to despise its own feelings… a society which attempts to control its fears by objectifying homosexuals as ‘poofs’ and women as ‘fluff’. This is the ethos which imagines women’s sex as an alarming ‘gash that never heals’ (an image combining fear and disgust with the threat of sadistic violence), and which projects the male member as an innocent and vulnerable child- poor ‘wee Arnold’ who needs to be taken ‘for a trot’, for all the world like some schoolboy rep.
On the topic of this sexual fear, Neill goes on to say:
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One of the play’s strengths is the clarity with which it reveals the coarse and violent language of masculine camaraderie as an expression of intense self-hatred: ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ are terms of abuse for precisely the same reasons that [another player] Clean persistently associates women and shit.
It’s such a meme that no one is surprised anymore to discover that often those who are the mostly loudly homophobic turn out to be gay themselves. Their fear of sex, and the resulting self-hatred for carrying that fear, externalises itself as a loud, placard-waving hatred of others’ sex. In a similar way, the men of the play bond together as a defence against sex—safety in numbers—and express their bond by throwing these violent words (“fuck” and “cunt”) like rocks at a steadily advancing enemy, to keep the ideas they signify (sex and vaginas) at bay. The teammates don’t kiss each other on the cheek because the act of kissing is too close to sex and women, those two things they least want to be reminded of. This hypersensitivity to anything relating to sex, including its special kinds of physical contact and language, is what has stripped New Zealand friendship of its kisses.
Sex for these men—for, as McGee is telling us, New Zealand men at large—is to be either fought off with a stick or, when that’s not an option, denied all together. Which actually explains one of the most interesting phenomena of our national game—how super gay it is. The full-frontal homoeroticism of rugby is the elephant in the clubroom (or living room, or sports bar) during every game. No one can ever mention it, but it’s undeniable. There’s tackling (angry hugs), rucks and mauls (an orgy of heads, crotches, and bums—to say nothing of the grunting), and lineouts (where a tall man can go to get hoisted into the air by two strong men groping his upper thighs), to name only a few basic features of the game. It turns out that all that sexual energy has to come out somewhere. And the fact that we are still yet to have an openly gay All Black underlines New Zealand’s attachment to the idea of rugby as a safe haven from sex. But rugby also serves another crucial purpose for the New Zealand psyche—it’s where we’re allowed to be emotional. In the stands we can scream, we can be worried or scared, and we can even cry. In Neill’s words, “the ironic paradox McGee pursues it that a society, whose predominantly calvinist ethic has systematically discouraged the public display of emotion and the recognition of emotional contact, should discover its self-image in the extravagant contact sport of rugby.” In playing and watching rugby men are allowed to be emotional without being girly, and be sexy without being gay. We have not only curated in our national game a space where you’re free to express your human needs and desires without consequence, we’ve also cordoned it off and designated it as the only space you can do so. Try any of that outside of the game—try patting your mate’s bum, or kissing him on the cheek—at your own peril.
And so we’ve arrived where we are. The idea that a male friendship might include physical expressions of affection—even the idea that men might be open about how much they like each other—is so foreign and freaky for us that we needed a different word for it. And while New Zealand can’t lay claim to the invention of ‘bromance’, we did embrace it without question. The wide world of male friendship appears to have an outer limit, get beyond that and you enter the territory of a bromantic relationship. In an episode of the podcast ‘WTF’ a few years ago, Simon Pegg railed against the term and it’s application to him and his mate and collaborator Nick Frost.
You can be affectionate with each other, you can love each other, and it doesn’t have to be some—you know, and even if it does turn into something, which it didn’t, then it’s okay… We always sort of flinch at this ‘bromance’ buzzword that’s come up—there’s no equivalent for women, because it’s not weird if women are friends… because of this homosexual terror that straight guys have, it’s ridiculous. Now there has to be this word for it, and it’s crazy. It’s totally sad.
As far as words go, ‘bromance’ is hardly a slur, but it does point to a buried anxiety about the slipperiness of sex. Because in this case the fear is not “what if my mate kisses me?” but rather, “what if he kisses me… and I like it?” And the only way to really stay safe is to draw a line between ‘bratonic’ friendship and ‘bromantic’ friendship—the murky latter of which might harbour the dark possibility of kissing—and to keep your relationships with other dudes planted firmly in the former. To point out someone else’s bromance then is to reinforce your own standing, safely on the other side of the line.
And while the Argentinians prove that this doesn’t have to be the way, history also shows that we’re living in a particularly feelings-conservative era. A few hundred years ago the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote a whole essay immortalising his friendship with the writer Étienne de la Boétie. Pre-Bromantic era, Montaigne used no uncertain terms to express just how he felt about Boétie. “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him,” he wrote in his essay “Of Friendship”, “I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.” Their very souls, he reckoned, would “mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined.” In lieu of ambiguity and anxiety, he fills the essay with a striking passion. The intensity of his friendship is celebrated, is almost beyond words, and in reading about it you can’t help but feel a little jealous—it’s something to aspire to. Montaigne was no coitophobe (see the extended writings on the subject of his own unruly penis), and that freedom from sex-fear opened up for him a whole brilliant world of homosocial intimacy for him. Needless to say, rugby was not a major pastime in 16th century France.
Now more modern times have brought with them hypotheses about Montaigne’s potential homosexuality, but it’s hard to say whether the emergence of these theories is because they actually might contain some bit of truth, or if it’s just another effect of our stubborn, sex-afraid ideas about friendship: i.e. our definition of friendship can only stretch itself so far to cover Montaigne’s situation, and it’s gayness that would have to cover the rest. This raises another question though—if emotions and passions are basically out of the picture for New Zealand’s mate population, what exactly is the point of being mates anyway? McGee has a go at answering this too, in an exchange between Foreskin and his coach, Tupper:
FORESKIN: How can we be mates? … We don’t agree on anything important.
TUPPER: Important? Important my arse. The best mates I’ve ever had, we never got past the time of day. What’s important? You just get on with it.
Never mind feelings, McGee is saying, mateship is no place for an intimate expression of the human experience. You just have to “get on with it.”
It would be remiss to ignore the fact that this play is actually getting pretty old now, but it is a really valuable insight into where we’re coming from as a national culture. And things these days are definitely looking up, as they should. Back in May, NZ rugby chief executive Steve Tew told reporters he “absolutely” thought New Zealand was ready for a gay All Black, and earlier in the year a good friend of mine pashed me at his leaving party, and it was really beautiful (if a little tonguey). Maybe, with a bit of luck, in a generation or two we’ll get to be as grown up about our friendships and our feelings as the Argentinians.