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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Manning Up: Personal Reflections of Masculinity in New Zealand

CW: discussion of suicide
It’s a winter’s night in Auckland, and three men are talking about their feelings in a spa. The air is full of words I never thought I’d hear.
“I’m scared of failure.”
“I’m unhappy with being myself.”
“I don’t think what I do is good enough.”

As the quiet conversation continued, awe swept into my immediate thoughts. Why was this so difficult? Perhaps more importantly, why did I feel proud?
Maybe it was because we had never shared a conversation like this, a conversation where all the masks of coolness and humour had been stripped away. In fact, the conversation was so exceptional that I even remarked on it during that very night. I still remember how my friend James paused, then admitted, “I’m usually more comfortable talking to girls about this kind of thing.”
The year was 2016 and suicide in New Zealand had once again reached an all-time high, with the highest numbers recorded since the Coronation Office began keeping records in 2008. 579 people had taken their lives, and 409 of them were men.

The link between men and suicide has always, on the surface, seemed very confusing. After all, the masculinity model of strength and assertiveness should surely be an antithesis for suicide, rather than a predictor of it.
The association between masculinity and hiding emotions is deeply toxic. It’s more concerned with the perception of weakness rather than the genuine presence of strength; after all, strength is maintained in intimate and supportive connections, not in the bottling up of emotions. Nevertheless, we remain entrenched within the idea that confiding our emotions is a weakness. My friend Nick says, “A lot of men feel like they are isolated because they can’t speak to their friends about [their problems], so they have to keep it in. I think there has to be a correlation between not talking to your friends and colleagues about a problem and suicide rates”.

In my time volunteering at a helpline, I heard hundreds of emotional experiences from men who had never told anyone else for fear of being seen as weak. The fact they invariably found so difficult to believe is that by telling me — or indeed anyone — they had shown themselves to be profoundly strong individuals. Tragically, their acts of support-seeking is the exception rather than the rule. In New Zealand, our norm is a mental health crisis, with males committing suicide at disturbingly high rates. Considering this masculine insistence on bottling our emotions, I can only be bitterly unsurprised.
It is now 2018, and New Zealand has been at the forefront of suicide rates for the third year in a row. Years have passed since that night in the spa, but James’s comment sticks in my head. In both my curiosity and frustration, I sit down and ask him about the unwillingness of men to confide in other men. “It’s kind of strange,” James tells me. “I definitely feel like girls are easier to talk to. It might be more because of the caring nature they have. Even with the stuff happening recently, I had you right there for me to talk to but I still wanted to talk to a girl about it.”
James is in his second year serving in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and holds the position of Air Warfare Specialist. This kind of lifestyle may draw to mind images of classic masculinity: “brothers in arms”, frat-like parties, and boyish banter. In terms of evaluating masculinity within this context, James views it as a fluid construct that changes depending on where he is. “How I interpret myself is often based on who I’m hanging out with. I just spent four months doing a military job with military people, and I went to the gym lots, and hung out with the lads a lot. Over there I would be less receptive to emotional support. Now that I’m back in a more mixed crowd, I’d probably swing a bit more to the emotional sides of things.”
It’s a trait I’ve noticed about him. In the two occasions James has returned from extensive immersion in the Air Force, I’ve seen a marked shift to a more traditional masculine identity which slowly fades as time goes on. James alludes to this idea when talking about conformity: “You definitely find yourselves being grouped into that [traditional masculine culture] and acting more like them as you spend more time with them. Every so often you’ll find someone who sticks out a bit, and I tend to get along with them more.”

Not every man identifies with the traditional masculine model. Nick is a third year student studying anthropology and grew up in a largely female dominated social sphere. His parents split when he was young, leaving his mother as the sole caregiver. At school he surrounded himself with girls rather than boys.
“The guys bullied me because I was more ‘feminine’,” he says matter-of-factly. It sounds like he’s become desensitized to the bullying committed against him.

Because Nick is homosexual, he’s had a different experience in engaging with emotions from the traditional masculine model. He says, “I have a male cousin who is very classically ‘masculine’ and he’s stigmatised for being emotional. If he cries, it’s seen in a different light from me. Being queer and more feminine allows me to have an inner core that’s different from the stoicism of ‘manning up’.

In our country, the peak of manhood is often depicted as a rugby player; someone athletic, tall, and tough, the quintessential man. Richie McCaw, a former All Black player and captain, discussed this idea in an episode of the Movember Podcast: “All Blacks represented what a good Kiwi bloke was: a big, rugged, tough man.”

Crucially, Nick is quick to point out that masculinity does not necessarily mean an absence of emotions. Instead, it simply implies a particular set of them. Aggressive and assertive emotions are very much masculine, whereas it’s the “sadder spectrum of emotions that conflict with society’s view of men”. The crying rugby player is unsettling, the assertive rugby player is natural.

Masculinity can certainly hold positive associations as well. For my friend and flatmate Van Pham, this takes the form of traditional ideas like “…service and honour, giving back to society, being active”. Van has been dealing with a chronic illness since he was eleven. I ask him how a serious illness affects being a man, especially a man who considers service a defining component of manhood. He smiles ruefully. “You’re not a whole lot of use when you’re in a bed. With chronic fatigue, your agency and activity has been taken away. You’re a very passive figure. And so in terms of those masculine ideals, you feel lesser. ”

In terms of processing emotions, Van seems to fall into quite a traditional masculine mode. “I like to be a very independent person and deal with things myself… I’m not quite sure what expressing emotions more would look like. It’s a masculine ideal I find quite attractive.” For Van, this mindset means that he will almost never confide his emotions to other people unless the emotions have become overwhelming. He laughs when I ask if he would want a partner who shared this trait. “I would probably want my partner to be more open… which is now making me think that I should be more open.”

Nevertheless, Van’s more stoic approach to emotions makes sense within the context of New Zealand. The men we put on a pedestal in this country are men who are seen as tough and stoic, the Richie McCaws and Edmund Hillarys. The accuracy of this image doesn’t matter. The point is that this is the archetype that New Zealand recognises, and this is the social force affecting boys growing up today. That is not to say that the appeal and emulation of these ideas will always be toxic. With Van I sensed a contentment in his mindset, a feeling of comfort regarding engaging emotions alone. There is always a middleground to be found.

However, much like how Van would not want his personal emotional regulation to be modeled in a partner, he doesn’t think all men should act like him. “I definitely wouldn’t want to preach my way as a standard… there’s a difference between putting a bandage on a cut when you scrape yourself and refusing to go to the hospital when you’ve lost a leg.”

A commonality stuck out to me throughout all three of my conversations: the role of women as a confidant, rather than fellow men. For James this was because of “the caring nature they have,” something almost biological rather than social. Nick’s predominant female friendships seemed to have been influenced by the male-dominated bullying and locker-talk he experienced at school. Van’s outlook was affected by feelings of safety: “There’s a precedent in ideas of masculinity that you can share your vulnerabilities or — I don’t know if pain is the right word — your hardships, with women. I definitely feel safer talking to a woman, and I’m sure that’s Patriarchy 101.”

This reliance we have on women for emotional support seems equally damaging to both genders. Recently there has been an increase in feminist discourse concerning emotional labour, and how women are societally required to bear the brunt of it. This holds true for everyday life, where women are expected to manage the emotions of their partners and friends, but it also takes the form of workplace role inequality. It is a thorny problem, and I can’t help but think that my gender’s tendency to place emotional matters onto the shoulders of women speaks more to our gender’s deep-rooted insecurity around feelings, rather than proof that emotional labour is a woman’s natural role. This adherence to the women-are-emotional, men-are-stoic model has only resulted in inequality for women and rising suicide rates among boys and men.

Three men talking about their feelings during a winter’s night is an exceptional and wonderful thing. But I’m holding out for the day when such an event is simply commonplace. It’s going to take a lot of work on our part, perhaps years of shifting a culture which has become deeply engrained within the New Zealand psyche. But it’s clear that reevaluating how we view masculinity has never been more important. It is not, of course, a singular solution to New Zealand’s suicide crisis among boys and men. Suicide is a multilayered and complicated topic with no simple fix-it button. It is not solely caused by the discourse we have around emotions in masculinity, and nor will it be solely solved by improving it. Still, having this discourse is a step forward, and certainly a step that has been long overdue to take. Any boy who feels as though it’s okay to cry is a victory.

HELPLINES

Free call or text 1737 anytime for support from a trained counsellor
Safe to Talk (sexual violence) – 0800 044 334 or text 4334
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Youthline (for youth) – 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Outline (LGBTQIA+) – 0800 688 5463
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Healthline – 0800 611 116 to talk to a registered nurse
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757
Anxiety New Zealand 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
The Lowdown NZ (for youth) — free text 5626 or visit thelowdown.co.nz
MOSAIC (Supporting Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse – 022 419 3416)

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