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Letter from Elsewhere: Macho is as macho does

Letter from Elsewhere, July 2000: Macho is as macho does

By Anne Else

Macho masculinity has been all over the media lately, in one form or another - and not just in the ads or sports reports. The head of a prestigious private school carpeted for rugby sideline ranting. An Olympic hero claimed to have a hidden life of gay sex and drugs. A doctor finally admitting to years of sexual abuse of his patients. A Minister of the Crown refusing to admit there was anything gravely wrong in having sex with a teenager when he was in his 40s. And full details of exactly how yet another stepfather was able to beat yet another young child to death.

Different strokes for different chaps - rich and poor, gay and straight, Maori and Pakeha. But running through all these stories is a common thread of the damage done, to men, women and children alike, by New Zealand’s own peculiar brand of macho culture.

Real Kiwi men never lose a game, and bonk any females they fancy. But they never have sex with other men, and they can’t be expected to have even the most basic skills for coping with children. If they go too far in real manliness, and are found out, they can be sacked, demoted, locked up for a while, or written off as inhuman “beasts”. But it seems that nothing else can be done - boys will be boys, after all.

Macho culture hurts men too. A new report* highlights the damage it’s doing in education. It hounds boys to see English, arts and music as “wuss” or “girl” subjects. Daring to do art brings taunts of “poof” or “queer”. Just reading a book is enough to put boys at risk from their mates. Worse, some teachers try to discipline boys by comparing them to girls.

This narrow, tightly policed, self-defeating version of masculinity isn’t unique to New Zealand: “across countries, boys perceive literacy to be a feminine activity that is engaged in by ‘wuss’, ‘girl’, ‘gay’ type people”. But our appallingly high young male suicide rate, coupled with our equally high rate of attempted suicide among young women, suggest that it’s particularly poisonous here.

While 63% of girls say they’ve been punched, kicked or beaten by other students, for boys the figure is a whopping 79%. Almost three-quarters (73%) of the students suspended from school are male, and assault is the most common reason for being suspended. How often is the assault a reaction to being called a girl or a poof? Does suspension simply make the boy a hero to his mates? And have you noticed how often accounts of assaults by men on children and old people quote someone - frequently a policeman - calling the attack “cowardly”? If it’s another guy your own age and weight, does that make it brave, equal, and okay?

I wince every time I hear a sports reporter going on about “thrashing” the other team. I gag every time I read another pious article about the need to get more men into teaching, because of all the boys who can’t read and all the kids with sole mothers. As long as women and “feminine” traits go on being despised by real Kiwi blokes, in and out of school, nothing will really change.

*Explaining and addressing gender differences in the NZ compulsory school sector
Adrienne Alton-Lee and Angelique Praat, Ministry of Education


AUTHOR NOTE: Anne Else lives in Wellington and is currently self-employed as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She is an honorary research associate in Women’s Studies at Victoria University, and is also on the advisory committee of the Historical Branch, and Creative New Zealand’s literary grants committee. She has written many books and articles on New Zealand society, including A Question of Adoption: Closed Stranger Adoption in New Zealand, 1944-1974 (1991); Women Together, a history of women's organisations (1993); and False Economy: New Zealanders face the conflict between paid and unpaid work (Tandem Press, 1996). Her latest book is A Super Future? The price of growing older in New Zealand (Tandem Press, 1998), co-authored with economist Susan St John.

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