Being a man

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I am a man.

I don’t think, to be honest, that I felt comfortable being called a man until I was in my thirties.  It’s not that I thought of myself as a boy, it’s that being called a “man” sounded awfully grown up which was something I didn’t feel like I was. Up until my thirties if I heard a stranger say to someone else as they pointed at me in a cafe, “the toilets are just behind that man over there, the funny looking one with the enormous forehead”, I would not equate the word man with me.  “Man?”  I would think looking around me, stroking my forehead perhaps, “I’m not a man.”

I did play soccer for about 15 years.  I mention this because playing sport is supposed to be something men do.  Unfortunately I played soccer and it was the 80s.  I went to quite a pompous private boys’ school and the only sport they offered in winter was rugby because, you know, that’s what boys did.  My mother didn’t want me to play rugby.  To get her way she had to have a meeting with the headmaster who I have no doubt thought that my mother was consigning me to a lifetime of homosexuality.  I survived soccer without catching gay as it turns out.  In fact the earliest incident of me being called a man was on a soccer field.

I can’t remember now which league we were bottom of, but my soccer team was bad.  Thankfully I was centre back.  I say thankfully because it meant I had a lot to do.  It must have been a lonely, sad job being a  forward for our team; sort of like standing on a hill watching the charge of the light brigade.  In one particular game one of my most useless traits came to the fore: my bitterly-keep-going-even-after-all-hope-and-dignity-has-gone trait.  I think we were down about ten or eleven nil.  My whole team had stopped playing.  Our two forwards were trying to blend in with the opposition backs so no one would mistake them for being on our team anymore.  I feel like their goalie had left and was already at home watching What Now.  And there I was running around like a maniac tackling the entire opposition team, and clearing shots of our goal line until eventually they got another one past me.  I think the final score was 15-nil.  Without me exhausting myself it might have been 20-nil.  We see how pointless this is, right?  Anyway, whilst I was flailing about in the mud in our goal mouth one parent turned to another parent on the sideline and said of me, within ear shot of my mum, “who is that man?”  It was a comment that made me proud and a little uncomfortable.

scana (2)

Actually the reason my glasses are crooked in this photo is because I kept getting soccer balls kicked into my head.

I don’t have either of these problems anymore.  I very rarely get kicked in the head, and I am comfortable thinking of myself as a man.  I think I felt comfortable with it when I had been a dad for a couple of years, and a teacher for about five years.  Please note that I said “I felt it”.  Being a dad or a teacher is obviously not a requirement for feeling like you are a man, and what being a man means is different to different people.  Some people think that you are a man when you kill your first pig.  I would not thrive in this kind of community.  I would have to get pretty riled by a pig before I would want to kill it and always in the back of my mind I would have this idea that in any encounter with a pig the pig might win.  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I have decided I would rather die of old age with poor bladder control in my bed, than be gored by a pig.  I say this to counter my own long-held admiration for the line: “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

A little while after I accepted the idea of myself as a man I realised that I had a responsibility that went alongside my masculinity: my responsibility to be a “good” man.

Perhaps one of the reasons that I felt unsure about being a man came about because of my background.  My father died when I was five.  My remaining grandfather died the same year.  I have no siblings.  I am married and I have two daughters.  I work at a girls’ secondary school.  I say all this to show you how “biased” I am about gender issues.  Because I suppose that is what some people might think about me.  I’m not typical.  Although most people aren’t in my experience.  It would be fair to say, however, that I lacked male role models growing up.  I went to a boys primary school, but your peers are rarely your role models when you’re a child, and I disliked almost all of the male teachers at my school.  My male role models came out of history, or art.  I grew up liking Nureyev, Brando, and Jim Morrison, and then grew into MLK and Bobby Kennedy.  Recently I’ve been trying Jesus and Russell Brand.  For some reason I feel the need to tell you that I’m not a Christian, although to be balanced I should probably add that I’m not a professional ballet dancer, stand up comedian, rock god, actor, Baptist minister, or political leader either.  Or dead.

I should also add that I didn’t like any of those people because they had a penis.  Actually they didn’t share; they had a penis each.  I digress.  What I liked about them was their courage, or their humour, or their flair, or their idealism, or whatever mixture they had of those things.  In fact a few of them had some pretty appalling habits not least of which was getting assassinated.  It would not be from Jim or Marlon or Jesus that I would learn how to form relationships.  Something all those men share is the ability to raise a lump in my throat or the hairs on the back of my neck (reversing the anatomy of these expressions is hilarious).  Watching Nureyev as Romeo, or Marlon at the end of Zapata, or Morrison shriek and shimmy is like being plugged into electricity.

On the other hand quite a few “men” in the 80s might have found the scene of a solitary soccer playing boy sitting at home on a Sunday watching videos of Nureyev and sobbing into his Milo over Puccini arias a very alarming sight.  To them I would just like to say, and I mean this as kindly as possible: “F&%k off”.

When I get right down to it I feel that “being a good man” is actually about being a good person.  Whenever I think about what it means to be a good man I end up making statements that I think all people should follow regardless of their gender.  For example, I would say that I am a man, and not a child, because I respect other people, and understand why it is important to do that.  I assume that we all have certain things in common.  At a basic level I assume that, even if we don’t know each other, we both want to be treated decently and respected, and that we all have bad days, but that we should still be treated decently and respected (and then told off by our mates or our family), and that when really, really bad things have happened,  we should be able to stand up and say so, and deal with the consequences and know that someone will be there to help us get better again.

Let’s be honest.  I definitely haven’t been a good man in the past.  Sometimes I’ve been really shit at it.  Not to mention that I’m still pretty immature about a lot of things, and sulk, and stuff, but I think that this is my personality and not my masculinity.  I think that my limited and flawed strength as a man has come from two things: not being afraid to like things that weren’t things that men were supposed to like, and having always seen women as people.

The essence of the differences between men and women as a gender is power: physical and political.  Let’s face it, on any matter of discrimination the essence of the issue is unequal power.  Men are physically stronger than women on the whole (although you wouldn’t catch me challenging many of my Year 13 students to an arm wrestle).  On that biological foundation lies one kind of power.  But we do not accept power through force in our “civil” society.  Power comes through democracy and law and merit.  Except of course that on the biological foundation of power a historical house of political power that privileges men has been built and that has proven very resilient.  Partly because morality has been used to cement all those structures in place.

Think about breasts.

Men’s breasts, on the whole, are not as good as women’s, but – for some reason – you are far more likely to see men’s breasts in public.  My daughter Eleanor once came out of a building in Wellington with Cathy and saw a couple of young blokes lounging about in a park with their T-shirts off.  They are the type of man who likes to get their breasts out (I am not).  Eleanor observed the two men and then whispered to Cathy: “I can see those men’s boobies.”  Curiously, in our society, two women doing the same thing in public would either be harassed or arrested.  This is not my long-winded attempt to try and get women to take off their tops, it is my way of saying that the only reason we have this rule – really – is because women’s bodies are far more tied up in morality and sexuality than men’s.  Unfairly.

I think that this residue of male power has, in some places, reduced, but that it is something that needs to be attacked until it is scrubbed out entirely.  The day when people of either gender do or don’t wear tops at a beach and no one notices either way will be the day actual equality is achieved.  Probably there are other ways to tell when this has been achieved that don’t involve breasts.  Perhaps, also, I am just playing into the hands of the sun cream industry.

Funnily enough I think that places like girls’ schools, that were often originally established along pretty sexist lines, are a modern day way of keeping up the attack on male privilege.  Part of that culture of maleness in society means, in my experience, that people look more askance at a girls’ school than they do at a boys’ school.  Packs of boys are seen as normal, after all packs of boys make up armies, and police forces, and sports teams.  The amount of times that I have been asked, with a raised eyebrow, “what is it like teaching at a girls’ school?” has made me realise this.  So when I’m asked the question I’m not sure what the answer is supposed to be, but I usually say something insightful and penetrating like, “it’s fine”.  Actually it’s better than fine it’s really great, but that’s not because it’s a girls’ school, that’s because it’s a good school.  On the other hand I think a girls’ school can allow some girls to more fully cement their identity without circumscribing it  to accommodate boys.

It wasn’t until I worked at this school that I realised I was a feminist.  I know that some “schools” of feminism regard this as impossible, and I understand that on some topics I really can’t say anything meaningful, but plenty of white people have been involved in the Black civil rights movement in the USA, or Maori land rights claims in New Zealand, so I say that I am a feminist with conviction.  I feel that I am a feminist because I care about discrimination and injustice.  I don’t like to look at my wife, my daughters, or my students and think that they will be denied any opportunity because of their gender; that historical political power will be used against them, to artificially limit them and make them unhappy.  I would like to think that it goes without saying that it would appall me if physical power was used against them.

I went to our school’s prize-giving on Thursday evening.  After the frankly slow and tedious beginning of speeches and what not we got into about two hours of fantastic.  Wonderful people receiving awards, and wonderful artists performing songs and dances which were really (and I mean it) first class.  I think two things when I sit in the staff seats at prize giving: (1) it is so f&%king awesome to be young, and (2) these people are so, so talented in so many ways that there is no way they won’t be able to change the world.  Please do.  Not to put too much pressure on you, but please wipe away forever those traces of racism, and sexism and hate that mar our world.  Why not?  Nothing I saw on Thursday night suggests you can’t.  Lorde is your peer, and Eleanor Catton is your older sister.  When you go out into that world and some men try to treat you like shit please remember to stick up for yourself with the same righteous calm as Rosa Park or King.  It’s not you who needs to change; it’s them.

So I have come to realise that after biology has been confirmed at birth, being a man person is something to do with following your interests regardless of gender rules, and treating all other people as people.  Beyond this I think that being a good (normal) man (person) is about interrupting things.

Some time earlier this year I watched a very good talk by Jackson Katz which ended by talking about the power of the bystander to interrupt sexism in daily life.  Also this year the head of the Australian army, David Morrison, made a very strong statement against the denigration of women in the organisation he ran, and I will always remember a line from that speech: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”  There is this idea that men need to disrupt the narrative of other men; the sexist jokes and assumptions.  This is something I agree with but, and here is a little bit of good news, I have no opportunity to do this because I don’t have mates who tell sexist jokes, or have sexist assumptions.

But I still think we have a job to do.  I think that job is to disrupt the narrative of media, pop culture and society itself when it comes to gender.  You might notice that I said gender and not something like sexism or misogyny.  That’s because I think both (all) gender stories need disrupting.  And let’s add sexuality and race in there too.  Happily the story of rape that a couple of talkback radio hosts were trying to peddle got disrupted this week.

After living in Japan for five years, where young men wear quite a range of fetching pastel colours (they have the skin for it I’m told), I bought a pink polo.  Wearing a pink polo in New Zealand draws quite a bit of comment.  To be fair that comment comes from men and women.  Half the time I joke along with the jokers about my top, and the other half of the time I think, “who honestly gives a f%^k if a guy wears pink?”.  Sometimes I have worn it deliberately to annoy people and when they pass comment with a big smile on their faces I just blank them.  The blanking is disruption.

There’s not enough disruption in the Roastbusters story.  How many times have we heard about female virginity in the last week?  When did these boys – who obviously have major issues with sex, power and women – lose their virginity?  In what circumstances?  Why are they at all these parties?  Why are they getting drinks for people?  Where are their parents?  It’s always about the girls.  What about the goddamned boys?  I’m a boy and I want to know: where did these boys get their abhorrent ideas from?  I’m guessing it wasn’t from Pink, or Beyonce, or Madonna.  Or Joni Mitchell, Bic Runga or Ria Hall.

I think that a lot of men have a problem.  Quite a few of those men work in our sites of cultural and political production, and their attitudes and products are okaying the actions of other people.   If you want to change the story I think you have to disrupt the story.

Disrupt.  Act up.

Be a good person.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

2 thoughts on “Being a man”

  1. I find themes cycle through our lives, whether through fate or coincidence. The theme I’m seeing recently is ‘live the change’ – exactly what you advocate in this post. I’m doing my best, as tough as it gets sometimes to be the voice of minority opinion. Thanks for the insight, as always.

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