The Life of Brian: Masculinities, Sexualities and Health in New Zealand
ed Heather Worth, Anna Paris and Louisa Allen
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
Worlds in Collision: The Gay Debate in New Zealand 1960-1986
Victoria University of Wellington, $39.95,
Flick on any of our free-to-air channels and chances are you will see sex being used to push product. There’s nothing new in that, of course, but whereas once it would have been long-legged young women draped across cars or emerging from the pool to flash their teeth, these days you are just as likely to see shirtless, gym-ed hunks peddling anything from food to insurance.
Even staid old Farmers has slapped larger-than-life pictures of a chap wearing just y-fronts and a smile all over The Terrace bus shelters. And now an Australian bank is screening an advert showing an All Black holding hands with a former opponent! In an age when men are shown cooking tea almost as often as women, the Speight’s “southern men” seem about as anachronistic as a rotary dial telephone.
If Brian, to use the name adopted by the editors of one of the books under review, has “become a subject of desire”, his masculinity and sexuality have also become more complicated, leading to all those plurals in the book’s subtitle. There are many reasons for this. Increased workplace participation by women, and rising female incomes have, as much as the growing secularisation of society, and the influence of femininism or gay liberation, reshaped the way men now see themselves.
You could write a book about it, and some day someone will. Hopefully soon, for it is remarkable how little has been written about New Zealand masculinity, sexuality, and health. There’s a gift-market flood of light works on blokes and boats, blokes and sheds, and blokes and whatever else Auckland publishers think might sell, a few more substantial works on homosexuality, a piece or two on fathers or Catholic men, and some insightful autobiography and fiction, but it is remarkable how heavily the editors and the authors of The Life of Brian and Worlds in Collision rely on A Man’s Country?, the pioneering study first published 15 years ago by Jock Phillips.
These new books are welcome building blocks for broader histories yet to be written. I say building blocks because, as Worth, Paris and Allen observe, “the writing on male sexuality which has begun to appear has almost singularly concentrated on homosexuality”. These books continue that emphasis. Three of the 10 essays in The Life of Brian deal solely with gay men or queens, and Worlds in Collision is entirely concerned with the campaign for homosexual law reform.
The Life of Brian grew from a masculinities conference at the University of Auckland three years ago. Like most books of this sort, it is somewhat uneven. Nevertheless, the editors or their press have smoothed things out by ensuring that the essayists bracket their pieces with introductions and conclusions. There is a thoughtful introduction, comprehensive endnotes, and a serviceable index. There are notes on most of the contributors. The pieces vary in their readability. While the life-stealing, ugly jargon of postmodern social theory is “par for the course”, as one man interviewed in the book might say, one piece sometimes read as if its author believed that language should be a barrier to communication.
After defining terms and summarising key debates such as sociobiology versus sociology, the editors emphasise that “what makes up the masculine gender is a continuum of behaviours, expectations, experiences, institutions, structures, systems, and ideas about what it means ‘to be a man’.” As some of the essays show, there are almost as many definitions as there are men.
Keynote conference speaker Bob Connell begins with a piece about masculinities and globalisation. Understand local by thinking globally, he argues. Scholars must understand the roots of today’s situation in the gendered nature of colonisation and the resulting influence of North Atlantic societies. While Connell deprecates what he calls “transnational business masculinity”, he notes that there are also countervailing trends: increasing egocentrism, increasingly conditional loyalties, and a declining sense of responsibility for others.
The majority of the remaining contributions are based on local surveys and studies, usually of relatively small groups, as you would expect from pioneering postgraduate and academic research. Richard Pringle applies Foucaldian examination to the smallest of sample groups, himself, when he explores his youthful rugby experiences. Heather Worth interviews 10 Maori and Pacific Islands queens in a lively piece called “Tits is Just an Accessory”, which reveals a surprising range of attitudes to identity. Julie Park, Tamasailau Suaalamii-Sauni, Melkanie Anae, Ieti Lima, Nite Fuamatu and Kirk Mariner explore the differences between older Samoan men and their younger, mainly New Zealand-born sons. There are many similarities, of course, but the younger man’s life is more likely to include domestic work and childcare along with the traditional role of provider, and church and community leader. Gay health worker Clive Aspin looks at the minority of Maori gays who identify as takatapui (“intimate friend of the same sex”), consciously rebuilding links to the dimly understood world of pre-colonial Maori sexuality.
But the two pieces by Anthony O’Connor and Stephen McKernon on male health reveal that attitudes closer to the traditional images persist. O’Connor’s northern Pakeha tended to equate ideal health with the ability to perform tasks; health was a largely physical concept and their aversion to health care practice was exacerbated by their perception of it as “a feminine practice”. McKernon’s men complain that heterosexual men have almost been overlooked by a sexual health service that appears geared towards women and gay males. Male readers may take a different view to the female editors about claims for a male health crisis. Clearly ethnicity and class do not explain everything.
The campaign for homosexual law reform was, after the 1981 Springbok Tour, one of the two most divisive political debates of the 1980s. At stake, Laurie Guy argues, was a struggle for supremacy between two different value systems:
On the one side was the value of human rights and of the individual human person, the need to allow a plurality of values in modern pluralistic society, and the essential neutrality of consenting sexual behaviour of whatever form. On the other side was the need to preserve universally valid moral values, to preserve society from disease and destruction, to incur the blessing and avoid the wrath of God.
Worlds in Collision is a reworking of Guy’s PhD thesis. The scholarship shows in the measured and careful argument, and the extensive back matter (almost a third of the book), but the narrative is conventional and highly readable. Guy is, in places, critical of both sides, but he speaks cautiously in this book. He obviously interviewed many of the key participants but their interviews footnote rather than dominate the book, and we learn relatively little about them as people or why they put themselves through so much pain and risk.
Guy is stronger at defining the broader trends. He sees the late 1960s and the 1970s as a social and political turning point, breaking down the wealthy smugness of 1950s New Zealand, which claimed we were a “country without issues”. A booming and more youthful population was more receptive to social issues on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Jet travel and television brought an inter-national influence to local debates.
Guy, a lecturer in church history, gives considerable coverage to the role of the churches. There were two strands to this. The first was the churches’ response to what Guy concedes was an increasingly post-Christian world. Several denominations had enjoyed a brief post-war growth spurt, but by the end of the 60s that was a fading memory. While some people talked about Christian union, the churches were essentially becoming more diverse, and the theological middle eroded as they divided between what Guy calls a “sect” mentality (walling themselves off from the world) and a “church” mentality (embracing society). Guy dislikes the word fundamentalism (preferring to see fundamentalists as part of a wider evangelical stream) but notes that as the church’s hold over the population declined, the visibility of such people increased.
The battles of 1985-6 were, to use the title’s metaphor, like two tectonic plates colliding. The rising plate, represented by liberal post-Christian society, or at least by those Christians who had since the 1960s concentrated more on love than doctrine, won the day, although not without a great deal of hard work. Led by the cautious Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS), earlier reformers had prepared the ground by building on Kinsey and Wolfenden to push medical and scientific arguments that sexual orientation was fixed and not a lifestyle choice. Feminism and the pill also contributed to the shift in public opinion so that by the 1970s many people were distinguishing between legality and morality. The campaigners’ arguments were not always accurate, but they had helped to shift public opinion before the next wave of more radical activists pushed the debate from simple law reform to one of acceptance.
The sliding plate, the conservative, largely (but not entirely) Christian opposition, was increasingly out of step with this changing society. Christian opinion fragmented; Guy tracks the differing responses of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics (but not, interestingly, the Salvation Army). Arguments based on revelation, not reason, fell flat with the public. Although National MPs overwhelmingly opposed the Bill, the anti-law reform campaigners relied mainly on what Guy calls second-grade politicians from both major parties. The new generation of political leaders elected in 1984 generally either supported the reformers, kept quiet, or were more restrained in their objections.
So the victory went to those who put “principle” – complete equality (although Part II of the Bill was not passed until 1993 and even now there is not complete equality) – before the so-called “pragmatism” of older groups such as the HLRS. Guy generously acknowledges the base that the HLRS provided for the more radical Gay Task Force activists, but by the 1980s the world had moved on from the sort of compromises that they were willing to settle for.
The Life of Brian and Worlds in Collision show that the old image of the Kiwi bloke is breaking down. If some young men cling to the staunch and stoic attitudes of the traditional past, others – gay men and members of our increasingly urban and ethnically-diverse population, in particular – are queering the bloke’s pitch, moving us all in the direction of fulfilling Jock Phillips’ wish, expressed in the 1995 revision of A Man’s Country?: “If the traditional male stereotype is now weakening in New Zealand, we must hope not that it will be replaced by a new stereotype, however ‘liberated’ that might be, but that we can look forward to a society in which males, no less than females, are able to fulfil their potential.” Brian now has many lives to choose from, even if there are precious few signposts in place.
Dr Gavin McLean is an historian, whose latest book is Rocking the Boat? A History of Scales Corporation.