New Zealand men are still stuck in roles that risk harm to themselves and others | John Daniell and Glenn McConnell | World news



In a Wellington cafe, one of New Zealand’s most respected academics talked about the disconnect between his feelings and the way he knew he was supposed to be: “I could not understand why anyone would see putting your head between two other men’s buttocks as being the high point of New Zealand culture. I was staggered by it. But I never said that, of course – I just buried those thoughts.”

Jock Phillips would go on to become the national historian, but as a boy growing up in the 1960s he knew the wisdom of keeping his cranium down in a land where rugby was next to a religion.

In the last few decades the goalposts have shifted – but as New Zealand culture has opened up to an increasingly diverse range of voices and viewpoints, men still seem to find themselves stuck playing up to expectations, trapped in roles that can lead to them hurting both themselves and others.

It is estimated more than half of the country’s women will experience a form of abuse in their lifetimes. A third of women report being physically or sexually abused by their partners. Male mental health is an ongoing issue, with men making up more than 70% of the 654 people who died by suicide in 2020.

In the wake of #MeToo, and in the midst of discussions around toxic masculinity and the return of strongman politicians, it felt like it was time to explore the reality of everyday Kiwis grappling with what it means to be a man. Our podcast, He’ll Be Right: How to be a Modern Man, was the result.

Two of those everyday Kiwis contending with manhood were us, and we came at it from quite different angles – one a young Māori vegetarian based in the heart of metropolitan Auckland, the other a middle-aged Pākehā and former professional rugby player living rurally and coaching a schoolboy rugby team. But both of us had been guilty of forms of everyday sexism – although one of us admits to more than the other, possibly because he’s older.

The aim wasn’t to tell anyone how to behave (that said, for anyone looking to boil it down, “Don’t be a dick” is a useful formula offered by one interviewee’s teenage son) – this was more about offering a way in for people to think about their own situations and understand the breadth of experience and different challenges men face.

We spoke with people – men, women, non-binary – about everything from Tinder to gender, consent and extremism, mental health and rites of passage. Anthropologist Sean Mallon walked us through common misconceptions about Samoan tattooing; Rob Tennent, a young model who finds his slim frame more suited to womenswear, told us about his return to intimacy after sexual assault; Scout Barbour Evans, who identifies as takatāpui, (an umbrella term in Māori for LGBTQI+) spoke about the physical and mental shift they experienced with testosterone treatment and giving birth while grappling with their own gender identity.

And while we did talk to an All Black – Karl Tu’inukuafe, one of the largest players in the game at nearly 140kg – he wasn’t a stereotypical muddied oaf. Karl’s more of a great bear hug of decency and vulnerability, who runs old fashioned values alongside sophisticated emotional intelligence and an ancient Toyota.

Men like Tu’inukuafe showed how traditions associated with masculinity aren’t all bad. Māori leaders, such as Professor Pou Temara, of the Tūhoe iwi (people), a modern day tohunga – or guardian of Māori tradition and custom – have long been concerned with Māori losing connections to the culture. He says an absence of traditional culture and a breakdown of hapū (tribal) connection has helped fuel issues of toxic masculinity.

Māori culture is steeped in tradition and custom. Tikanga (the correct way) often seems rigid, with set roles for men and women in ceremonies as well as everyday life. The increased prominence of gender fluidity, and more female leaders, can challenge tikanga. One of Temara’s cousins, Pita Taimana, controversially likes to perform both men’s and women’s traditional roles. He’s proficient at karanga, a woman’s call on marae, and also the whaikōrero, typically men’s speeches.

Things can get tense when old norms are brought into question. But while Temara doesn’t agree with his cousin’s views, he says one of the great strengths of tikanga is its ability to adapt to the new while continuing to offer a strong set of values rooted in accumulated wisdom. “To be a Māori man, in my view, is to merge yourself into the world that prevails. And that world is a global world. But to never forget and to use your Māori tikanga.”

Many men, stripped from community and culture, want change but fear being left behind and are uncertain of the alternatives. Materialism tends to fill the gaps: even if it’s a source of considerable anxiety in an increasingly unequal society, it can be reassuring to fall back on deeply embedded notions of male success focused on wealth, strength and individual dominance.

Masculine standards, roles and accepted behaviours are in flux everywhere. How to address change remains a personal choice – there is no one way for everyone to do this right – but here in New Zealand we have access to a different template, one that embraces connection and interdependence. Whakapapa emphasises our links to each other through family, the environment and ancestors.

The Māori world is all about connections. When you acknowledge interconnection, reliance and your place in the community, everything starts working better together. It also helps to know, as the world continues to change, that you’re not alone.

John Daniell is a writer with a background in rugby. He runs Bird of Paradise, a podcast production company, with his wife Noelle McCarthy.

Glenn McConnell is a Stuff reporter and student of Māori Studies in Auckland City.


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