Rugby union and destructive masculinity in New Zealand

May 6, 2009

Another university essay, this one for my Media Studies class.

Rugby union and destructive masculinity in New Zealand

The sport of rugby union has long been a cornerstone of masculinity in New Zealand, in both the creation and the enforcement of what it means to be a man in this country. Rugby’s position as “more than just a game to the New Zealander … something of the status of a national cult” (Ausubel, cited in Thomson and Sim, 119) has meant that those values associated with the sport have been allowed to permeate throughout New Zealand society. Values associated with rugby, and therefore masculinity, such as hardness, aggression and detachment from emotion (Jackson and McKenzie, cited in Thomson and Sim, 117), are often damaging. This damage is experienced in different ways by women, by men who lie outside the dominant masculine framework and even by men who buy into that framework.

Thomson and Sim point out that acceptance of the dominant form of masculinity in New Zealand is a requirement for a man “to gain respect and acceptance from other males” (118), and many women. Those men who choose to, or can only, remain outside of this form of masculinity are thus excluded from taking a full part in what has been defined as New Zealand male culture. The place of nerds, queers and others in the micro society of a high school as compared to the rugby jocks is an example of this – those who do not accept the dominant form of masculinity are generally doomed to verbal and physical bullying.

The aggression rugby players show on the field can encourage aggression off of it by spectators. Anecdotal evidence exists that instances of domestic violence increase nationally after an All Blacks loss, with some Child, Youth and Family social workers and the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges reporting an increase in demand for their services (Rodney Times, The New Zealand Herald). A general disrespect for women is also noted by Jackson and McKenzie in the atmosphere of the rugby club, notably through the medium of song (cited in Thomson and Sim, 118).

A disengagement from emotion is another characteristic of the stereotypical ‘kiwi bloke’. This disengagement can lead to serious consequences, including an unwillingness to seek help when confronted by mental illness and potentially worsening the chances of an attempt at suicide in serious cases. This disengagement and the links between the masculinity that encourages it and rugby have been recognised, and efforts to counter this have been prominent in popular media. Most notable amongst these efforts is the Government funded depression awareness campaign fronted by John Kirwan, a highly regarded former All Black (McKenzie-Minifie).

In rugby culture, the ‘hard man’ is valued. The respect given to players such as Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, who continued playing for the All Blacks against France in 1986 after having his scrotum ripped (BBC Sport Online), and Norm Hewitt, who played with a broken arm for Wellington against Canterbury in 2000 (, shows the encouragement of an attitude which ignores pain, even when ignoring that pain could be detrimental to a player’s long-term health.

The conflict between the misogynist rugby culture and women and anti-sexist men perhaps reached a peak during the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Nauright and Black argue that during the tour “the old masculine hegemony promoted through the rugby culture, was threatened not only by international politics, but by internal gender and race struggles” (cited in Thomson and Sim, 120). This resistance challenged the place of rugby and rugby culture in New Zealand (Fougere, cited in Thomson and Sim, 120), and while rugby may have recovered some ground, it certainly no longer dominates New Zealand culture in the way it once did. The rise in popularity of soccer, which is now the most played sport at high school level (SPARC – ihi Aotearoa), is another signifier of the lessening role rugby plays in New Zealand society.

While challenges to the dominant form of masculinity and to rugby’s role in New Zealand society exist, rugby culture is undoubtedly still a strong force in this country. The values promoted by New Zealand masculinity, heavily influenced by rugby culture, are damaging to people all across the country. They hurt people physically and mentally, both directly, such as in the form of domestic violence, or indirectly, such as when a suicidal person is afraid to appear weak and therefore does not seek help.

List of cited works

Knight, Lindsay. “Norm Hewitt.” Web. 3 May 2009.

McKenzie-Minifie, Martha. “John Kirwan inspires men to reach out for help.” 28 Nov. 2006. Web. 3 May 2009.

The New Zealand Herald. “Women suffer rugby backlash.” 9 Oct. 2007. Web. 3 May 2009.

Rodney Times. “All Black losses pose family risk.” Rodney Times. 25 Sept. 2007. Web. 3 May 2009.

Soneji, Pranav. “Buck’s All Blacks fizz.” BBC Sport Online. 24 Oct. 2002. Web. 3 May 2009.

SPARC – ihi Aotearoa. “Participation in sport and active leisure by NZ young people.” SPARC – ihi Aotearoa. 30 Mar. 2006. Web. 3 May 2009.

Thomson, Rex & Justin Sim. “Sport and Culture: Passion and Paradox.Sport in Aotearoa/New Zealand Society. Second Edition, Chris Collins & Steve Jackson, eds., Melbourne: Thomson, 2007. 113-129. Print.

2 London workshops (by me) tomorrow (Thurs 17th) and Tues 22nd

July 17, 2008

Both workshops are at LARC – 62 Fieldgate St, Whitechapel, London, and both start at 7pm.

Thursday 17th – Mental illness and community support

A workshop/discussion on supporting those who suffer through mental illness, the different options available and how we can better support each other.

Tuesday 22nd – Indigenous repression and resistance in Australia and Aotearoa / New Zealand

A talk by two anarchists, one from Australia and one from Aotearoa / New Zealand (both non-indigenous), about recent assaults by the state on indigenous communities, and on indigenous and anarchist resistance to these attacks.

The talk will focus mainly on the invasion of the Northern Territory by the Australian government and the disgusting treatment of aborigines living there, and on the so-called “terrorism raids” that occured in Aotearoa / New Zealand in 2007 targetting indigenous activists and anarchists.

Mental health discrimination comes from all sources – report

July 10, 2008

Some more writing from yours truly coming sometime in the next week or so, but in the meantime, here’s an interesting article I just spotted on the NZ Herald website. Much of it certainly resonates with me, especially the bits I’ve put in bold.

Mental health discrimination comes from all sources – report

A new study looking at stigma faced by people with mental illness found many encountered discrimination from those closest to them – their family, friends and support people.

Launched today, the study, undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation, surveys the experiences of 76 men and women from around the country, including Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Islanders, youth and refugees.

Called Fighting Shadows: Self-Stigma and Mental Illness: Whawhai Atu te Whakama Hihira, the study looked at how discrimination towards people with mental illness affected them.

Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said the study found negative messages about mental illness within society shaped and reinforced the attitudes people with mental health problems had towards themselves.

“These attitudes hold people back from full participation in society, and create a cycle of internalised stigma, or ‘self-stigma’.”

The report said many people with experience of mental illness felt self-stigma.

It was closely associated with discrimination and could lead to a variety of consequences, including low self-esteem and self-doubt, and generally made life worse for the people who experienced it.

Overcoming it could lead to a sense of empowerment in people’s lives.

People felt reduced self esteem, isolation, and exhibited social withdrawal. Many were alienated from their family. They were less likely to seek treatment for symptoms and their symptoms could worsen and take longer to recover.

The report said discrimination came from all sources, including mental health services, and friends and family.

Many people reported their feelings of self-stigma had been triggered from an early age by attitudes and behaviour of family members.

“Some cited a lack of understanding and openness in the family environment towards issues of mental illness, as well as unhelpful beliefs about the nature of mental illness.”

The media also came in for criticism, with coverage of mental health issues described as biased, negative, sensationalised or incorrect.

“One particular stereotype the media was seen as contributing to was that people with experience of mental illness cannot cope with life, are dependant, and need support. It is easy to see how self-stigma can develop if people believe this stereotype.”

Support people could be overbearing or patronising, lack trust and confidence in the mental health sufferer, and be critical and judgemental.

Ways of dealing with self-stigma included using affirmations, having peer support, and recovery-oriented programmes.

People also talked about the importance of culture and identity in their lives, as well as having a strong and supportive family or whanau environment.

One in five New Zealanders report being diagnosed with mental illness in any one year, and the ratio rises to two in five when reporting diagnosis at some point during their lives.


New zine: Our Dark Passenger: Anarchists talk about mental illness and community support

April 29, 2008

Our Dark Passenger: Anarchists talk about mental illness and community support is now out, published by Katipo Books. Weighing in at 34 pages, it is a collection of articles about living with mental illness by anarchists from around Aotearoa, and some writings from overseas. I’ve written a few of the pieces, and collated and designed the zine.

Our Dark Passenger can be purchased from Katipo Books (who will mail it anywhere in the world) for just NZ$2.00 + postage. You can also download the .pdf and print it yourself by clicking here (1.93MB).

The zine has no copyright, so feel free to print and distribute copies as you see fit (just don’t charge more than you need to cover costs). You can download a version imposed for printing by clicking here (for the inside, 1.83MB) and here (for the cover, 100KB). If you distribute it anywhere outside Aotearoa / New Zealand, I’d appreciate it if you emailed me at anarchiazine[at]gmail[dot]com and let me know, it’s always interesting to see how far things spread.


Page 1 – Front Cover
Page 2 – Contents
Page 3 – Introduction (Asher)
Page 4 – Bryden’s Story (Bryden)
Page 6 – Ending it all (Anonymous)
Page 7 – Cartoon (The Icarus Project)
Page 8 – Mental Illness: My Struggle (Asher)
Page 10 – Depression, police terrorism, and me (Anna-Claire)
Page 12 – Amy’s Poem, Drawing, Are we Falling? The war machine (Amy)
Page 14 – On Being Alone (Asher)
Page 16 – Places to look for help in Aotearoa / New Zealand
Page 17 – Activism and Depression (Bexxa)
Page 24 – Discussion Questions for Workshops and Groups (The Icarus Project)
Page 25 – How I Became a Thief (Jessica Max Stein)
Page 28 – Also from Katipo Books
Page 30 – Back cover, 5 things to NOT say to someone suffering from depression


Parts of this zine are likely to be triggering to those who have a history of self-harm or mental illness, so please use your own discretion when deciding to read.

If you think you are likely to be affected negatively by this zine, please DO NOT read it!


Unfortunately, we had to remove the article The Spoon Theory due to copyright issues. Oh well….

On being alone…

March 23, 2008

So, at the moment, I’m alone in the house, and have been for the last couple of days. One of my flatmates is away, at the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the crib-time strike in Blackball (see this and this) which was the start of a wave of militant unionism in Aotearoa (later subsumed into the Labour Party, unfortunately), while the other is at his partner’s house, and the visiting German anarchist who was staying at mine has also moved on to other parts of the country.

Last time I was alone for any length of time was over new years, and at the time, I felt somewhat similar to how I do now – to put it in as few inadequate words as possible – not good.

Of course, I have several reasons to be happy – I’ve just become an uncle for the first time, I’m in a wicked flat with great people (and 3 cats and temporarily 4 chickens), I have a firm plan for the rest of 2008 that I’m quite excited about. I also should be really busy – I have 3 articles (total of around 6000 words) all due this weekend, which I haven’t really even started on (except in my head), and a smattering of other work to do for Katipo Books and for local solidarity organising with the October 15th arrestees.

Instead, I find myself frozen in inaction. Even typing these words is significantly more effort than it should be. Getting my thoughts onto paper (or, more accurately, computer screen) is, while possible, a mammoth task for me at the moment.

This literal aloneness that I am currently experiencing only brings to the surface a deepfelt metaphorical aloneness that seems to be with me almost every day. At the start of the movie Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character describes the experience of insomnia: “Nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” As someone who suffers from insomnia from time to time (usually coinciding with my lowest periods), this really resonated with me the first time I watched the movie. However, it also provides a glimpse into the appearance of life to me during my depressive states, even when I’m sleeping well.

For me, I frequently feel like I’m not in my body, but watching it. I might be having a conversation, but that’s not actually me, not my consciousness. While my body is doing these things, my consciousness is watching on, stuck in my brain racking over a conversation I had a week ago, a month ago, at some point in my childhood – searching for a hidden meaning, thinking of a better comeback, analysing why I said what I said. My consciousness likely won’t experience the conversation I’m taking part in until later in the day, week or month, when it processes it while my body (what would normally be perceived as “me”) has long moved on.

Still with me? Good. Hopefully this is making some semblance of sense, I get the feeling sometimes that the English language simply doesn’t contain the words to explain some things.

This experience I have just described, the turning of my life into a film I’m constantly watching, leads to an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. I think this is at least partially responsible for my seeking of intense experiences – for it is during these times that I feel most in my own body, it is during these intense times that I actually feel emotions, rather than observe myself experiencing them from the outside. It is in this seeking of intensity that I understand those who regularly self-harm (luckily, something I’ve mostly been able to avoid) – the need to actually feel is an indescribably vital part of living.

I seek out these intense moments in a range of ways – I’ve tried drugs, and while they work in the immediate sense, the after-effects are almost never worth it (and so, these days, I more or less entirely stay away from them). Travel and moving to new cities/countries also seems to work for a period – the sheer shock of being so far from everything I know forces me back into myself. This tends to last for a little while, until I’m settled in to my new location, at which point everything goes back to what I sadly consider normalcy. Starting relationships also seems to work – the intensity that comes with a new relationship jolts me into the moment, although, as with travel/moving, this doesn’t last.

The last example I’ll give is something that I’ve only begun to realise in the last few days, and properly only this weekend, as I’ve had plenty of time to stew inside my brain. Anyone who knows me well knows all too well my desire to have kids. I’m now beginning to wonder how much that is connected to what I’ve just been discussing – there is no doubt that, most of the time when I interact with my friend’s children, I am drawn back into myself, back into genuine emotion. Perhaps my desire to have children of my own is tied in with this, as an opportunity (perhaps the only one), to put myself inside my body for the majority of the time. In this, however, I have fears. Who is to say that, as with moving or new relationships, enough time with a child won’t simply see me seperate my consciousness from my body again, lose my connection with my experiences…

And, despite the ever increasing knowledge of my condition, despite the fact that I now feel able to write about it, to talk about it, to begin to describe it, I still am stuck in the same place I started – totally disconnected from my own reality, totally alone.

2nd callout for Anarchism and Mental Health zine

February 11, 2008
Are you an anarchist that suffers (or has suffered) from mental illness?

Would you be interested in telling your story, sharing your experience of mental illness and support (or the lack of support) within the anarchist/activist community?

Have you got any suggestions for how we in the anarchist community can better support each other with regards to mental illness?

I am publishing a zine about anarchism and mental health in Aotearoa.

If you’re interested in contributing (it can be anonymous and the length and level of detail are up to you) then email your stories, poetry, cartoons etc to anarchiazine (at)

Submissions are due this week, but if you email me and let me know what you’re writing about, I can wait til the end of the month to recieve the actual article.

Discussing mental health

September 18, 2007

Recently I was up in Auckland for the Anarchism Is Organising conference. On the second day of the conference, I ran a workshop on “mental health, mental illness and anarchist community support”. The workshop wasn’t on the agenda prior to the conference, but after some thoughts and a discussion that touched on the subject the previous afternoon, I decided to run it. Not long after I made the offer, I suddenly became incredibly nervous when I realised I hadn’t ever run a discussion on the topic before, and had no idea how to structure it or what to do. After a bit of thinking, I decided that attempting to get anything concrete out of it probably wouldn’t actually work, and therefore attempting to do that would only serve to be demoralising. Instead, I decided that getting people to open up and share their stories would be the most positive first step that we could take.

By lunchtime Sunday, with the workshop just a few hours away, I’d decided on a format – one that began with me opening up and telling my story, from scratch. Trying to put the years of pain and hardship into words, the awful experiences with medication, the lowest lows, the scariest times. I also decided to talk about the incredible lack of support that I felt in the Wellington anarchist community. The discussion would be the first time I had ever talked about my experiences in a large group, and I wasn’t feeling confident or even particularly safe (especially considering I’d only met a large number of the participants the day before), but I’d made the decision to speak out and I wasn’t going to change that. I confided my worry to a friend shortly before the discussion started that I would tell my story, and noone else would feel safe or comfortable enough to tell theirs. While I can totally understand why this might be the case, I was pretty concerned as to how that would affect me – leaving myself so open and exposed.

Then it started. I talked, remembering things that I had long forgotten (whether accidentally or on purpose). Feelings came back to me as real as when I’d first felt them. At times, I had to stop, while at other times swinging the chair in front of me or letting loose a few tears seemed to calm me down a little. When, while talking, I looked up at the rest of the group, I made sure to try to focus on a couple of people who I trusted the most, and the looks in their eyes helped me to continue. Still, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to talk about in public.

When I finished, there was a brief silence, and then I looked around and there were others wanting to speak. At that point, I felt like a weight had been lifted. For the next two hours, around ten others shared their stories of mental illness, of medication and psychiatry, of community support (or the lack of it), of friends (or the lack of them). It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve been a part of. That so many people felt able to talk so openly and honestly about their deepest held secrets amongst a group of people they didn’t know was incredible. The discussion could easily have gone on longer, but after we’d gone one hour overtime we really had to stop to allow other workshops to take place.

After we’d finished, I gave a big hug to a friend of mine, and we went outside for a ciggarette. A few others joined us and we talked about how we felt after the workshop (emotionally drained but inspired covers it well, I think). A couple of people talked about the possibility of setting up a mental health support group in Wellington, which would be awesome if it gets off the ground.

I also talked afterwards to a couple of people who have never experienced mental illness, who came to listen and learn. What they said only made me more confident that what happened was the most positive first step we all could have taken. While it may never be possible to understand exactly what we go through, speaking that honestly and extensively is probably as close as it gets.


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