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 (AllBlacks.com), 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.” AllBlacks.com. Web. 3 May 2009.
McKenzie-Minifie, Martha. “John Kirwan inspires men to reach out for help.” NZHerald.co.nz. 28 Nov. 2006. Web. 3 May 2009.
The New Zealand Herald. “Women suffer rugby backlash.” NZHerald.co.nz. 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.