What does it mean to be a man?
This is in many ways a rhetorical and, intentionally, loaded question. A question that I ask because I have some ideas, not necessarily because I have answers.
In recent years I have been engaging in research which has attempted to make sense of the evolution of Polynesian masculinity. While this will contribute to my position in this piece, I also want to write of a recent experience that has assisted in my own personal, not so much academic, understanding of what it means to be a man. So, if you don’t mind indulging me, I would like to speak first of this experience.
Last month I was privileged enough to be an invited speaker at a monthly men’s collective hosted by a dear friend of mine, Matt Brown (owner and founder of My Fathers Barber; co-founder of the She Is Not Your Rehab movement; social advocate; author; motivator; and barber to many). Matt has been running this men’s group each month, out of his barber shop, primarily to provide space for men to find support and assistance in their lives, but also in an effort to reconfigure the way in which we understand masculinity and what it means to be a man.
I was invited to share my story with these men. So, in a room of 45 other men, I shared. I shared many things ranging from love, loss, abandonment, grief, pain and guilt; and these were all interwoven with a subtle attack at perceptions of masculinity. This attack was not an overt one. More of an underlying challenge to existing paradigms of what society expects men to be.
In questioning what society expects of men, it is probably timely to speak a little bit about perceptions of masculinity. Masculinity at a loose definition is a set of attributes or qualities, behaviours and roles associated with boys and men. For many of us this has included things such as the repression of emotion, physical strength, or attaining positions in the, more-often-than-not gender imbalanced, hierarchies of society.
For Polynesian men, our masculine identity has long been associated with physicality, violence, notions of warriorhood, and athleticism (Beasley, 2008; Borell, 2015; Chen, 2014; Hawkes, 2018; Henderson, 2011; Hokowhitu, 2004; Ryan, 2005; Tengen and Markham, 2009). However the perpetuation of a Polynesian masculinity that is dependent on physicality, strength and size, relies on the models established, initially by Victorian manliness during the colonial era of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. Let’s call this the coloniality of Polynesian masculinity.
It is important to note here that masculinity was, and is, very much a Western construct; Hokowhitu (2004) reminds us that “masculinity is a historical construction and cannot simply be analysed from a contemporary snapshot.” (p. 264). To pre-contact Māori the traits that defined “masculinity” would have differed significantly from those of the Victorian era European. Māori masculinities were, prior to the introduction of external knowledge systems and perceptions, foremost developed as a result of our ability to provide and nurture (Borell, 2015).
Professor Anne Salmond (2016) wrote an article discussing the role of Māori men as fathers. Fatherhood, or parenting, is likely to have been an integral part of a Māori masculinity. However, it is often absent from discussions around Māori men and their masculinities today. In fact, the stereotype of Māori fathers is usually more closely aligned with Jake the Muss, than the rangatira who holds council with a baby on his hip. Salmond utilised excerpts from journal entries dating around the early 19th Century and although it is a brief piece, she manages to dispel some of the more common misconceptions around Māori masculinity; particularly those of violence towards women and children. Citing from missionary Samuel Marsden’s personal journal, Salmond (2016) reveals that “They are kind to their women and children. I never observed either with a mark of violence upon them, nor did I ever see a child struck.” (p. 1).
With this in mind, it is evident that our masculine identity has undergone significant change since our pre-contact time. And, it could be easy to simply cast blame on external depictions of our masculinity during the colonial project. However, there must come a time when we also hold ourselves accountable in the reclaiming of our masculine identity.
Allow me to return now to the men’s group with whom I had the pleasure of speaking with. I mentioned earlier that I shared this room with 45 other men. These men represented many different walks of life from active gang members and recovering substance abusers, to self-employed entrepreneurs and suit wearing corporate types. Contemporary masculinities do not have a one-size-fits-all approach. From what I could see, there were two things that held a connection between all of these men. The first thing was that they were all once boys. Perhaps many of us still are. The other common thread was that they were all willing to listen and engage with conversations about what it means to be a man. To me this demonstrates the ability to transcend beyond the prescribed limitations of ‘masculinity’ into self-determining who we want to be as men; as fathers; as sons; and as husbands and partners.
In recent research (currently in publication) I have been articulating that a contemporary Polynesian masculinity is actually far more closely aligned to our traditional practices as we shift toward our innate tendencies as nurturers, carers and men who are less afraid to embrace emotion. Through initiatives such as the one I was involved in last month, I can see that it extends beyond the realm of academic scholarship deep into the real world.
For a long time we have said boys don’t cry, but I think it would be better if they did.