The stereotype of proper New Zealand manhood – strong, emotionally stoic, silent, undemonstrative and heterosexual – came under attack in the 1970s and 1980s. Some argued that men were also imprisoned in a sexist society, or that they personally were not like that and didn’t want to be.
Radical voices such as Catholic priest Felix Donnelly, author of Big boys don’t cry (1978), and playwright Greg McGee with his indictment of violent rugby-club culture, Foreskin’s lament (1980), provided unsettling critiques of conventional ideas of manhood. Jock Phillips’s ground-breaking history of the image of the Pākehā male, A man’s country (1987), and Michael King’s One of the boys? Changing views of masculinity in New Zealand (1988) detailed the construction of New Zealand manliness.
Declarations of gay pride were even more disturbing to sections of society for whom heterosexual marriage was the only normal and legitimate way to live. Legal reform as well as profound social change was needed for male homosexuality to be accepted as normal. At times the backlash against gay identity and activism was vicious and even violent. The campaign to decriminalise male homosexuality was finally successful in 1986, after a protracted and divisive campaign.
Good keen men
Some aspects of old-style masculinity became targets of gentle fun in popular culture. John Clarke’s ‘Fred Dagg’ character enabled a largely urban audience to laugh at the laconic, black-singlet-wearing farmer. Other characters included Barry Crump’s good keen bushman, and Lloyd Scott’s weedy urban wimp in vehicle advertisements.
Other aspects of masculinity remained closely guarded. Former All Black Grahame Thorne’s 1983 appearance as a television sports announcer with obviously permed hair drew howls of derision. Masculine attire became more casual but not noticeably more flamboyant than in earlier decades.
Limits on change
There has been no openly gay All Black or member of the national cricket team. Rural and provincial New Zealand is probably less welcoming to diverse expressions of masculinity than urban centres.