With the old tenets of masculinity being swept away, we have a chance to change. What men need are examples to follow, and they’re certainly out there.
My husband is a big man. He is also the Pied Piper. Wherever he is, children come from far and wide, knowing that there will be games and hugs and laughs on offer. Dogs sit next to him, and even cats fold themselves in his lap, eager to be petted. I thought I’d tell you about him, because it seems that some men need a bit of guidance in terms of masculinity.
They confuse it with being dickheads and idiots who lash out against women, while it should be, surely, the opposite. Let me explain. Jim, my husband, has been extraordinarily lucky in his life. When we met, he told me two stories about himself. The first one was about something that happened when he was in his early thirties. He had been working hard for a decade and had bought himself a block of land to build a shack on.
One day, he drove up to the property with his father, because he was proud of his achievement and wanted to show his dad. There was nothing there: a hill with trees, a small clearing, and a long fence keeping the neighbor’s cattle in. At night, they camped in the car; had a few drinks, watched the stars, talked a bit. Then, at about 4:00 a.m., there was an ungodly sound that woke them up and a foul smell that made them want to vomit. When they scrambled out of their swags and looked around, they saw a dead cow exploding.
The stomach had become so bloated the content had to go somewhere, and it did: out. Jim and his dad were town boys, born and raised in Sydney. They had no idea what to do, so they started laughing. And laughing. And laughing. Soon, father and son were wiping their eyes and convulsing with giggles. “We loved each other, my dad and I,” Jim said at the end of this story. Like that was a normal thing.
The second tale was about martial arts. When he was in his twenties, he spent a lot of time doing Budo karate, a Japanese mix of fighting and philosophy. The first thing he learned there was not to judge a book by its cover, after his butt was kicked by a slip of a girl one day. The second, and maybe most important one was something that came from his teacher, a super strong, super fit Maori guy, who could kill with his pinkie finger, but was the gentlest man around. He taught his charges that real men are “kind because they can be.” He was teaching them to fight, he said, not to use it against people, but to protect them.
The power gained by strength was to be exercised with caution, and especially love. With it came a responsibility to help where you could, shield where you had to, and care always. It was a message that probably saved Jim’s life, because it came after he had just left the “education” of the Marist Brothers. They had used their dominion to beat the crap out of their students, and far too often put their hands up little boys’ shorts.
In 1950s Australia, working class kids had no protection against their teachers. Parents didn’t listen to their children yet, and believed that men in authority could be trusted to do the right thing. The result was a whole generation of boys who believed that being a man meant being a self-serving, violent prick. And because there were very few alternative role models around, this is what they taught their sons, who taught their sons. Which is how we got into this mess. (Yes, I know, there is more to it. But let’s deal with this for now.)
The power gained by strength was to be exercised with caution, and especially love. With it came a responsibility to help where you could, shield where you had to, and care always.
When Jim and I had just met, I was in Australia on a temporary visa and was still a journalist in Holland. Before I left, I had made an appointment to interview Steve Biddulph, the great expert on boys and their development. I flew to Launceston, had abalone for the first time, and listened to Steve tell me a story, about the Aboriginal elder he had met in the Kimberley, who had told him that the job of a man is to protect the life around him. Boys, he had said, live for themselves, but a real man lives for others.
It had helped Biddulph write his seminal Raising Boys, in which he tried to explain that men are not born, but made. You have to learn to be a man, he wrote, and “most boys don’t have the software.” That is why they look around them, grab a “man mask” off the shelf and pretend that they know what masculinity is about … only to realize, when their first intimate relationship turns up, that they need more, much more, to deal with that. This is why so many men are unhappy and struggling, Biddulph wrote, and why we have to start preventing this by raising boys differently.
In his book, and many other publications after it, Biddulph advocated all kinds of mentoring, where men guide boys, supported by women if necessary. It is a message that is slowly trickling through into the fabric of wider society. In the last few weeks, I was confronted with it twice. The first time was when I was watching an interview with Tim Winton. Like Jim, Winton has been lucky. He had a great dad, and men in his church and family who took the time to pay attention to the boy and later to the young man. But this is not what he sees when he goes out surfing and listens to the boys on the boards around him.
The misogyny, the toxic masculinity, the “contempt for gentleness and decency,” the destructiveness: it worries him. It is, as he says, “all instinct, no insight,” and “like they are rehearsing what they think a real man should be like” without understanding the first thing about it. They behave like “emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.” He realizes also that there are no real journeys to maturity for men, that boys are on their own to figure out something that is way beyond their grasp. Fathers have dropped the ball, he says, so young men are lost, wounded, and trying to figure out what their role is. Not succeeding, they become not only violent, but also full of self-hatred. Like Jaxie, the unforgettable protagonist of his new novel The Shepherd’s Hut.
What is needed, according to Winton, is for men to understand that a good life is not about “the biggest wheels and lording it over somebody else,” but about having a “moral imagination.” To look around you and be open. Show tenderness, grace, trust, and “optimism as a discipline.” Especially towards boys, who are now treated as “awkward creatures,” only capable of damage, destruction, and negativity. Of course, we can all help raise the boys around us. But because we all learn better from example, men have a special role. And that is where Ben Quilty has stepped up to the plate. We know Quilty as a painter, somebody who was the official Australian war artist in Afghanistan. The guy too who taught Myuran Sukumaran to draw and supported him before his death by firing squad in Bali in 2015.
Like Jim, he was at the receiving end of Catholic bounty at school, but because he didn’t find a karate teacher in time, he went off the rails when he was a young man. Drinking, overstepping boundaries, numbing emotions, inner turmoil, physically risking himself, anything to block things out and “shirk responsibilities.” And then he had a son and realized that he needed to find a way to show tenderness, generosity of spirit, love. To be a father, he had to understand and deal with his own pain, his own low self-esteem. It led him to start asking questions about masculinity, about fear and courage, and male taboos. He asked young men around him to help him mentor his child. Spend time, listen, feel things, and be proud of them. Together, they learned, helped each other out, came up with new definitions of “mateship” and manhood.
So, things are moving. And that is good. Because the best thing that can come out of the #MeToo movement is a greater love for men. Especially by other men. Remember that lovely beer ad made in New Zealand (of course)? Have a look, and see the new masculinity:
If you want to be where it’s at, if you want to be at the forefront of a trend, believe me: this is it. #loverealmen. Jim wouldn’t have it any other way.