The Speight’s Southern man (Image design: Claire Mabey)
The Speight’s Southern man (Image design: Claire Mabey)

BooksJune 10, 2024

‘I felt sorry for him’: Reconsidering the Southern Man

The Speight’s Southern man (Image design: Claire Mabey)
The Speight’s Southern man (Image design: Claire Mabey)

Avi Duckor-Jones’ Max is a coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy who struggles to come to terms with his sexuality, and where he fits into his family and the world beyond school. Here he explores the pervasive brand of masculinity that he grew up with.

At university, there was a poster commonly found on the walls of many student bars and flats. It was titled “How to Be a Southern Man.” Maybe you know it. The rugged bloke in Swanndri and oilskin, surrounded by instructions about what was necessary to be considered adequately masculine.

I saw this poster again recently, on a West Coast pub wall, and wasn’t surprised to find that these tips had aged terribly. Most were misogynistic, homophobic, emotionally stunted directions on how to binge drink with pride. “A southern man never holds his woman’s hand in public. Never drinks from a stemmed glass. Wouldn’t be caught dead in a karaoke bar. Always drinks with his left hand, using his right hand free to prod the chest of anyone who disagrees with his rugby theories, of which he has many.” 

Although obviously farcical (and written by advertising creatives in Auckland), I remember how closely these instructions were followed among certain Otago pals. They dropped their voices an octave lower than what seemed natural to emulate what they thought a man ought to sound like. They wore black singlets, stubbies and gumboots (unironically) to lectures, bars, and parties. They watched rugby with religious fervour. There was a collective nostalgia for a good ol’ NZ that existed before our time, where cricket was played in beige uniforms, beer in hand, mullet and handlebar moustache worn with pride. 

This could easily be written off as geographical, many of these peers coming from small southern towns, but then again, this New Zealand man wasn’t new to me. Growing up in Wellington in the 90s, we too had the Speight’s ads with the silent, stoic mates who shared their admiration of each other with a barely discernible nod and a croaky “good on ya mate,” an affirmation usually given when the other chose a beer at the pub over dinner with his family. 

It wasn’t just the Speight’s ads either. This emotionally spare man was found in our literature and films too, and I’m not just talking Barry Crump and Footrot Flats. I remember, when living in New York, I introduced my friends to our cinematic gems through a wee NZ film festival. All the light fluffy faves such as Once Were Warriors, The Piano and In My Fathers Den. I remember one friend turning to me, and saying: “whoa, New Zealand is depressing.” And it can be. Beyond the fjords, beaches, barbecues and happy-go-lucky assurances that “she’ll be right,” there can be found a deep culture of repression in our men. 

Duckor-Jones’ coming-of-age novel; the Southern Man poster by Speights.

Growing up, the men in these books, films and TV, and I suppose many of the adult men in my life, seemed very private and embarrassed of emotional difficulty. If there were feelings, then they were quiet, reflective ones, experienced alone, in the bush or out to sea. They could be experienced collectively I suppose, but usually this was reserved for the pub or directed at the screen during rugby matches. There was no room for flamboyance, emotionality, sensitivity, and if it ever was displayed, it was met with a harsh critical eye. It was important to be disaffected. Untouchable. We know the isms:  “She’ll be right. No worries. Harden up. Suck it up. Build a Bridge. Man up…” and all the others that have surely contributed to our mental health stats. 

Where did this fear of emotion in our men come from? How was it constructed and then reinforced until it became part of our national identity? 

Like most things, I wonder if we can blame colonisation. The missionaries preaching puritanism or colonial stoicism. The settler mentality of self-reliance, a hard work ethic, judgement reserved for those showing any extravagance. No room for emotion when there is work to be done.

I suppose the legacy casts a long shadow. When we are no longer trying to convert indigenous peoples or raze native forests to build towns, the expectation from habit remains. That expectation becomes the norm, a source of national identity and pride, and we all know that social norms carry an immense amount of societal pressure to align with them. For those who don’t identify, those unable to embrace this character society has assigned to them, it can feel confusing, and can carry with it fear and shame, often causing authentic identities to remain hidden in order to assimilate. 

We all know by now, through experience or evidence from our news media, films or books, that hiding is not a sustainable reaction to repression. The painful effects of repression or deprivation can and do often build until they erupt. 

The stats on male mental health are alarming, and I think it’s not too far-fetched to conclude that this repression of emotion, hiding of authentic self and desire are largely to blame. Returning to our fiction (Witi Ihimaera, Alan Duff and Maurice Gee’s work comes to mind) this repression usually results in some dark family secret (most often abuse or closeted homosexuality) being revealed. There are high incidents of violence, suicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence in our stories. Familiar characters appear time and again. The judgemental, harsh or violent fathers, disconnected from the needs of their children, resulting in the child acting against familial, societal and cultural expectation. In life, it isn’t too dissimilar.

By reinforcing these stereotypes in fiction and film, how are our notions of masculinity in Aotearoa challenged? Is replicating this  bloke on the page perpetuating this ideal? Or can it be a way to subversively critique it? Art may be a way to peek beneath the surface and expose a more vulnerable self. On the other hand, reaching again and again to these stock characters, tropes and familiar narratives, may be contributing to an ongoing legacy, solidifying a distorted view of what a NZ man should look like.  

Although I think many of us have long shed the societal pressure to be a certain type of man, I can see it still exists. During the pandemic, as wars broke out, atrocities ravaged the earth, our top headlines were still rugby. In the age of the internet, there are countless influencers like Andrew Tate touting toxic masculine tropes. The difference I suppose, is that now young people, maybe all people, are learning to be discerning, critical, hopefully with the information literacy skills to identify these characters as dangerous rather than appealing.

Young people have a choice now too. It is not simply a case of being exposed to the Speight’s ad because it is the only thing on, but having the option to not watch Andrew Tate and tune instead to RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve seen in my students an openness to experiment with who they are and how they express themselves and challenge societal expectations of them. I’m sure, to them, the Southern Man would be an outrageously outdated concept. It is. 

Things have changed. Our idea of what masculinity in Aotearoa is changing. When I saw that poster of the Southern Man again on the walls of that pub? I felt sorry for him. He felt stunted. Instead of feeling appalled, I hoped he could shed some of these traits, even if it was as small as drinking from a stemmed glass in order to free himself of the crippling fear of embarrassment, or being outed as someone who actually feels things and instead, decide for himself who to be. 

Max by Avi Duckor-Jones ($38, Affirm Press) is available to purchase from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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