Julia dropped a metrosexual bombshell on Married at First Sight this week. Dejan Jotanovic goes deep on the implications of this, and what’s behind our society’s relationship to masculinity.
Married at First Sight pegs itself as the ultimate experiment. Six couples are forced to not only cope with clashing values and combusting pasts, but the scrutiny of three seasoned “relationship experts” and the #mafsnz hashtag. The matrimony of perfect strangers all so quickly climaxes into the exploration of their collective imperfections. But what I find most fascinating is what the experiment unwittingly reveals about our own expectations and attitudes, as we – its viewers – are invited to become its armchair sociologists.
Much could be written on the politics of MAFS… How much is our perception of Ksenia’s iciness a consequence of her Russian heritage? What is the historical importance of representing women that actively don’t want children (hey Ottie) on national television? Could Yuki’s hair be the key to bipartisanship? Some politics are playful, others far less so: I’ve previously written about how Sam and Tayler’s scene on HIV prevention capitalised on drama at the damaging expense of public health.
But one narrative has provided both saliency and longevity in its politics: Julia’s issue with Dave’s masculinity… or lack thereof. Just watching the show you’d almost think it was 2002 and that David Beckham was relevant again just by the number of times Julia says the word metrosexual.
One scene has them both doing a little household DIY. It doesn’t end well.
“I think he’d be more comfortable in the kitchen and doing the vacuuming, while I’d have to bang in the nails,” Julia notes, “Does that mean our roles would be reversed? That’s not what I’m looking for.”
Watching at home in the very real year of 2018 makes this all incredibly frustrating. Julia’s language around gender had some pretty toxic implications: for this marriage to have worked, Dave would have needed to forgo his authentic self and conform to a traditional image of masculinity. From what we’ve seen of Dave he’s sweet, thoughtful, funny, and really cares about his skincare routine. But it’s exactly this level of what Julia understands as femininity (I refuse to use metrosexual ever again in this piece) that becomes a hurdle against any physical attraction or sexual intimacy.
Wanting to bang one of Julia’s nails in your own head for her regressive commentary is also compounded by the fact that we’re living in this very real and very politically heightened time. 2018 is a year marked by the public deconstruction of masculinity and manhood thanks to global narratives from the #metoo movement. An influx of sexual misconduct, assault and gendered violence allegations have resulted in a (much needed) interrogation of why men (statistically) do the things they do. These discussions have resulted in a labelling of toxic masculinity; traits associated with manliness that contribute to men’s overall sense of entitlement to space, power, women’s bodies, and their own emotional and moral decay.
Gender, we can mostly agree on, is a social construct, meaning we become authors to its playbook through years of repetition and storytelling. We assign gender at the first sight of biological sex, and then systematically teach little boys and little girls two very different guidebooks for life. The result is differences in aesthetic, attitudes and behaviour. While it’s true that gender in all its wicked traditional binary has more nuance than I perhaps give it credit for (not all iterations of manhood are inherently corrupt and bad), all up 2018 is not a wise time to be fetishising masculinity. Sorry Julia, this ain’t it!
We also know that broader New Zealand holds some prickly attitudes on gender. Published by Gender Equality NZ, the 2017 Gender Attitudes Survey showed that gender stereotypes are still very much kicking: one in five agreed that a man who doesn’t fight back when pushed around will lose respect as a man, around 20% believed engineering was more suitable for men, one in four thought nursing was better suited to women, and around 25% of respondents agreed that “gender equality has come far enough in New Zealand”.
The group lead by the National Council of Women also focus on broadening our concept of manhood, identifying that our “strong ideas about being a man put sexual prowess, being strong and making money above empathy, being kind and vulnerability.” The Good Guys campaign aims to expose, question and mitigate against the more toxic elements of masculinity and argues that these internalised attitudes can become dangerous: “heavy drinking, poor health and dangerous driving. They create barriers for male survivors of sexual violence to get help. They contribute to men using violence towards women and other genders – from sexual harassment to catcalling to partner violence to rape.”
With this in mind it’s understandable why much of the #mafsnz Twitter commentary would find Julia’s thoughts troubling. One of the top tweets with the most amount of likes/retweets follows, “julia banging on about dave not being masculine is so toxic. We NEED our men to be able to express their genuine selves and not have to conform to some fake idea of being a man.” This is an extremely fair and beautifully hopeful sentiment.
What’s missing from the analysis is that Julia’s attitude is an inconveniently honest and fascinating portrayal of a current tension with masculinity we need to get better at negotiating. It’s interesting because it shows the chasm between the world that is and the world that ought to be. Julia’s admission of wanting Dave to be “masculine” is perhaps less a conscious process of her own decision making, and more a symptom to the deeply embedded playbook of strictly binary gender she’s had to learn all her life. But it also reveals that the reproduction of masculinity – and its favorability – isn’t exclusive to men. It’s Julia, not Dave, that craves it most.
The politics of Julia and Dave highlight the teething period of a new world order, one where we’re required to try make sense of everything gained by the #metoo movement, shifting power dynamics, and disturbances to the status quo. Today we’re told to be suspicious and cautious of masculinity, but this wariness comes face to face with the harsh reality that many of our desires for intimacy and sex are rooted in our traditional understanding of gender and manhood. It’s difficult to not find masculinity attractive, when it’s all we’ve ever known to do. There’s no doubt that Julia wants to want Dave – but the question is how can she unpick the seams that years of socialising have stitched?
The answer is difficult and maybe a little too tricky for this armchair sociologist, but if we’re to believe that gender is a matter of repetition and storytelling then there’s definitely hope. Because – much like our MAFS couples are made to revisit and reissue their wedding vows – these stories can also be rewritten.