Two weeks ago on this page I complained about how rarely mainstream Australian media uses the word ‘masculinity’ without the prefix ‘toxic’, and wondered how long it would be before simply referring to someone’s behaviour, personality or appearance as masculine will be enough to endow them with horns and out them as a sociopath.
What I didn’t know at the time of writing is that shortly before that column appeared, the American Psychological Association had published a research paper which purports to substantiate my intuition with data. To put it bluntly, the conclusion of Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men is that ‘Traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful.’
We must assume that when dropping a sociological bombshell of this magnitude, a respected professional body like the American Psychological Society would choose its words carefully, and that in selecting and combining these particular nouns – stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, aggression – they knew they’d be prompting a reappraisal of many activities which have not previously been obvious targets of moral censure.
For example, from now on men and boys who participate in a contact sport like AFL or rugby will be aware that they do so on a slippery slope. That it is only a matter of time before their desire to prevail on the pitch will find expression off it. That the same appetite for tackling opponents and scoring tries will quite probably lead to them beating up their partners, abusing their children and bullying their co-workers. Or, if they grow up to be heads of state, to oppressing minorities and invading other countries.
Clearly, then, it is in the best interests of the civilised world to stop men and boys playing AFL and rugby – not to mention every other sport which involves competitiveness, dominance and aggression – and to do so as soon as possible.
But what about the women who play them?
Women’s rugby is now one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, and if any other country played AFL I’ve no doubt women’s AFL would be enjoying a similar boom. Do these women bring a different, more ‘feminine’ attitude to their codes? Do they kick and pass less aggressively? Do they tackle more compassionately? Do they, in short, care less about winning?
These are some of the questions I was asking myself when I sat down to watch the international women’s rugby sevens competition which Sydney hosted last weekend. And I didn’t have to watch for long before coming to the conclusion that female rugby players are every bit as competitive and aggressive as their male counterparts. And then I remembered coming to the same conclusion in Melbourne two weeks earlier, watching Serena Williams blasting her opponents off the court at the Australian Open. It may be true, as John McEnroe has rather bravely observed, that if the world’s number one female tennis player transferred to the men’s circuit she wouldn’t rank in the top 100. But that is surely more a matter of physiology than attitude. And even physically, la Williams – with a top service speed of 122 mph – would be an intimidating opponent for most male professionals. Stoicism, as her tantrum in the final of last year’s US Open made all too clear, may not be Serena’s long suit, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that her capacity for competitiveness, dominance and aggression is anything other than boundless.
So does that mean that she satisfies the American Psychological Association’s definition of ‘traditional masculinity’? To put it another way, do the attributes and attitude women need to become great tennis players – or great footballers or water polo players or marathon runners – diminish them as women?
And by succeeding in a field which has been traditionally a male domain are they really striking a blow for diversity, or is that achievement a betrayal of the sisterhood?
Or is that, like every sentence in Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, a load of old bollocks?
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