Poor Zac Guildford. And I say that with genuine sympathy, though perhaps not for the reasons the media and the All Blacks organisation of apologists thinks I ought to. We as a nation are being asked to cut Zac some slack, despite his assaulting two bystanders and sexually harassing another (female) athlete. Guildford is yet another in a long line of professional sportsmen who drink excessively, act violently and abuse women. I sympathise with him not because his fame is hard to handle, not because being a professional sportsman comes with pressures that can cause self-destructive behaviours, but because the kind of masculinity Guildford enacts clearly has negative impacts on his own well-being, and the well-being of those around him.
When rugby players are seen as pretty much the penultimate in male role models, and this kind of drunken and abusive behaviour appears to be generally condoned (or at least expected and therefore tolerated) when we see how common it is in the professional and amateur ranks, perhaps we ought to be thinking about what we are teaching our boys and men with respect to the kinds of masculinity they perform. Some might say that it the alcohol talking, but there has been sufficient cross-cultural research showing that drunken behaviour is culturally defined. Excessive consumption does not by necessity lead to violence and sexual aggression. Not unless you live in New Zealand (and a few other western nations – proud lot, aren’t we?). Alcohol often acts as a disinhibitor and facilitator. It also comes with some cultural rules about how it is consumed and how consumers are to behave when consuming. It’s not hard to see what New Zealand’s culture is. For some of our men, it’s about potential violence and potential sexual aggressiveness. A walk around any city centre on a Saturday night will cough up any number of fights and women being harassed by unwanted (and sometimes aggressive and insulting) sexual attention.
If we are to feel sorry for Zac Guildford, it is because he is little more than a publicised stereotype of a kind of Kiwi manhood. We all know Zac, he lives down the road from us, he’s one of our mates (or used to be), we went to school with him, he’s in our work place. He is the height of hyper-masculinity in our culture, hard drinking, womanising, rough and strong, and to top it all off, a hero/an All Black. The question of whether we ought to cut Zac some slack comes down to whether or not we ought to cut this stereotype some slack. Personally I think there are other ways to be masculine. And it really is about time that this kind of masculinity was reformed, rather than fed with sympathy. Guildford was lucky not to have seriously injured someone, or killed them (whether through assault (he is after all an athlete built for physical conflagration) or a motor accident with his reckless riding). The men he assaulted appear to be happy to shrug it off – perhaps this is the acceptance of men being men. Kelly Pick on the other hand has had reinforced the cultural lesson that for women no space is safe from sexual harassment – an unhappy reminder of a social reality that is archaic and socially constraining. What is ironic for Kelly is that Zac – who really is a nice guy (according to allies) – now becomes more the ‘everyman’ than ever, because our culture frames Zac this way – a regular guy, not unusually aggressive, just a rugby player with a bit of a drinking problem. Sexual harassment and aggression can therefore come from any man, any regular guy, once he gets a drink in him. So not only is Zac an example of masculinity, but he also reflects the kinds of femininity women ought to perform when men like him are around: cautious, aware, avoidant. Ironically the kind of behaviour some young women discussed or exemplified in my own research.
What we also ought to remember too is that there are plenty of other ways to be masculine. I know plenty of masculine men who are not like Zac – some of them play rugby, some of the drink, and some even get trashed, but as far as I know none of them have assaulted anyone, and as a woman I feel safe around them. They are the kinds of men I like spending time with – but you couldn’t get me within a mile of Zac Guildford. Yes, personal choice I know, but for me our culture’s apologetic attitude for men like Zac means that he will continue to be a lose cannon, as are many of the men who behave as he does. No doubt he is a nice guy, for all I know he is a prince among men, but the kind of masculinity he performs frames him as a potential risk. I doubt Zac would be happy about this if he understood just what his performance actually means to those in his very large audience. And as a culture we ought to be unhappy about this too, because it places within our midst another thing to be wary of, another social element that constrains our behaviour (regardless of gender), another force to be avoided or capitulated to.
Poor Zac … and poor us.