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Masculinity in NZ

January 11, 2013

I was just reading an essay by Bronwyn Dalley (‘Chance Residues: photographs and social history’) and it touched on the topic of New Zealand masculinities. Because this is a theme I kept returning to when I read Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver (not to mention any number of young adult fictions), I thought I’d make a couple of notes….

Our use of photographs…

Dalley’s essay is an argument for the use of photographs as historic sources. “For some types of information,” she writes, “photographs offer access to the past that other sources, especially written, seldom elucidate, or do not portray with such immediacy. This is particularly the case with the quotidian and the small, taken-for-granted details that so frequently go unmentioned in other media but which form the fabric of everyday life in the past. So often, such details are the ‘involuntary confessions’ of history, the things tucked away in the corner of images. Historian James Ryan has termed these incidentals the ‘chance residues’ of the past – those unintended forms or details that lie in historical sources.” (p.169)

“Yet our use of photographs and other illustrations can sometimes be more in the nature of visual quotations.” (p.188)

Photographs open doors into this country’s rich social history. I hope that when our histories of consumption, shopping, leisure, dress, adornment, food, communication, work, bodies, interior decoration, and rituals – among other things – are undertaken, they will take visual material and photographs as key sources to combine with other types of source, for it is hard to imagine how they could be done otherwise. And the histories of less tangible things, such as emotions, sensibilities, mentalités, and beliefs, may also rely on images as main evidential material. …Photographs may challenge conventional views, offer new insights, and flesh out existing accounts. Utilising photographs and other types of images may require historians to make a conceptual leap in the treatment of the visual, to use them as more than illustrations feeding off the words. We should not keep photographs at a ‘safe, non-contaminating distance from the chaste body of the text’ if we want to exploit their potential as evidence from which we can construct new interpretations of our past.” (p.189)

Dalley on NZ masculinities

“The ‘eyewitnessing’ qualities of photographs can make visible aspects of material culture or daily life that can be overlooked in other forms of historical source, and in the process can challenge some of our assumtions about life in the past. Here I use a selection of images to explore how men dressed and groomed themselves. Not only do these provide an insight into the daily routines that men [-p.179] undertook in the past, but they suggest a more complex reading of masculinity than that which has sometimes been portrayed of New Zealand men.
As Fiona McKergow has reminded us in the New Zealand context, the mundane and habitual acts of attending to appearance help define ideas about gender, social class and occupational status, and express the cultural and social circumstances of an individual’s life. How people dressed or wore their hair sends messages about how they present themselves to the world. Historically, women’s rather than men’s appearance has been the subject of attention, although some recent New Zealand studies have begun to address this gap in our cultural history. The stereotyped images of the New Zealand man range from the bearded paterfamilias of the nineteenth century, through t the smoothly shaved, short-haired hard man of the mid-twentieth century and beyond. They are stoic outdoors types or family men who had little truck with grooming. Fussing about personal appearance was something that women did, and for any red-blooded male, an over-concern with appearance was liable to be seen as sexually dubious at best.
Yet men were more than mates, husbands and fathers. They were shoppers, consumers and businessmen, and a man’s success in business was often conflated with how he looked. For middle-class men especially, the look was strong, assertive, confident and open.” (pp.178-179) Dalley continues this discussion in ensuing pages.

New Zealand’s developing labour and political organisation

Also of interest to me was Dalley’s comment that “Of all areas of our social history we have an especially rich published photographic record of the workplace, occupations, labour relations, and work patterns.” (p.173) In this essay, she explores how photographs evidence New Zealand’s urbanisation, the emergence of its white-collar workforce and developing labour and political organisation, comparing, for example, two photographs of ‘smoko’ and noting that “The tea break or ‘smoko’ occupies a liminal place at work; it is an official leisure time in the working day, a time when people are at work, but do not work. Time off is integral to the concept of work. The two are mutually constituted, and it is difficult to conceive of work without its corollary of time off or leisure, even if that leisure forms part of the working day itself.” (p.176) Again, Dalley continues this discussion….

Ref: Bronwyn Dalley (2006) ‘Chance Residues: photographs and social history’ pp.169-189 in  T. Ballantyne and B. Moloughney, (Editors) Disputed Histories: Imagining New Zealand’s Pasts. Otago University Press, Dunedin

The points Dalley makes seemed rather generally relevant to me – to an analysis of masculinities, to an analysis of food, etc.

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