This is a short assignment written in 2004 as part of my Masters in Creative Writing, for the compulsory unit in Culture and Writing. The aim was to take an anthropological approach to a personal experience in which one had been made to feel marginalised either deliberately or inadvertantly by a dominant narrative.
This brief essay is essentially an examination of the effects of assumed complicity in a form of mass identity and the difficulty in asserting an alternative voice in such a context. By assumed complicity, I refer to a situation where it is assumed by others that I share their identity and as a consequence am understood to share the same values and ideas. I wish to illustrate what I consider to be a tribal phenomenon with three examples. The first of these is an example of my assumed complicity in a shared masculine identity; the second my assumed complicity in a combined masculine and national identity, and the final example, by way of contrast, is a brief examination of the silencing of the masculine narrative and liberation from its identity constraints. I wish in all instances to highlight the difficulty or awkwardness in voicing an alternative attitude when confronted with a narrative that is strongly asserted by a group in a way that assumes my complicity and agreement with its basic tenets.
1. Assumed complicity in Rejection of the “Feminine.”
One such occasion was when I had reluctantly agreed to attend a double bill of the extended versions of the first two Lord of the Rings movies. I say reluctantly because I knew it would be an arduously lengthy experience at just over eight hours, but had decided to come on the grounds that I rarely had the opportunity to see two of my oldest friends whose idea it was that we should go. There were six of us in total, including three people I had not met before who were friends of my friend Mike. Having already purchased our tickets, we were queuing to enter the cinema itself when, pointing to a poster advertising the then upcoming release of Love Actually, Richard Curtis’ new film, one of these guys proceeded to remark: “By the people who brought you Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, as if anyone’s going to want to see that.”
My hackles rose instantly and I made no comment whatsoever. I had seen all three of these films and enjoyed them immensely, and as the other men chuckled around me in agreement, I turned away and pretended to be distracted by something else altogether. I was greatly angered that in making this comment, this chap expected my automatic complicity. I was also highly annoyed that my two old friends, who I had previously thought to be less prone to stereotypically negative masculine knee-jerk responses to romantic themes, were more than happy to share in this group derision.
I was about to speak and voice my dissent publicly when I realised that I honestly did not wish to engage in conversation with these other three guys I did not know, whom, in all likelihood, I would never see again. Not usually one to allow my opinion to go unheard, at the first opportunity I voiced my enthusiasm for these films separately to my friend Mike, and made clear my intention of seeing Love Actually, yet publicly I felt silenced by this aggressive masculine derision, however casually and playfully it was initially voiced.
As a consequence of my annoyance at having this narrative imposed upon me, the rest of the crowd seemed to take on a more menacing form. Here suddenly were devotees of the action movie genre, not people with a romantic imagining of Tolkien’s books as they might possibly have been only a few moments ago. As a consequence, I ended up leaving after the first film, feeling out of place in this group and no longer wishing to participate in this popular event.
2. Assumed Complicity in a Muscular National Identity
It was the opening night of the Rugby World Cup and Australia was playing Argentina. I had originally made plans to see a film that evening, but soon after arranging this I received a phone call from a friend urging me to go and watch the match at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction. I pointed out that I already had plans and was going to a movie, and was then subjected to playful derision over my priorities. “Mate, you’ve gotta be joking, it’s the first night of the world cup and Australia’s playing. You can see a film any time.” This conversation continued for some time, and in the end I reluctantly agreed to go to the pub. I was not averse to watching rugby, but rather my reluctance stemmed from the desire to avoid large groups of drunk blokes shouting at a television and engaging in mind-numbing forms of chanting. Having worked in a pub for three years in England, I had been shocked by the zeal of sports fans and what I considered to be the rude and barbarous behaviour they exhibited. It had filled me with a strong distaste for English sports fans, and yet, in a sense, it was not as confronting as seeing my own countrymen behave in the same way, for in the latter instance, they were likely to assume my complicity in their behaviour.
Upon entering the pub, I was instantly plunged into an environment in which the hegemonic narrative was nationalism, and the sub-plot, jovially aggressive masculinity. I was not in any way afraid of the environment, I simply had a distaste for its lack of sophistication – a consequence of my own pretension. Here was a tribal environment, mostly white males wearing Australian colours and already boisterous. I was not out of place, and it was in fact partly for this reason that I felt disappointed, for I did not want to be included in the tribe. I considered myself to be a disinterested observer of a contest, and may the best team win.
It was hardly surprising therefore when, once the game was under way, all decisions by the referee that went against Australia were greeted with mass, loud shouts of protest, however reasonable the decision. I felt as though my reason had been silenced by this tribal identity in which I was expected to be complicit, because, with the exception of two Argentineans, no one wanted to hear me state that the decision was in fact fair and reasonable. By the time the game was over, I had had more than enough of this type of asserted mass identity and was quite determined that it would be a very long time before I again attended an event in which national fervour was paraded at the expense of reason and in which I was expected, by my presence, to share values and interests with people I felt I had nothing in common with at all and did not wish to associate with.
My internal reaction within this setting was a consequence of my own prejudice and I was aware that my distaste for this type of behaviour was unfair. It was a common enough, often entirely harmless celebration of unity, and as much an act as anything else. It was an opportunity to perform as a part of a common narrative with a recognisable structure, yet it was a narrative in which the protagonists were stereotypes and caricatures; the product of self-imposed reduction. It was unreasonable to turn up and expect otherwise, but the singularity of purpose and degree to which people took the matter seriously astonished me. In the end I had little choice but to participate passively, for the simple fact that no one really wanted to talk about anything else.
3. The Silencing of the Masculine Narrative: A Liberation.
The final example is particularly close to home, but one that struck me as worth some discussion; namely, the phenomenon of my being the only male in my particular class for this course.
I had not realised the scale of the gender imbalance until I sat down and the lady sitting next to me stated, “gee, you’re a bit outnumbered here.” At this I took a good look around the room and realised that I was in fact the only male present. Four more students entered after this point and they were also all female. When later I came to think about the class composition in more detail, I realised that my reaction to this situation was complex and occurred on many different levels, almost all of which were positive.
At a most basic level, it was titillating to be the only man in a room full of women, and the absence of other males ensured precisely the sort of monopoly I was genetically programmed to desire! Yet I was also marginalised in a way that gave me a heightened awareness of my gender. Whilst everyone proved open and welcoming, there was still a sense initially of being an outsider and I was concerned that I might feel isolated should the debate concern gender issues and I were to find myself at odds with general opinion. This was not something I expected, and fortunately did not prove to be the case. Instead, in assessing my position in the class it became clear that I was, in fact, made more comfortable by the absence of other males.
There were a number of reasons for this, the most prominent of which was the absence of another individual that I might be expected to bond with at the level of gender. Not having any natural ally in this sense made it more much more difficult to adopt a masculine attitude. There was no one whose natural agreement I might seek, or who equally might seek mine.
Viewed from another angle, however, as the only man present there was a certain pressure to appear representative, either broadly, or typically. This was another form of imposition whereby it might be assumed that I was a party to the extant masculine narrative. Yet, the significant difference was that I had more freedom to undermine and circumvent that identity, for here there was not so much a direct assumption of complicity, but rather a sort of challenge to prove a lack of complicity. Without the cacophony of an imposed masculine identity and its attendant necessary exchanges, I felt more at ease to project a masculinity with which I was comfortable.