Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

NZ culture 'hostile to women' - expat writer

Katherine Dolan says the Kiwi culture she grew up in "worshipped the Spartan virtues: stoicism, masculinity, physical strength, group cohesion, terseness." Photo / Supplied
Katherine Dolan says the Kiwi culture she grew up in "worshipped the Spartan virtues: stoicism, masculinity, physical strength, group cohesion, terseness." Photo / Supplied

An expatriate Kiwi writer who has lived in half a dozen countries says New Zealand culture is uniquely hostile towards women.

Katherine Dolan, a 38-year-old freelance writer now based in Italy, has stirred extreme reactions to a five-part essay written for Fairfax Media on the dark side of the country she lived in for her first 28 years.

"I think 'a little bit crazy' sums up our writer. A couple of harden up pills should sort you out!" one reader wrote.

But a woman commented: "Most honest, reassuring and truthful article I have read in a while. Thank you for your courage. We need to start standing together and get our teina/ sisters strong, proud and aware."

Dolan grew up in Palmerston, Otago, where her parents were psychiatric nurses.

She married her English lecturer at Otago University, Dr John Dolan, 61, an American who was often surprised or shocked when she talked about life in small-town Otago when she was growing up.

"There were things that seemed strange or abnormal to him and things that he had noticed that I had always taken for granted," she said.

"For example in NZ social settings in the 80s and 90s, women would go and talk somewhere and men would go and have a beer and chat around the barbecue. There was a real social segregation that seemed strange to John, who is from California and in his community there would be free mixing.

"He also told me about his interactions with women in New Zealand where women seemed very suspicious of him. They said he was nice to them. They were not used to being treated nicely."

The couple lived for several years in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where Katherine taught English. Her book about her experience there will be published in Milan next month.

Although Saudi culture was "oppressive" towards women, she found that women were actually valued there more than they were in New Zealand.

"The thing about Saudi Arabia and other similarly patriarchal places is that there is still a clearly defined, traditional role for women that is valued. Women are valued for their feminine virtues, or for being mothers.

"They are very strictly defined roles and they don't suit everyone, and they are oppressive of course, but there is still value placed on being a woman, and I don't think that is true in New Zealand."

She said the Kiwi culture she grew up in "worshipped the Spartan virtues: stoicism, masculinity, physical strength, group cohesion, terseness".

"Playing rugby was the best, noblest thing you could do, and it was an exclusively male pursuit," she wrote.

"In the world of rural New Zealand, anything contrary to being a man was frowned upon, and it went without saying that the worst thing you could do was to be a woman, even, or especially, if you were biologically female."

"As quite a little girl I felt an odd puzzlement at the pop-culture texts still regarded as "iconic": Footrot Flats (a rugby-playing sheep farmer and his male dog), Fred Dagg (a stereotypical farmer in rural New Zealand), Bogor (a rural woodsman and his male hedgehog friend) and Barry Crump.

"Later, I realised what had been bothering me; there were virtually no women or girls.

"The word 'girl' was an insult, applicable to both sexes, and was roughly equivalent with weak, soft, emotional and cowardly."

She told the Herald that she had not seen this attitude in any other country.

"That sense of hostility towards the feminine, I haven't experienced it anywhere else," she said.

"It's got to do with the rugby team, which I think comes from kind of a war culture. New Zealand was founded by whalers and sealers and basically single men."

She believes this masculine culture of "toughness" flows into harsh parenting, child abuse, alcohol-fuelled sexual violence and casual sexism of the kind demonstrated in the recent case of Chiefs rugby players fondling a stripper, rather than truly valuing women.

"You don't want to emphasise romance when the important thing is male team cohesion," she said.

"Part of it is the stoic spirit of keep the deadpan face, don't show emotion. So men may not have necessarily intended that to be hostile, but it came off as hostile for women.

"So the effect is feeling really out of place and devalued, especially the change from childhood to puberty when you are a girl and you feel the loss of value of your person. You feel that suddenly you are worth less.

"After puberty, in some cultures, you get flooded with attention in a way that is kind of pleasant.

"But when I grew up it was always a kind of shaming thing: 'Oh, can I see your tits?' 'You've got big tits.' 'Oh, you've got hair there.' It was really hostile and aggressive and telling you that you're negative and it's not normal."

Dolan still visits her family in Dunedin and Queenstown and follows the NZ media.

"I'm still a New Zealander. Despite the headlines I don't actually hate the place," she said. "I just hate some aspects of the culture."

She sees some signs of improvement, such as a decline in binge drinking, and she hopes that education can gradually civilise us.

"Although these are private things, public measures could have an influence, such as educating people on how to treat other people nicely," she said.

"Rugby players are such strong role models, maybe they could lead the change. Instead of throwing gravel at strippers, they could talk about how they love their girlfriends and how they appreciate femininity."

- NZ Herald

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