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Pink and blue – a matter of life and death

Family violence and the act of “being a man”

By Phil Barker

In 1918, a sales pamphlet, posted to American subscribers, by retailer Earnshaw Infants’ Department, declared that: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

If something as fundamental as our gendered notions of pink and blue can be reversed, what else have we got wrong about the roles and characteristics we assign to men and women?

If we could see masculinity, we would realise there’s a deep sea of blue all around us, seeping through our pores, dictating our every thought and action, colouring our view of the world.

From the moment we are born, boys and girls are thoroughly immersed in this pink/blue binary, as we learn what is expected of us and what it means to “be a man”, or a sweet little girl.

The influence of this indoctrination can manifest in some of most long-standing issues in our society. It is a core element of the policy and practice of No to Violence to acknowledge that family violence is “gendered” by nature. But what does that mean in the real world?

Although animated through different cultural lenses, what it means to “be a man” is a remarkably powerful and consistent notion around the world. For nearly 30 years, practitioners working with men and boys on masculinity have been using a wonderfully simple exercise called the “Man Box”.

A group is asked to put the words that describe manliness and masculinity inside a box. Those words, inevitably, are “tough, strong, hard, stoic, provider, leader, charismatic, tall, sporty, muscular, brave …”

So, what does that leave outside the box, what are the traits of a person who is not “manly?”. Emotional. Cries. Weak. Small. Girly … empathy, care, communication, fun, and joy, are all outside the box.

Recently, I attended a forum centred on masculinity hosted by the City of Wodonga. It was extraordinary to watch as the audience was asked to log on to an app through their phones and anonymously write their own “Man Box” words, which appeared in real time on the screen in front of them. There they were again “heroic, dependable, leader, don’t cry, silent, bread winner, young …”

Universally, this is what we believe it is to be a man and the performance of such, is strictly policed.

The language used to pull an “unmanly” man into line is brutal. Don’t be such a wimp, a sook, a pussy, so “gay.”

Young men have the empathy and the love shamed out of them.

We learn, so very quickly, what is expected of us as men. We spend our lives pretending to be so tough that we cut ourselves off from much of the happiness of great relationships. It’s a disaster for us and those around us.

We also learn what we can expect from people, as men. If I’m the hard-working boss, the breadwinner, the leader and provider, which is what a man is supposed to be, I’m entitled to a little respect, right?

Entitled. Because I’m a man.

There it is: That’s what family violence being “gendered” means.

It’s about the entitlement men feel to “respect” and control, simply because we’re men. It’s about our rage and shame when we can’t ‘measure up’.

It’s no coincidence the first exercise in the No to Violence, Introduction to Working Safely With Men Who Use Family Violence training, is pretty much the “Man Box” exercise. What might a very “manly” man be like? What about a feminine man? A manly woman?

In an exercise that takes half a morning, it becomes clear that the gendered nature of family violence is built on the expectation that men are owed something, simply because they’re men. While, massive shifts in awareness have been made in recent years, we still live in an environment where we’re debating “not all men” and whether there’s a thing called the patriarchy – male-dominated society – at work in our lives, at all.

As part of our life-long lessons in manhood, we are taught that women are not our equals. They’re soft, emotional, hormonal and irrational. They’re mothers, cooks or sex objects, rather than friends or partners.

In a story for Nine News Media last week on the myths around rape, Jane Gilmore, author of new book Fixed It, describes how our attitudes are shaped by the “preconceptions and subconscious biases we’ve learned through millions of tiny interactions with the world… in every advertisement, movie, song, poem, photo, joke, headline, book, comic strip, news article, comedy sketch or TV show.”

What it is to be a man, or a woman today isn’t hard-wired into our DNA. It’s learned. This is what the concept of “gender as a social construct” means.

Family violence starts with disrespect. It starts with the attitude that, simply because he is a man, he is owed control and leadership in his personal relationships. Time and again, police called to deal with domestic violence incidents where outraged men attempt to justify, deny or shift blame.

That’s why these discussions about gender and the nature of manhood, are so important. Studies indicate that the performance of masculinity can contribute to the attitudes and beliefs that drive family violence, which kills more than one woman a week in Australia. It is then, literally, a matter of life and death.

This weekend, I’ll be on two panels at the Brisbane Writers Festival, one on fatherhood, the other on masculinity in relation to equality for women.

Jess Hill, author of an extraordinary book on domestic violence, See What You Made Me Do, is a fellow panellist. The last page of her book, she writes that to become serious about ending domestic abuse would be “one of the greatest nation-building exercises in Australia’s history.”

She points out the speed at which the narrative surrounding gender and family violence is changing. Five years ago, no-one would have believed that something like the #MeToo Movement, a global revolution “not just against sexual harassment, but the patriarchy itself,” would be possible.

That’s why, when senior ABC journalist Leigh Sales was, to her horror, kissed on the mouth on stage at a fundraiser last week by a man “as a joke”, it became a national discussion about gender. Five years ago, it wouldn’t have even been newsworthy.

Hill writes that Steve Bannon, a high priest of the far right and an architect of Donald Trump’s election victory, fearfully points to changes in how we’re thinking about gender as the most radical movement of our time.

“Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real,” he said.

Men, it’s time to examine our assumptions – to stand up and speak up – for the women in our lives, for ourselves and for a community free from restrictive gender roles and family violence.

Rethinking what it means to be a man – every conversation, every panel, every book, every media moment – is a tiny step forward to the inevitable, unavoidable, critical, revolution; a revolution of men.


Philip Barker is an Advocate for No To Violence and author of The Revolution of Man.

If you need help addressing your use of family violence, call the Men’s Referral Service is at 1300 766 491. Lines open 24/7.