Re-inventing the Warrior

Posted on August 3, 2009.

Old and new values in contemporary masculinities

Guest post by Trevor Davies, Director, African Fathers Initiative

Strong and caring men. Photo: Trevor Davies

Strong and caring men. Photo: Trevor Davies

This week I’ve been trying to get to grips with what at first glance seemed a real backward step in the struggle for gender equity.

For a long time, in my work around masculinities based on feminist analysis, I’ve opposed the idea that there was some golden age of manhood when men were strong and women were weak and needed to be looked after.

The premise of much of the mytho-poetic approach in masculinities is that we need to return to male power positive and caring values to cure the ills of our society such as gender-based violence, child abuse and crime.

I have found an intriguing manifestation of this idea in South Africa this week in The Mankind Project and its New Warrior programme. Their intention is twofold:

-  To enable men to live lives of integrity, accountability, and connection to feeling.
-  To be of service to the community at large, both as individual men with a renewed sense of passion and personal responsibility, and as communities of men working together to build sustainable relationships.

Sounds good!

They believe that “men have been warriors since the beginning of time and every man has his warrior side. But social forces pressure many to repress this part of themselves. They unconsciously substitute a distorted shadow for the healthy warrior energy so essential to sustaining individual and communal balance.”

So the New Warrior is a man who has confronted this destructive “shadow” form and has achieved hard-won ownership of the highly focused, aggressive energy that empowers and shapes the inner masculine self.

Sustained by this new energy, the New Warrior is at once tough and loving, wild and gentle, fierce and tolerant.

An early start to fatherhood. Photo: Trevor Davies

Photo: Trevor Davies

He lives passionately and compassionately, because he has learned to live his mission with integrity and without apology.

On second thought

My first reaction was to disregard it all and walk away but then I thought about the archetypes of fatherhood. God the Father, the Father of the Nation, the Daddy of them all are familiar rhetorical forms that are dear to us. In imaginative forms we entrench these linguistic repertoires into intentional thought patterns and images.  The rhetorical images may have positive or negative connotations.

For example, writer Roshila Nair has argued that a celluloid version of fathering is effected through the media and that the aggressive film character of Rambo served as a father figure with particular allure for underage combatants in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa in the early 1990s

These boys, aged 9-16, lived under violent circumstances where their fathers were emasculated by extreme poverty. Caught up in the conflict, they had to make sense of their new role as participants in violence “by adopting the hero Rambo as father”.(Nair, 1999, quoted by Jeanne Prinsloo, 2003)

Nair is concerned with the reverberations that such macho masculine identities hold for the women these men encounter, and the destructive fathers they might become. The older and disempowered men were unable to control these young men who engaged in rape and other forms of violence against young women with impunity.

Our own research in the African Fathers Initiative refutes the idea that changing gender roles have put men and masculinity into a crisis. The problem for men is not their new role or lack of one.

Instead, we see men’s fatherhood role confusion as stemming from their commitment to outdated male mytho-poesis, the traditional role of provider and the strong, cold, emotionless fortress.

New warriors

Then I thought of the “New” part of the Warrior. What if the Mankind Project is not about a return to the past but an attempt to modernise the warrior element of the past into a new cultural form, appropriate for the modern day, to change initiations and transitions for young men, to mentor them into the new masculinity we need?

Photo: Trevor Davies

Photo: Trevor Davies

We cannot just leave it to chance and hope we will get the new men and fathers we need. It needs an investment in realising the change in men that we want to see.

Maybe when we discard our tradition, denigrating it as a monolithic patriarchy to be completely dismantled, we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Maybe we need new warriors with new values and skills in realising their own place in gender equity and caring roles for men. What do you think?

African Fathers Initiative on You Tube

Read about re-thinking masculinities in Brazil, Morocco, Uruguay, South Africa and globally.