Mark Latham’s brief re-entry into Australian public life, following the launch of his book of observations of Australian political culture, A Conga Line of Suckholes, perfectly mirrors his always florid, usually bellicose and often controversial parliamentary career.
This time around, Latham revived the notion that Australian masculinity is, somehow, in trouble. Most notable, he says, is a palpable ‘decline in Australian male culture’ and the ‘loss of larrikin language and values.’ Even a thin interrogation of Latham’s comment reveals that it’s a new version of one of his old standards.
In March 2004, Latham’s initial hyperbole about Australian masculinity was aired. Trying to cash in on the ‘traditional’ family values and ‘Bible belt’ vote that featured prominently in the Federal election later that year, Latham expressed concern over single-parent families. Same-sex couples were also scapegoated. Latham’s spittle was flung particularly toward lesbian parents and toward families without ‘traditional’ male role models.
Sexuality spokesperson for the Australian Democrats, Senator Brian Greig responded soon after Latham’s bilious spray, suggesting that a simmering sexism and an overtly hostile homophobia attitudes that have long travelled through parts of the Australian imagination underpinned Latham’s impassioned remarks about the feminisation of boys. Sadly, nothing much has changed in two years.
Sexism and homophobia aside, it’s tempting to connect Latham’s concerns over the decline of ‘true blue’ bloke masculinity to the recent national mourning over the death of Steve Irwin. This was one moment when the leaders of our two major political Parties, in rare bipartisan spirit, fell over themselves in the race to anoint Irwin the ‘quintessential Aussie larrikin.’ Especially fascinating about Irwin’s posthumous curtain call was the national outpouring of grief for the death of well, what exactly? Father, husband and friend? Certainly. Popular showman and businessman? Maybe. Maaaaaate? Most definitely. Yet could our grieving also be masking something deeper; perhaps the loss of something more integral to the Australian identity?
Yes, it’s true that large numbers of us grieved. Some of us men even cried. A lot. But I’m not convinced we mourned Irwin’s death per se. Rather, it seems we mourned the slow decline of an older idea of Australia and Australian male culture, a culture that as Latham laments has been transformed by a number of external influences. Irwin’s death was merely a catalyst; Freud may well have called this a national melancholia over the loss of the traditional Australian condition.
In an essay entitled ‘Lovable Larrikins and Awful Ockers’, Monash University cultural historian Professor John Rickard wrote that the Australian larrikin displays a strong and charismatic masculinity, one which ‘masks a core of inner uncertainties.’ It’s clear that job security, traditional family values and good ol’ Aussie blokedom have taken a battering over the past 30 years. Add to this brooding cocktail of perceived male abandonment the thrust of 1970s and 1980s Left-feminism, the dissolution of the boundaries between straight and gay masculinities, as well as an influx of very different ideas about masculinity and male identity from other parts of the globe, and no wonder we witnessed the rearguard action that was Latham’s ‘Vic Bitter’ tale of the nation.
Thanks to Paul Batey
It is apparent, however, that vast masses of Australian men do not connect with images of the sort of bloke that Latham valourises. Many Australians do not relate to representations of the beefy, sun-ripened, hairy-chested rouseabout found in Jack Thompson’s Foley in the classic 1970s film Sunday Too Far Away, or Harold Hopkins’s ‘awful ocker’ Cooley, in Don’s Party, for example.
The recent inquiry into Dianne Brimble’s drug-induced death aboard the Pacific Sky cruise liner reveals that harsher types of these ‘Strine masculinities may well still be alive. But the stark truth is that Antipodean masculinities have largely moved away from these tropes, particularly given the globalised world we now inhabit. They have shifted from what business identity Hugh Morgan, in his Wilfred Brookes Oration at Deakin University early this year, parochially suggested was the ‘aggressively Australian’ type that dominated our mining industry during the 1960s. Morgan’s speech, essentially a call for the dusting off of our old mining ‘muscle Mary,’ was another version of the national mourn.
The truth is that Latham’s and Morgan’s men are two-dimensional, cartoon caricatures of the ‘offensively Australian’ a fiction that was largely promulgated in the 1890s by cultural nationalists such as Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy, and extended and popularised, unintentionally, by others such as historian Russel Ward in his seminal work The Australian Legend. Nationalist nostalgias of this sort, which Latham speaks about and which the spectacle surrounding Irwin’s death attempted to recuperate, are often stage-managed and photoshopped versions of the politically imagined nation.
And these one-act dramas usually play out in our everyday life. On television, for instance, they masquerade alongside the Kochies and Karls on our breakfast entertainment and evening news services, our commercial current affairs programming and our locally produced soapies. They’re so everyday, in fact, that we hardly notice them for what they really are.
Latham and his men have no sole ownership of Oz-style masculinity. Despite the best efforts of politicians, new and old, larrikinism and Australian mateship can never be reclaimed to work in the service of any one masculine creed. Perhaps the drift away from traditional Australian masculinities is best exemplified by the overlapping masculine identities that surrounded the high profile civil libertarian and self-confessed ‘pot smoking poofter,’ John Marsden, who recently passed away. In a life possessed with vigour and confidence, Marsden’s uncompromising attitude toward his homosexuality dislodged, and rendered as ambivalent, modern-day versions of the Australian bush legend and its associated mythologies of ‘Strine mateship.
Mass migration and an electronic world mean new ideas of masculinity much more rapidly enter and influence Australia’s ever-changing and mutating male culture. They mix with the old and form something new something more hopeful, positive and ethical. If the products of these shifting contours of masculinity are the ‘metrosexual knobs and toss bags’ which Latham lambasts and tries to excoriate, then I most certainly know for which team I would prefer to bat.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.