Think about it…
When you are sitting on public transport, enjoying your daily commute to work, and you notice an extraordinarily attractive gentleman in a slim cut suit – what are your initial thoughts?
Yes. Of course. But ASIDE from that?
“Look at his overpowering masculinity: his well kept moustache, his strong biceps, his washboard abs…”
Exactly. You admire his masculinity. But do you ever wonder why you value these masculine characteristics? Or indeed, why these characteristics are proscribed to be masculine?
“The Cult of Identity: The History Wars Regarding National Identity in Australia” (‘Cult’) is an examination of how certain concepts of masculinity came to be embodied in Australia’s national mystique. It explores how historians in the mid twentieth century, desperate for a national history, co-opted poems and bush-ballads of the past to discern a distinctly masculine national identity for Australians. Whilst this essay could not explore the scope of these ramifications, it certainly outlines how these foundations were created.
So, before we begin, which of these images do you think truly represents the Australian national identity?
A feminist response might say:
“None of those images are , or were at any time, a true representation of Australia’s national identity!”
Some of you might say:
“Well… the ANZAC Soldier appears to be the oldest picture above… and we do know that masculine characteristics of strength and fertility were embodied in representations of the solider in the WWI years…”
Whereas others might say:
“Well hang on… what did Russell Ward say in The Australian Legend (1958)? Something about our national identity being based on the ‘Noble Bushman’ posited in the poetry of A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson?’
Cult seeks to explore the historiography surrounding the representations of masculinity in Australian history. Firstly, it engages with the main secondary source Russel Ward’s ‘The Australian Legend’ (1958) (‘Legend’) and outlines Ward’s thesis. By way of brief summary, Legend posited that Australia’s national identity was founded upon the rural values of nineteenth century bushmen. By exploring the poetry of Henry Lawson and A.B ‘Banjo Paterson’, Ward concluded that rural values of the nineteenth century, such as mateship and collectivist democracy, were ‘adopted by the whole nation… [and] became embalmed in a national myth (Ward, Legend, (1958) p.1). Ward claimed that Lawson and Paterson were the chief propagators in facilitating the idea that bush life was representative of Australia’s national identity. Cult seeks to outline how Ward’s text, which became emblematic as it was the first to consider Australia’s masculine past was soon dispelled by historians. Cult also notes that Legend is now a starting point for all historians discussing Australian masculinity: it has been so constantly delegitimised by historians that now, ‘any discussion of Australian national values seems bound to use Russel Ward as a starting point’ (Rickard, National Character and the ‘Typical Australian’ (1979) p.19).
It is important at this point to note that Cult is a historiographical essay: it seeks to evaluate and synthesise the conflicting viewpoints regarding Australian masculinity.
Cult firstly considers the history war between Russel Ward and Humphrey McQueen. The purpose of this is dual fold:
- Firstly, it is one of the few ‘History Wars’ that have occurred in Australia; and
- Because this was the founding text which encouraged historians to delegitimise Ward.
McQueen’s argument is that Ward’s thesis should be disregarded because its view on masculinity is too narrow: it fails to consider the varying forms of masculinity experienced in urban centres as compared to the bush. Furthermore, McQueen charges Ward with creating a distorted rendition of the past, failing to acknowledge that Australian masculinity also embodied sinister traits such as racism and selfishness (McQueen, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism, (1970) p.23). McQueen’s thesis was assisted by the urban historian Graeme Davison who, by studying the contextual backgrounds of the primary sources that Ward relied upon in Legend, concluded that Ward’s thesis was ‘lacking in bush credibility’ (Davison, Sydney and the Bush, (1978) p.10).Davison analysed the urban lifestyles of Lawson and Paterson to conclude that their works, which celebrated an Australian identity based on rural values, could hardly be accurate considering that neither author had spent any time in the bush itself. However, Cult argues that these perspectives are incorrect and that Ward’s thesis may contain some fundamental truths within it. For example, consider this poem:
‘Round the camp fire of the fencers by the furthest panel west,
In the men’s hut by the muddy billabong,
On the Great North-Western Stock-routes where the drovers never rest,
In the shearers’ hut the slush lamp shows a haggard, stern-faced man
…They are drafting future histories of states! (Henry Lawson, “The Men Who Made Australia, 1882)
This poem, which had the intention of contrasting the toughness of rural Australia to the relative ease of urban life, shows that nineteenth century artists were attempting to locate and define a national identity for Australians.
Cult highlights that the contentions of historians such as McQueen and Davison have recently been revised and that the reliability of Lawson and Paterson have been restored through the research of revisionist historians. The historian Garner has re-examined diary entries, letters and ballads produced by Lawson and Paterson and has concluded that they both had ‘demonstrable bush credibility’ (Garner, ‘Bushmen of the Bulletin: Re-examining Lawson’s ‘Bush Credibility’ (2012) p.78). It is this approach that draws us back to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this blog:
- Why have historians celebrated certain characteristics to be masculine; and
- At what point in time did we begin ascribing certain acts of strength, patriotism and protection to men?
Whilst Cult cannot answer these questions, it does highlight how the topic of Australia masculinity has been fluid and often dependant on the the historians’ background and political motivations. By considering how Australia’s masculine national identity was formed and fought over by historians, we can broaden our considerations of how certain characteristics have been delegated to men over time.