The Cult of Masculinity

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?

“He’s hot!!!”

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:

  1. Firstly, it is one of the few ‘History Wars’ that have occurred in Australia; and
  2. 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.



4 comments on “The Cult of Masculinity

  1. torimaher says:

    This post was very engaging right from the start. I think you really captured the nature of this task but mixing engaging and relatable material with academic research. You succinctly describe and analyse the historiographical issues around the cult of masculinity in Australia in a way that many people could relate to, through your use of sources. However, even those who had no experience in the Australian history wars could also understand much of the content. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interesting post.

  2. sarahdavies1 says:

    Thank you for such an interesting post! Right from the start, your language was engaging and captured my attention. I found the content extremely interesting, you’re right in that you unconsciously process masculinity, and this is all a construct of social and historical factors. I found your writing was very appropriate for the task, very relatable and easy to read, whilst also being informative and educational. Congratulations!

  3. willhalp91 says:

    I can only agree with the above comments. This post was very enjoyable and very interesting. I also found some parts quite humorous. You raise very valid ideas on masculinity in this country’s national identity that have not been analysed and scrutinised enough in the public realm. It’s very intriguing as to why the bush and bushmen have come to heavily shape Australia’s national image when so few of us live in rural areas. Perhaps it is because they come to epitomise some of the nation’s favourite adages such as “such she’ll be right, mate” or “doin’ it tough.” But I think you addressed this thoroughly in your post. Well done!!

  4. I would also have to agree with the above comments. This post was undoubtedly engaging and enjoyable to read. I loved your use of rhetorical questions throughout the post as it allows the audience to think about the reality of what you are saying. Your focus on Australian national identity was exceptional and you have highlighted the importance of historians and how they have contributed to the formation of what people of Australia today believe to be “the true blue Aussie bloke.” Well done!!

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