Discuss Gig Ryan’s work in the context of the notion of Australian ‘mateship’.
Mateship is an Australian cultural idiom that embodies equality, loyalty and friendship. Russel Ward, in The Australian Legend (1958), once saw the concept as central to the Australian people. Mateship derives from mate, meaning friend, commonly used in Australia as an amicable form of address.
During the 1999 Australian constitutional referendum there was some consideration regarding the inclusion of the term “mateship” in the preamble of the Australian constitution. This proposed change was drafted by the Australian poet Les Murray, in consultation with the Prime Minister of the time, John Howard:
Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.
Murray was not supportive of the inclusion of “mateship” in the preamble, stating that it was “blokeish” and “not a real word”, but the Prime Minister insisted it be included as the term, he said, had “a hallowed place in the Australian lexicon”. Howard reluctantly dropped the term from the preamble, after the Australian Democrats refused to allow it to be passed by the Senate where they held the balance of power.
Since the referendum the Australian government has introduced the concept of mateship as a possible part of an Australian citizenship test, although it was unclear how endorsement of the values of mateship would be tested.
The First World War introduced a new stage of mateship. Men had to be moulded together into an effective fighting force. In fact, as Garton has noted, war played a significant role in ‘constructing particular masculine ideals in Australian culture’. Perhaps, more than any other event, it was the Gallipoli campaign that enshrined mateship as a significant part of the Australian male self image. This mythologising began immediately after the landing in 1915. The Anzac legend of mateship, anti-authoritarianism, larrikinism and fortitude, became translated into a national ethos.
There are many positive dimensions claimed for mateship. Bruce Ruxton, president of the Returned Soldiers League in Australia, says it means ‘supporting one another in life of death situations. Your mate is someone you can rely on. It is a bond between persons made in war or in civilian life. While historian Geoffrey Blainey says it ‘primarily means personal or group loyalty’ (ibid). As Edgar notes, ‘mateship implies a deep and unspoken understanding that a mate will always stick by you’. Thus your mates would never ‘dob’ (inform on) you to the police no matter what crimes you may have committed. For many Australian men, mateship implies that loyalty to one’s mate is a higher virtue than observance of the law.
While bonds between men have often been used as a basis for male solidarity in many countries, Australia is perhaps the only country where the romanticisation of male bonding provided so useful a basis for national ideology. So it is more than just an Australian version of male bonding. Rather, such bonding has formed the basis of myths of national identity among Australian men. Bell noted that while male comradeship is common in most cultures, the Australian version seems to exaggerate this institution ‘almost as if Australian men were constantly in a state of emergency where they needed one another’.
The Anzac period has continued to establish a particular version of Australian national identity. When Australia prepared for a referendum on the option of becoming a republic in 1999, the then Prime Minister John Howard proposed a preamble to the Australian constitution which extolled the virtues of mateship and numerous references were made to the war years.
While mateship is often presented and promoted as healthy and positive, Marston has drawn attention to a number of aspects of mateship that are ‘unhealthy, oppressive and ultimately destructive’. While the idea of mates staying together is presented as one of the virtues of mateship, it can be used to justify violence against women, gays and indigenous people. In fact, Australian manhood and masculinity were constructed against the image of ‘others’ who were different.
In this context, Bell argued over forty years ago that an understanding of mateship is important to an understanding of female and male relationships in Australian society. He said that frequently ‘the interpersonal satisfactions of mateship for the husband are achieved at the cost of marital satisfaction for the wife’. Marston similarly argues that mateship ‘cripples the fully potential of men and their relationships’.
A number of writers have commented on the emotional poverty of Australian masculinity. Colling, for example, says that mateship embodies toughness and a disdain for ‘weak emotion’. Meanwhile, Webb regards the celebrated culture of silence and emotional repression as the main issue facing Australian men. In fact, silence is seen as the essence of traditional mateship, as evidenced in the nature of men’s relationships that emphasise sport and communal drinking.
Australian men are renowned for their dedication to drinking beer. Drinking in the company of other sporty and gambling men has come to be seen as being archetypically Australian. Dixon says that ‘heavy drinking is a symbol of mateship and solidarity’. Thus drinking beer has become part of the mateship subculture. Beyond the expression of mateship in sport and communal drinking, there are more troubling aspects of this Australian form of male bonding.
Pack rape is more prevalent in Australia than in America or Britain. Looker suggests that this is connected to the intricacies of relationships between men in Australia and the affirmation of an aggressive form of masculinity. She cites a convicted rapist: ‘There’s a sense of camaraderie about a gang bang, where you have a good mate and you will share a woman with a good mate. It’s a very binding act with you and your friend, with you and your mate. The sense of camaraderie would be possibly the biggest aspect of it. You do everything together.
This aspect of male culture is elucidated in a book by Carrington who retraces the police investigation into the rape and murder of a fourteen-year old girl at a beach party in an Australian town in 1989. The book describes what happens when shame and mateship mix with a small town mentality. The police responsible for the murder investigation reported that a ‘wall of silence’ hampered their investigation. This silence was seen to be related to ‘a rigorous adherence to the ethic of not dobbing in a mate.
Homophobia is also a dominant feature of Australian masculinity with widespread condemnation of homosexuality by men evidenced by the hostility and violence shown towards gay men. Tacey says that homophobia is the most recently discovered aspect of Australian mateship. While ‘men adore their mates, there will be no obvious caring, no touching, no outward display’.
Thus while male bonding is an important prerequisite for the development of masculine identity in Australia, many men fear that if the bonding is too close, it will destroy heterosexual identity and become confused with homosexuality. Nevertheless, mateship and homosexuality have a very close homosocial proximity. Certainly, there are affinities between mateship as a social relationship and homosexuality as a sexual relationship. Dixon even suggests that mateship involves ‘powerful sublimated homosexuality’.
Australian mateship is also constructed against the image of indigenous men, immigrant men and non-caucasian males. The ‘virtues’ of mateship are thus reserved for native-borne white men.