What does the depiction of the Bush in stories/poems tell you about Australians’ attitudes towards their country.

What does the depiction of the Bush in stories/poems tell you about Australians’ attitudes towards their country.

The Australian bush – a mythical and fascinating space that has been the setting of many films and all kinds of literature, and which is an interesting field for literary scholars, especially from the late 19th century, the time of national writing, onwards. During this time, the outback used to be described as a hostile, but also romantic environment, loved ad feared by the people who lived there. People, who were perfectly assimilated and happy with their lives in the bush. The legendary bushman myth was born; a myth that described the outward appearance and character of the typical Australian bushman, explaining why he adapted so properly to the hard environment. All these stories, including the origin of the bushman myth itself, were however made up and written down by male authors, who did not intend to include important female characters to their stories. The typical bushman was simply a man.

The study of Barbara Baynton’s short stories requires the critical analysis of the theories that are important for the issues to which the author wants to lead the reader’s attention. Due to the focus on Baynton’s women in this paper, gender roles in the postcolonial Australian society in the late 19th century must be discussed, as well as the myth of the Australian bush legend, that especially male authors around the turn of the century used to spread.

The concept of gender

The concept of gender is still today often used equivalently with the term sex and although both terms are related to the human masculinity and femininity, they are not to be confused with each other. While one’s sex is genetically determined and therefore a biological phenomenon, gender is a social concept determined by society, rooting in medicine and psychology, which does not define what you are but rather the social role you have to fulfil as a male or female in a given society. Dr. Ann-Maree Nobelius from Monash University adds that sex is simply connected with the biological male or female whereas gender deals with the masculine and feminine and “describes the characteristics that society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine”. This also means that sex is an universal term but the definition of gender includes cultural diversity and the fact that in different cultures and environments different attributes, characteristics and behaviours are required to fulfil a gender role. Also the American Psychological Association offers a similar definition in which gender:

refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.

Gender roles, however, do not only relate to cultural differences per se but also depend on circumstances, e.g. political forces. In postcolonial Australia of the late 19th century women did not play a big role and thus the concept of gender is practically non-existing in written histories of that time. Also Ann Curthoys states in her essay Identity Crisis. Colonialism, Nation, and Gender in Australian History that “nationalist history is presented as entirely male” and defines

the 1890s search for an Australian identity as a masculinist quest, based on a militant assertion of anti-feminist principles and a yearning by city-based journalists and writers for what they thought was the free, unencumbered, yet convivial lifestyle of the itinerant outback white single male.

Therefore, the requirements for and characteristics connected with the male gender played a much bigger role in Australia during that time than the female one .Not much is written about females in Australian postcolonial 19th century society, but it is clear that femininity and the woman herself was not part of the public space. A woman belonged to the domestic sphere and was supposed to fulfil the role of wife of a working man. Isolated from the world outside their homes and all public affairs “women were supposed to be concerned with little dramas of the drawingroom and the home”, which shows that the given society was purely male and the concept of gender therefore almost totally limited to the idea of the typical Australian bushman.

The Australian bush legend – A myth of pride, romanticism and mateship.

In order to get deeper understanding of Barbara Baynton’s characters and her women’s situation, one has to discuss the world, these characters live in. An important issue of the 1890s in Australia, that also influenced all kinds of literature around the turn of the century, is the so called bushman myth. It provides a romanticised and sheer male vision of life in the Australian outback, describes a very stereotypical bushman as the typical Australian and deals with mateship, love and fear of the bush and a strong pride in national identity. Women play hardly any role in this idealised world.

An important co-founder of these images and especially of the stereotype was Russel Ward, who described the Australian man identified in convicts and bushmen in his work Australian Legend. Typically, the bushman is a practical individualist but loyal to his mates, anti-authoritarian and of course a white man. He also represents the national self-image as egalitarian, while this egalitarianism does not include both genders but is more what Kay Schaffer in Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition calls an “egalitarian democracy built on the doctrine of mateship. This mateship, according to the Australian National Dictionary, is the bond between close friends or equal partners with comradeship as an ideal. A man can trust his mates in each situation and goes with them through thick and thin.

Read more:

  • What do you understand by the term ‘aborigine’. How is their point of view represented in Australian literature.
  • The issues that Australian writers had to grapple with before they could forge a literature of their own.
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