How the Aussie Bloke Stereotype Destroys Australian Men
Our national image of manliness is obsolete—and it's killing us.
This article is part of That Feeling When—a partnership between VICE Australia and youth mental health initiative headspace.
Young men are a particularly vulnerable group in society. They suffer some of the most serious mental health issues of any group in Australia. Research has shown that only 13 percent of young men seek help for mental health issues, leaving thousands who stay silent. This is reflected in our headspace statistics with 60 percent of young people who sought help at a headspace centre being women and only 39 percent being men (one percent identified as either gender diverse, intersex, or indeterminate). headspace wants men to start the mental health conversation across Australia and recently launched its father's campaign, to help dads open difficult conversations with their sons. For further information check out this link.
Vikki Ryall, Head of Clinical Practice at headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.
A few year's back, a friend's brother was hospitalised after loading up his Commodore with a week's worth of beer, driving into the bush and drinking said beer, calling his boss and telling him he's a "fucktard," then coming home and self-harming in front of his wife and her sister, before collapsing on their couch catatonic, unwilling and unable to move. "I don't get it," his brother told me over drinks a week later. "He always seemed like such a good bloke."
Much has been made of the toxic masculinity that forms the bedrock of Australia's national identity. How it has created generations of emotionally-stunted men seemingly forbidden from accessing their inner selves, and addressing the issues therein. We know where the rift between macho ideal and stark reality leads: domestic violence, misogyny, homophobia, racism, suicide.
The bloke is a myth and peak blokeyness is, in turn, unattainable. The qualities that Australian men are conditioned to aspire to—being easy-going, brave, assertive—and what we are conditioned to expect from them is a convenient polyp of jingoism designed to excuse our national shortcomings: from failed wars to neoliberalism, from losing the Ashes to Nollsy, from Nauru to Don Dale.
In short, the Aussie bloke archetype is shit and needs rebranding.
Fundamental to this shittiness is the denial of emotion, and by extension, the denial of madness. Madness is difficult to deny within the Australian context when you come to accept its predominance as the recurring motif of our historical storyline. This goes back to the early days of colonial Australia. To exist as a settler in Australia then was to be mad. The early arrivals weren't scholars or cartographers: they were the transported poor—prostitutes, thieves, public nuisances—and in them ran a clear and earnest streak of madness, be it brought on by mental illness or the barbarity of deportation. The settler heading in to tame the untameable bush became a romantic notion over time, but in reality you had a starkly alien landscape that spoke only of isolation, futility, and death.
Watch our video below: How Mental Illness Derailed the Career of a Promising Young Skateboarder
The shifting sand that the early bloke homesteads sat on is—of course—genocide. To grow in early Australia was to kill its First Peoples. How do you disconnect from that process while creating a palatable founding myth? By filling it with larger-than-life characters at once funny, wild, and dangerous. I.e, blokes. To neglect this is to neglect the way we understand mental illness and manhood in Australia as it now stands.
So it is that this archetype has been made the smirking face of our unspoken neuroses. The ANZACS at Gallipoli aren't conscripted teenagers screaming over their spilled guts, they're stoic larrikins easy in the face of doom. Wilson Tuckey wasn't a violent racist that struck a pinned Aboriginal man with a length of steel cable, he was "Iron Bar Tuckey," Minister for Regional Services. Eddie McGuire's Footy Show wasn't a gaggle of dickheads cackling at "pooftas", it was just some blokes engaging in some cheeky banter.
These things can't be separated. They form a collage that speaks of self-hatred and desperation stemming from a misplaced pride. The Bloke is a Paul Hogan Halloween mask and we've used it to frighten each other into the croc jaws of angry impotence.
Blokeyness has had a jackboot on the neck of the mental illness debate in Australia since the outset, and the resilience of the idea and those that prop it up—in media, sport, or politics—have very real blood on their hands. Australia's shameful suicide rates, immense among young men, haven't been stemmed by funding or policy initiatives for the very reason that the government and the press are unwilling to deconstruct the patriarchal language and avatars that they prop up as the acceptable "standard" Australian. When Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull speak of "Australian Values" they don't mean me having a panic attack in a Sports Bar, crying at being called a poof, or trying to drown myself in Fremantle's port.
That's the joke though, isn't it. The bloke is ludicrous to the point of hilarity, and always has been. You can't break what was never really there, and once we accept that, we can start to make change.
Trace the idea of the bloke back to one of its progenitors, Banjo Patterson, who used the Aussie "absolute legend" as an ironised spoof of his countrymen's inflated sense of self. In one famous poem, the man from Ironbark sees it as an act of courage to get a hair cut at a posh Sydney barber. "I'll go home and do the Sydney toff" he pronounces, boldly. He's one of those straight dudes that think gay guys are always hitting on them. He reacts to being pranked by attempting to kill the barber and his fellow patrons, and takes the story home as evidence of the importance of outback machismo. He's the punchline, not the barber. What's 'Waltzing Matilda' but a tale of a bloke driven to a point of desperation in which he'd rather drown himself than deal with the consequences of his choices. I've been there, mate.
Think back to Frederick McCubbin's iconic painting "Down On His Luck"—the quintessential Australian man, mythic, caught in a dragnet of isolation and hopelessness. The bloke has always been sad, we've just been told otherwise.
All our top blokes are shattered depressives, and we should embrace that fact. Face it: Bob Hawke's larky alcoholism stems from a lifelong struggle with depression and impulse control, and speaks of a deep sadness—it's like he's still making up for publicly weeping over his daughter's struggle with heroin. Sam Newman has turned hyper-masculinism into a personal brand, yet he struggles with body dysmorphia to the point where he's completely restructured his face. Shane Warne is a manic-depressive downing schooners over the sound of lasik hair regrowth treatment, sitting with the quiet loneliness of a fading gigolo whose head is cooked from pingers, piss, and penicillin shots. Paul Hogan, the peak bloke, starred in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. I could go on.
The idea of the bloke is stupid, but if we can't scrap it, let's reboot it like the problematic franchise that it is and always was. Let the stern-faced fair-dinkum good ol' boy internalising grief and struggle alongside his tinnies go the way of the Thylacine—spotted only by those desperate to believe.
Groups like headspace are working to provide a different narrative. Steadily, spaces are becoming available where we as Australians can reappraise our mental-illness in the light of our cultural constraints and the historical baggage of "Aussie-hood". This isn't a conversation we can afford to be scared of anymore. The sooner it begins the sooner we can begin to understand the true depth of this pain, and as such find its root, and perhaps out it.
My friend's brother who had a nervous breakdown didn't need to be considered a good bloke so much as he needed to be considered a person. To deny this is to deny our vulnerabilities, and that's where things get deadly. Let Warney cry over something other than spiders. Let Hawkey sip his beer. Let us live.
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To discuss how you're feeling in a confidential, open environment, or for info on any of the issues raised in this article, please get in touch with your local headspace office.