Mateship (Australia)

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Mateship
Location: Australia
Australia map.png
Author: Bob Pease
Affiliation: School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

Original text by Bob Pease

Mateship is part of the Australian male heritage; it originated in colonial days and was glorified in war and sport. An important element of mateship has always been that the company of other men is preferred to the company of women (Bell 1973[1]). Thus Australian mateship developed in the context of the harsh reality of bush life for men without female companionship. The central elements are that mates are ‘exclusively male, not female, they share a particular sceptical camaraderie in doing things together [and] there is a lack of emotional expression other than sharing jokes’ (Edgar 1997: 79[2]).

The First World War introduced a new stage of mateship. Men had to be moulded together into an effective fighting force (Webb 1998[3]). In fact, as Garton (1998: 74-75[4]) 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 (Garton 1998[5]).

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’ (cited in The Age, 24 March 1999). While historian Geoffrey Blainey says it ‘primarily means personal or group loyalty’ (ibid). As Edgar (1997:79[6]) 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’ (Altman 1987: 167). 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 (1973: 8-9[7]) 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 (1994:12[8]) 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 (1973: 24[9]) 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 (1994: 14[10]) 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 (192: 50[11]), for example, says that mateship embodies toughness and a disdain for ‘weak emotion’. Meanwhile, Webb (1998[12]) 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 (1982: 169[13]) 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 (1994[14]) 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’ (Looker 1994: 218[15]).

This aspect of male culture is elucidated in a book by Carrington (1998[16]) 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’ (Carrington 1998: 99[17]).

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 (1997[18]) 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 (Webb 1982[19]). 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 (1982: 81[20]) 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.

The women’s movement and profeminist masculinity politics have played a significant role in challenging mateship and putting men’s violence and gender-based inequalities on the political agenda in Australia. Community-based initiatives tackling men’s violence and campaigns challenging patriarchal ideologies and belief systems underlying mateship have all contributed towards more egalitarian gender relations. However, Australia has a long way to go before its claimed commitment to the principles of social equality, as they relate to gender relations, can become more than rhetoric.

Notes

  1. Bell, C. 1973. Mateship in Australia: Implications for Male-Female Relationships. Melbourne: La Trobe University Working Papers.
  2. Edgar, D. 1997. Men, Mateship, Marriage. Sydney: Harper Collins.
  3. Webb, J. 1998. Junk Male: Reflections on Australian Masculinity. Sydney: HarperCollins.
  4. Garton, S. 1998. ‘War and masculinity in twentieth century Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, 56: 86-95.
  5. Garton, S. 1998. ‘War and masculinity in twentieth century Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, 56: 86-95.
  6. Edgar, D. 1997. Men, Mateship, Marriage. Sydney: Harper Collins.
  7. Bell, C. 1973. Mateship in Australia: Implications for Male-Female Relationships. Melbourne: La Trobe University Working Papers.
  8. Marston, G. 1994. ‘Invisible boundaries’, XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 4 (2): 12-14.
  9. Bell, C. 1973. Mateship in Australia: Implications for Male-Female Relationships. Melbourne: La Trobe University Working Papers.
  10. Marston, G. 1994. ‘Invisible boundaries’, XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 4 (2): 12-14.
  11. Colling, T. 1992. Beyond Mateship: Understanding Australian Men. Sydney: Simon and Schuster.
  12. Webb, J. 1998. Junk Male: Reflections on Australian Masculinity. Sydney: HarperCollins.
  13. Dixon, M. 1982. The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia. Melbourne: Penguin.
  14. Looker, P. 1994. ‘Doing it with your mates: Connecting aspects of modern Australian masculinity’, in D. Headon, J, Hooton and D. Horne (eds.) The Abundant Culture: Meaning and Significance in Everyday Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
  15. Looker, P. 1994. ‘Doing it with your mates: Connecting aspects of modern Australian masculinity’, in D. Headon, J, Hooton and D. Horne (eds.) The Abundant Culture: Meaning and Significance in Everyday Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
  16. Carrington, K. 1998. Who Killed Leigh Leigh? A Story of Shame and Mateship in an Australian Town. Sydney: Random House.
  17. Carrington, K. 1998. Who Killed Leigh Leigh? A Story of Shame and Mateship in an Australian Town. Sydney: Random House.
  18. Tacey, D. 1977. Remaking Men: Jung, Spirituality and Social Change. London: Routledge.
  19. Webb, J. 1998. Junk Male: Reflections on Australian Masculinity. Sydney: HarperCollins.
  20. Dixon, M. 1982. The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia. Melbourne: Penguin.