Dragging It Out: Tales of Masculinity in Australian Cinema, from 'Crocodile Dundee' to 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.'(Australian Masculinities)

Article excerpt

`Drag has nothing to do any more with being a woman...'(2)

What does it mean to be a man, to act or look like a man, in contemporary Australian culture? What are the ways in which masculinity, as a conceptual category, can be defined, critiqued, reformulated? And how has the cinema, that far-reaching cultural text which has the potential to reflect and to challenge the society which produces it, tackled the question of the representation of gender in general, and masculinity in particular? What can cinema's images and stories tell us about the problematic relation between bodies and behaviour, between sexual identities and gendered classification?

Since the period of the so-called New Wave, or revival of Australian cinema in the early 1970s, certain themes regarding social perceptions and representations of masculinity and maleness have been repeatedly sounded. The cluster of dominant, recognisable images in our cinema -- for example, the bushmen, the ocker, the `mate,' the `battler' who struggle across geographical and sociopolitical landscapes redolent of colonialism and its legacies -- is both reflective of broader cultural tropes and ideas, and is equally susceptible to changing social emphases and values. Shifting notions about Australia's relationship with its colonial forebears, about what might constitute an emergent nationalist aesthetic, about definitions of ethnicity and difference, particularly in relation to indigenous Australians, and most crucially, an increasing awareness of the culturally forged nature of gender and its myriad representations -- all inevitably influence the ways in which Australian males and the category of masculinity are represented within the visual narratives of the cinema. Despite a residual tendency continually to refract contemporary images of Australian masculinity through the template of past images and mythologies, a range of challenges -- some subtle, some more radical -- can also be observed in the ways in which certain film texts grapple with these broader cultural shifts and fields of inquiry, resulting in the problematising of the previously seemingly immutable categories of `Australian' and `the masculine'.

This incremental sea-change in the formulation and representation of masculinity across the range of Australian cultural experience can be tracked through the images and narratives of the cinema in a largely chronological sequence. This is however not necessarily a direct process of transference, from something abstract and generic described as a social idea, to its unproblematic reproduction within the cinematic image. Rather, I would maintain that there is a necessarily intricate, even tangled, relationship between the production of ideology, or dominant social values as evidenced across a range of cultural experience, and the visual representations of the cinema. In this sense, images of masculinity in the cinema may indeed reflect and thus perpetuate dominant social ideas about masculinity; they may equally -- and perhaps, at the same time -- work to challenge and problematise those dominant representations. The process is a complex and dialectical one. The identification of images of masculinity within Australian cinema from the last twenty-five years can clearly not provide us with an unequivocal, linear narrative. Rather, such a survey exposes the depth of that complexity both in the relationship between `ideology and the image', as Bill Nichols puts it(3) and in the uncertain shifts and lurches between conventional or received images of masculinity and newer, different readings implicitly inflected through the influence of contemporary theories of feminism, of gender and queer studies, and even the emergent men's movement.(4)

My reading here does not offer a comprehensive survey of all film examples, nor of all possible versions of masculinity that have been portrayed in recent Australian cinema. Rather, this discussion considers three key aspects or phases in the representation of masculinity. …