“Film is a powerful player in the construction of national identity. In Australian films, men embody particular masculinities such as rugged practicality and anti-intellectualism, ruthless independence against all odds, and a willingness to die. These masculinities have been embellished and perpetuated in film histories as the ideal held as the standard for imitation”
Discuss how historical stereotypes of Australian masculinity are confirmed or challenged in the film Two Hands and Strictly Ballroom.
Since the revival of Australian cinema in early 1970s, Australian films have focused on certain themes of social perceptions and representations of masculinity. We see dominant, recognisable male images in our cinema – the bushman, the larrikin, the ‘mate’, and the ‘battler’. Masculinity stereotypes are projected in both Two Hands (1999) and Strictly Ballroom (1992) to varying degrees.
Australia has a reputation for aggressive masculinity. This has its roots when the first settlers, mostly male convicts landed in Botany Bay who raised ‘hell’ when drunk. Then it was the outback pioneer, battling the bush to build a new nation prior to the First World War. The Anzac legend – bold and ferocious males, unwilling to bow to military discipline, never flinched in battle defined the evolution of the image of Australian masculinity. Professor Manning Clark in his opus A History of Australia imaged the bronzed and noble Anzac as males involved in sex orgies, having violent scuffles, and in Egypt burned belongings of local people, brawled, got drunk and rioted and patronised brothels. Hero and larrikin, ratbag and rebel, the Anzacs are an inextricable part of Australian tradition of masculinity. The wars in South Africa, Korea, and Vietnam where Australian men gained a reputation of “roughhouse brawlers on and off the battlefields” further contributed to this sense of masculinity and idea of mateship.
The unique Australian mateship – exclusively male camaderie – pervades all interactions, actively and robustly discouraging those who would be different. Mateship does not acknowledge fear or pain, even when facing death.
In Two Hands true mateship is amply depicted. When Jimmy is in trouble, after losing ten thousand dollars, and Pando’s gang wants to kill, Jimmy’s friends (not fearing to commit a crime for mateship sake) help him to repay Pando by robbing a bank together. One of his mates was shot dead by the police. In the bank robbery one of the robbers fell and fainted, an in true spirit of mateship, he is helped by his mate rather than left abandoned. We also see mateship in the relationship between the two kids, although one of them is a boy and the other is a girl (but dressed as a boy to reflect the masculinity stereotype). The two kids look out for each other, when another boy attacks the boy, the ‘girl’ helps her friend and they both get away safely. Also at the end of the story the surviving ‘girl’ avenges the death of ‘her’ friend by killing the gangsters who had earlier run over ‘her’ friend. Also, the garage owner contacted his mate when a man tried to sell one of the gangsters’ car, resulting in the murder of the car thief.
While the plot of Two Hands, at Kings Cross and involving gangsters, allow various instances of stereotyping of masculinity, the plot of Strictly Ballrroom does not have much room for this. However we still witness mateship when two male persons plotted to fix the results of the ballroom contest. This mateship could easily exist is a political contest, our workplace, and just about anything else. It gives an uncomfortable feeling of what mateship can concoct. The power of mateship is also demonstrated when all the men committee of the dance competition agreed with Fife that “there shall be no new steps”.
With mateship comes larrikinism. The larrikin originated in the late nineteenth century. The term was then defined as a delinquent or hooligan and part of a street gang with criminal intentions. But now it has taken on qualities of independence and anti-authority of the true Australian, frequently used admiringly. In this trivialised form it is now a term often applied to renegade businessmen or politicians.
In Two Hands, in the scene just before Jimmy and his friends rob the bank, his friend keeps saying how fun robbing the bank will be. Later in the bank when Jimmy’s friend hits his head and becomes unconscious, that is another form of unintended larrikinism, as the bank robbery which was meant to be a serious, dramatic event has turned into a joke. The two street kids who stole money, and the group of gangsters are larrikins with criminal intentions in the film.
In Strictly Ballroom, Scott’s refusal to stick with the normal, Federation steps is an example of larrikinism of the trivialised form – anti-authority. Even though he knows that winning the Pan Pacific while dancing those steps is impossible, he still goes through with it all the way to the end. He is the ‘battler’ against all odds. The only thing that makes him hesitate is the need to make his dad proud, which is the same kind of loyalty and mateship found in the masculinity stereotype.
The stereotype masculine is highly competitive. They want to be the best fighter, fastest shearer, best shot with a gun, best in sport, biggest drinker, and prized titles. The most devoted father, most exciting lover, most respected intellectual or happiest husband is not a distinction to be coveted.
In Two Hands Pando is reputed to be the ‘best’ gangster at Kings Cross.
Strictly Ballroom displays the typical Aussie challenge and the determination of not backing down from it, though not in the usual way. In the film, Rico challenges Scott to dance the pasodoble – a macho Spanish dance. While this is a challenge in its own right, it is not the usual, masculine challenge that men issue to each other. The Australian stereotype of masculinity requires the man to be rough and hardened from living in the outback. Scott is neither of these, and neither is Rico, so the challenge takes another form, that of dancing. But it is still a challenge with the stereotyped response, and therefore the film confirms that part of the masculinity stereotype. Scott practised very hard with Fran to be the best dancing partners. Needless to say, the competitive Scott ended up winning the competition, making him the best dancer. And this is after overcoming the challenge from Fran who did not wish to dance with him when she realises that Scott was to dance with another girl.
The heroes of Australian cinema reflect the male stereotype: strong, silent types, men who prefer decisive action to words, stoics who rarely reveal their emotions. Actors like Mel Gibson, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Paul Hogan are physically strong, rugged, with chiselled features that suggest experience of the world, and manner that warns “Don’t mess with me.” Humour, if any, is dry and cryptic. The men need to be driven to crisis point to verbally air their thoughts, and alcohol, invariably beer, is the tongue-loosener and a pain-killer, often at the pub.
The physical stereotype is present in both movies. In Two Hands Jimmy, Pando, Acko, Wally, the guard, the man at the garage, Jimmy’s friends all of them were bulked with muscle. They are tough.
The hardness of the surface of his body is a visible sign of his self-contained masculinity. Jimmy, with his powerful punches adequately qualify as the strong male stereotype. With Strictly Ballroom, while Scott did not measure up to the those in Two Hands, however, his masculinity is confirmed by Fran’s grandmother observes his “Nice body” when she examines Scott. We watch too that Wayne is working out to presumably gain more muscle.
Other masculinity stereotyping includes Pando who wears a polo shirt which is a very common thing for Australian men to wear. In both films there are characters with beer bellies (in Strictly Ballroom, only Scott’s father), a product of pubs and beer drinking. Ken Railings in Strictly Ballroom has drinking problem everytime he dances.
We could not help noticing stereotyping of masculinity in Two Hands: a lot of swear words (‘shit’, ‘fuck”) are used by the characters throughout the story. Swearing is a masculine prerogative and constitutes a masculine style of speaking, and is aggressive. In contrast in Strictly Ballroom there is hardly any swear words.
Australian gangsters are stereotyped as big and tough, and not very bright – of average intelligent. But even though Pando’s gang are all of these things, they can be seen playing ‘intellectual’ games such as Scrabble and Chess. Of course it is not possible to tell to what degree they have mastered these games. But they are still of average intelligence to be shot dead by the ‘girl”, and xxx used bullets that have been soaked in the washing machine. In Strictly Ballroom, the male characters are not portrayed to be not bright. Scott as we know is a dance teacher, and a professional dancer. Even if the other characters are not as bright as he is, it is now obvious.
Both films Two Hands and Strictly Ballroom stereotype masculinity. Two Hands, based on the rough living at Kings Cross with a gangster plot stereotype the typical masculinity – criminal culture, swearing, rough, tough, ruthless gangsters, fighting and boxing, drinking beer, exercising, masculine attire, mateship, larrikinism, meeting at pub, robbing the bank, and willingness to die. Strictly Ballroom, with a ballroom and romance plot is more difficult to project the male stereotype. However even in this difficulty area, it manages to still capture the following masculine traits – mateship, trivialised larrikinism, physical apperarance, durnkenness, determination to win the ballroom dancing championship using new steps -the macho Spanish pasodoble.