Contested Masculinities in the Australian 1950s

by guest contributor Chelsea Barnett

In The Shiralee, a 1957 Australian film, Jim ‘Mac’ Macauley is locked in a fierce and bitter battle with his estranged wife, Marge, over custody of their daughter, Buster. For months, Buster has accompanied her swagman father as he roams around the country, looking for short- or long-term contract work. Mac wishes to retain care of Buster, while Marge wants to take her back to Sydney; each are motivated primarily by spite and hostility toward the other. In one particularly tense verbal spat between the estranged pair, Marge says something to Mac that especially stings: “You think the life you lead’s fit for a kid? You make me sick. It’s a dog’s life, even the kid herself would tell you.” Mac startles; Marge has clearly struck a nerve. Both are well aware that the swagman’s life, lived on the open road, is a far cry from the suburban frontier of the Australian 1950s. But Mac is a swagman, uncomfortable living in the confines of Australia’s cities and suburbs. Unable to continue raising his daughter on the road, not wanting to live with her in the suburbs, and not wanting to relinquish custody to Marge, Mac is caught between the expectations of conventional, postwar middle-class fatherhood, and the expectations of the itinerant, rural bushman.

While Mac’s struggle between these competing masculine types drives the narrative progression of The Shiralee, it also points to the broader tension that was circulating in the cultural world of the Australian 1950s, particularly in relation to understandings of masculinity. The difficulty Mac faces in his attempt to reconcile these competing expectations of fatherhood is precisely because these masculinities both functioned with legitimacy in the aftermath of World War Two and the beginning of the Cold War. While powerful, enduring popular memories mean that this period continues to be understood as the peak for the proliferation of the suburban dream or, alternatively, a time of oppressive gender roles and politics, clearly there was more underway than this dichotomous narrative suggests. Others have identified the social and political changes and transformations that punctuated the era; here, I turn to the cultural world.[1] I argue that the cultural landscape of the Australian 1950s was not simply an agent of social change, but rather a space of dynamism and negotiation, particularly when we consider how masculinity—or, indeed, masculinities—functioned in this historical moment. That Robert Menzies—champion of the “forgotten” middle class and ostensible embodiment of postwar conservatism—held the prime ministerial office for seventeen years (1949-1966) means that the Australian man of the 1950s, much like his American counterpart, is popularly imagined as the grey-flannel suit-wearing suburban breadwinner. But, as The Shiralee suggests, the cultural world in this period reveals a more complicated set of ideas about masculinity. If we look to Australian films made and released from 1949 to the early 1960s, it’s clear that there was more than one way to be a man in this period.

The powerful appeal with which Mac’s itinerant, bush-based lifestyle functioned speaks to the place of radical nationalism in the postwar years. Radical nationalism was a leftist intellectual movement that emerged in the 1940s but was most potent in the 1950s. The movement was inspired by literary figures of the 1890s who constructed an identifiably “Australian” ethos in the decade before Federation; this notion of a uniquely Australian identity operated with particular significance in the 1950s given the “dark hour of suburbia” and the danger that it would be “lost in the warm mists of suburban prosperity.”[2] In addition to The Shiralee, films like The Sundowners (1960) and Three in One (1957) represented and legitimated a radical nationalist masculinity, circulating ideas around mateship—the intimate bonds between men—that were especially important to the movement. Russel Ward’s 1958 contribution to the movement, The Australian Legend, declared that the “typical Australian” is “intimately connected with the bush” and will “stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.”[3] It was his mates, then, rather than to his family, for whom the radical nationalist man held the most affection.

This understanding of masculinity functioned at odds with the ideas of middle-class manhood as championed and demonstrated by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies in 1942 made a radio broadcast that would come to shape his prime ministership once elected in 1949; in it, he declared that the home is “where my wife and children are” and that “the instinct to give them a chance in life is a noble instinct, not to make them lifters but leaners.” In this statement, Menzies affirmed the domestic space as feminine, and the “noble” obligation of financial care fell to men. To adhere to the tenets of middle-class masculinity, men were expected to embrace the role of the breadwinning husband and father, providing stability in a Cold War climate where the home and the family unit operated as sites of Cold War defence (and anxieties).[4] Work and financial stability also held particular importance in this era, represented in films like Smiley (1956) and King of the Coral Sea (1954). These films also suggested that middle-class masculinity was accessible to those men who lived outside the suburban enclaves of postwar Australia; given that the middle class were defined more by their “values and sentiments” than by their social position, middle-class gendered ideals were shown to transcend spatial boundaries and could be enacted successfully in rural Australia too.[5]

It is between these two models of masculinity that Mac is caught. While other films (mentioned above) affirmed one model of masculinity over the other, The Shiralee’s open-ended final scene, in which it’s not sure where Mac and Buster will live, leaves a number of unanswered questions that are perhaps unanswerable. Is it possible for Mac to assume the primary care for his daughter, as he wishes to, without sacrificing the itinerant life he also wants to live? That the film does not answer this question—that it cannot answer this question—reveals something of the tension that imbued the Australian cultural landscape of the 1950s.

Chelsea Barnett completed her PhD at Macquarie University in 2016, for which she researched masculinity and Australian films of the fifties. She has been published in Lilith: A Feminist History JournalMedia International Australia, and Journal of Australian Studies, in which her paper was awarded the 2015 John Barrett Award for Australian Studies (Postgraduate Category).

[1] See: Stephen Alomes, Mark Dober, and Donna Hellier, “The Social Context of Postwar Conservatism,” in Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953 Vol 1: Society, Communism and Culture, ed. Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, 1984), 1-28; Nicholas Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social change and social analysis in Australia in the 1950s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and especially John Murphy, Imagining the Fifties: Private Sentiment and Political Culture in Menzies’ Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2000).

[2] John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), xxi; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 72.

[3] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958), 1, 2.

[4] Michelle Arrow, Friday on Our Minds: Popular Culture in Australia since 1945 (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009), 16; Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 136.

[5] Murphy, Imagining the Fifties, 7.

One comment

  1. Really enjoyed this post – and it made me think about Bryan Brown in the 1987 mini-series too. Perhaps an interesting bookend to explore changing understandings of masculinity post the WLM/Men’s Movement etc?!

    Like

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