“Have a drink, mate?” may be the most popular question in Australia. Well, at least it seems when you watch some 1970s Australian movies. Not only does drinking seem to hold a major role in social relationships, but calling others “mate” embodies one of the most important aspects of Aussies’ culture: companionship. For better and for worse, apparently.
You just need to be a man
You are never alone in Australia, at least when you are a man. That’s what Nino Culotta (Walter Chiarri) discovers when he lands there to work for a newspaper with his cousin, who vanished few days ago. Unable then to be a reporter because of his English, Nino finds instead a bunch of “mates”, his labourer co-workers. The movie is called They’re a Weird Mob, (1966) and uses his point of view to feature Australia’s main characteristics. Besides being really funny, it shows how important it is to have male friends, whom you inevitably call “mates”. This bunch of mates is always with Nino and helps him get used to Australian habits.
They are also around John Grant, Wake in Fright’s hero (1971), who gets caught in the “Yabba” (a mates’ town) after a night of hard-drinking and gambling. The school-teacher had planned to go back to Sydney on vacation but like Nino, reality hits him and Grant dragged down into a spiral of continual drinking and tomfoolery with his new mates. And indeed, in both films, mateship seems to be based on one main value: being together all the time, whatever they do.
The colonial roots of mateship
One may think such a representation is exaggerated. But history has made mateship central to Australian culture. James S. Page explains in his article (2002) that mateship was born out of the war context. Consequently, at the beginning, it was very linked to military concerns. The ratio of sexes was also disproportionate with males predominating. Plus, outback life meant isolation and thus, need for companionship. Combined with a late 19th century literary tendency to romanticize pioneers, mateship became a strong symbol of Australian culture. Nowadays, it may rather be thought as a fraternity.
As T. Inglis Moore even described in 1971, not only does mateship tie men to each other, but it also stands as an ideal of equity between males. This notion is part of the democratic tradition that underpinned (and still does) “the Great Australian Dream”. In both They’re a Weird Mob and Wake in Fright, the main character is an outsider to culture of mateship: Nino Culotta is an immigrant and John Grant is a city boy teaching in the middle of nowhere. They don’t know what it is to be an Australian mate. The two movies may overemphasize the net that is created by mateship values, but they show that “the group-sentiment that it serves to support only assists in defining others as outside that scope of the group” (Page).
Mateship: where women aren’t
In case viewers had not understand how Australian culture was made for men, They’re a Weird Mob’s opening song contains all that this is about: “[…] While the missus shrivels up in the heat / ‘Cause it’s a man’s country sweetheart / Marching forward with mighty strides / ‘Cause it’s a man’s country sweetheart / From the chain marks on its ankles / Right up to its short back and sides” (Reen Devereaux). It may be a man’s country, but women are present on the territory though. The problem with such a strong value as mateship is that it totally excludes everyone who does not take part of it. And as a male ideal, women are the ones left aside.
When fiction meets reality
Mateship really takes part of the national discourse. Former Prime Minister John Howard even considered in 1999 including a special reference to mateship values into the preamble of the Australian Constitution. It did not happen though. Nevertheless, it shows how important the concept is.
Consequently, mateship is also very present in 1970’s movies. Wake in Fright shows only several women. The main female figure, Janet, is the oldest mate’s daughter. She provides men with drinks, as any good housewife would (even though she is not married) but, according to males, she is also some kind of nymphomaniac. She looks like a bored woman, and sets about seducing John Grant. According to Kate Jennings he is not even aware that she is the one making the moves. When he is about to throw up on the beach, the camera focuses on Janet’s jaded face. She seems so used to it.
On the other hand, Weird Mob’s main female figure, Kay Kelly, is an efficient business woman, who helps her father running the company. But she falls in love with Nino and accepts his proposal. From this moment on, she turns into what men expect women to be: a housewife who always has beer and food ready. And in case viewers had not get it, the closing track reiterates the assertion: “’Cause it’s a man’s country sweetheart / Where a woman can never win / Yes, it’s a man’s country sweetheart / Where the woman love the fighting / They know that they’re gonna give in” (Reen Devereaux). The song is meant to be humoristic but it seems that both in marriage and society, women are meant to lose the fight against this patriarchal supremacy.
(End scene of They’re a Weird Mob)
What about mateship now?
About 40 years have passed since Wake in Fright and Weird Mob. Still, mateship remains a major component of Australian culture, as Kate Jennings observes. She may be an expat but she’s asked native Australians, young and old, whether it was still alive. It is. According to her, it even explicitly contains the definition of homosexual: a man who talks to woman. In this respect, James S. Page wonders in his article how such an exclusive value could change to include the very others that it rejects. According to him and the link between mateship and combat, it depends on the future involvement of women in combat roles within the military. Well, let’s hope Australia will be in war soon enough then.
– Bell, R. Ronald. “Mateship in Australia: some implications for female-male relationships”. La Trobe Sociology Papers N°1, October 1973: 1. Print.
– Jennings, Kate. “Home Truths. Revisiting Wake in Fright”. The Monthly N°47 July 2009. Web.
– Moore, T. Inglis. Social Patterns in Australian Literature. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1971. Print.
– Page, S. James. “Is Mateship a Virtue?”. Australian Journal of Social Issues. 37(2): 193-200. Web.
– Reardon, Judith. The Development of the Discourses of Mateship in Australia with Special Reference to 1885-1925. PhD thesis. James Cook University: Townsville, 2003.