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Report: Rewriting Masculinity: Larrikins, Power and Accountability

Read Wednesday, 10 Nov 2021

Cameron McDonald  recently joined our online event Rewriting Masculinity: Larrikins, Power and Accountability. In this report, Cameron reflects on the conversation’s key points and discoveries.

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Panellists in Rewriting Masculinity: Larrikins, Power and Accountability (clockwise): Sarah McCook, Tarang Chawla, Shaun Braybrook, Lech Blaine

In 2021, a conversation about the impact of dominant representations and practices of masculinity in Australian society is as important as ever. This year has seen the boys club in Australian federal politics purposefully resistant to addressing men’s violence against women, even at the highest levels of its own office. At other times, the spotlight has been on misogyny in private boys schools, and male football players’ perpetration of violence against women. Meanwhile, women at the frontlines of the health response to the pandemic have been spat on and abused, and the effects of the global pandemic continue to injure women and their aspirations more deeply than men.

On Wednesday 27 October, the Wheeler Centre hosted a discussion facilitated by Sarah McCook with three men, Shaun Braybrook, Tarang Chawla and Lech Blaine, who write about, and work with, men, masculinities and violence.

Colonisation as the birthplace of masculinity in Australia

Sarah opened the session with an acknowledgement that in Australia we can’t have a conversation about men’s violence against women, power and accountability ‘without recognising the ongoing impacts of white colonialism and state violence.’

Before colonisation, Aboriginal people had complex totemic systems and enjoyed equality between men and women in their societies. Since colonisation, Aboriginal people have had to resist and survive the spectre of massacres, dispossession, slavery, bondage and incarceration. Prohibition of Aboriginal languages and expressions of culture, as well as the ripping apart of families, have been just some of the tools of genocide used by colonising powers in Australia. Cultural practices provide a strong sense of identity for Aboriginal men, and are the foundation of healthy Aboriginal masculinity. As a proud Kuku-Yalanji man, Shaun’s personal story is a testament to this. Shaun’s transmission of Aboriginal culture in his role as a father and as a community worker with other Aboriginal men represents resistance, healing and celebration.

Dominant myths and representations of masculinity

Both Lech and Tarang expanded on the notion that the very same masculine traits that are used to celebrate and elevate white, powerful men in Australia can be used to demonise and problematise Black men and men of colour. For example, powerful white men, including sportsmen and politicians, who consume copious amounts of alcohol, who are promiscuous and who are physically strong and aggressive, are valorised as larrikins. Meanwhile, Aboriginal men are stereotyped as drunks and inherently violent or neglectful (see the #IndigenousDads campaign as an example of resistance to such stereotypes).

Tarang acknowledged that part of the reason he is so active on social media is that so few opportunities are afforded men and people of colour in Australia’s media and storytelling landscape. Tarang emphasised the need for diverse representation of masculinities in our storytelling. He also pointed out that research demonstrates clear links between rigid and dominant expectations for masculinity and men’s violence against women.

Lech’s experience of trying to find and express his masculinity while growing up also reflects the destructive pressure of these expectations. Lech held many privileges being a white, straight male, but he simultaneously struggled to fit within the masculine stereotypes and expectations that surrounded him, such as being good at sport and not expressing emotion or showing vulnerability. He took up binge drinking and adopted a larrikin persona to compensate. His struggles ‘to be a man’ coalesced when three of his male friends died in a car crash that he was also a passenger in. Whilst he was eventually able to work through the trauma of this experience, this was only because he had the privilege of being able to access adequate mental health support resources. When we talk about men’s wellbeing, we need to ensure that these discussions happen as part of critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal systems and structures.

The lack of transformative and accountable spaces for diverse masculinities

The panel also discussed there not being enough programs, resources and spaces, in society and the media, that facilitate the vulnerability necessary for the development of men’s wellbeing and identity, as well as for true accountability. Tarang noted that some men in society – predominantly white, cis, middle-class men – will be celebrated for opening up in ways that subvert dominant modes of masculinity while others are shamed for it. We need to be creating broader spaces for this vulnerability. Male peer relations and representations of diverse masculinities can be powerful spaces for change, or they can remain ‘locker-room’ spaces where hegemonic representations of masculinity uphold patriarchal structures and practices.

What’s needed for change

For change to be effected, we need to foster environments where men can be allowed and encouraged to be vulnerable without being shamed, and supported to take responsibility and accountability for any part they play in supporting and benefitting from inequality and men’s violence. These spaces need to be opened up early so that young men grow into expressing and experiencing masculinity differently, in non-harmful ways.

Shaun’s work with Aboriginal men shows that a culture of accountability can heal, grow and develop men, while simultaneously challenging and addressing violent behaviour, anger and trauma. Non-Aboriginal Australia has much to learn from Aboriginal community approaches to working with men and boys. Shaun’s quoting of Nova Perris encapsulates the benefits of this approach, ‘[non-Aboriginal] people accepting our [Indigenous] culture doesn’t mean that they lose 200 years of their culture, it means that they gain 60,000 years of culture.’

By opening the session with a discussion of the way things have been, and closing the discussion with the way things could be, Shaun’s representation of Aboriginal experiences of masculinity, trauma, loss and rehabilitation offer hope for the way forward. In a society where capitalist, patriarchal systems and structures cause harm every day, alternative narratives offer the possibility of a future for masculinity that isn’t competitive, destructive and violent, and is instead regenerative and connected.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Centre stands. We acknowledge and pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their Elders, past and present, as the custodians of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.