After watching Nick Stevenson’s character, Pete Harper, in Orange is the New Black, David Packman raises the issue of the age-old Aussie male stereotype.
Let me paint the scene for you. It comes from Orange’s second season, episode 11, most aptly titled “Take a Break From Your Values”. Consider the spoiler alert in full effect.
Our protagonist’s ex-fiancé, Larry, has taken up with her best friend, Polly, while she stews in prison. The freshly formed couple decide it’s time to break the news to Polly’s husband, an Australian by the name of Pete, and they sit in her living room, awaiting his return. He enters and immediately thinks it’s an intervention to curb his drinking, stating, “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m Australian!”
Fair enough. All Australian men can justify their alcoholism because they are, in fact, Australian.
Hearing it’s nothing to do with his heavy drinking, he then jumps to the next most obvious conclusion any red-blooded Aussie male would come to. He naturally thinks the whole thing is a come-on for a three-way — which he’s clearly open to until he realises he’s on the wrong track again. Once the news is actually broken to him, his next main concern is that Larry slept with his wife “without me being there too”.
You see, in Australia, your wife is not cheating on you if she sleeps with one of your friends, as long as you are involved.
The scene ends with him punching Larry in the face.
Later, Polly says that “Peter’s secretly jumping up and down with joy to be let off the hook” — referring to Pete’s parenting requirements with regards to their newborn — and that the punch was just Peter “affirming his manhood”.
Of course, Aussie men will always resort to violence when their manhood is in question, i.e. someone nicks off with their sheila. They also want nothing to do with fatherhood.
I’m clearly being sarcastic. Please tell me you understood that. In truth, that entire scene is cleverly written and really very amusing. Sitting on the couch at home, I laughed a lot.
My wife and I are fans of Orange. It was a nice bit of time out to watch the first season during her pregnancy and we have fond memories of building relationships with the characters as you inevitably do.
However, I have to admit I develop a little tic every time Pete Harper gets involved.
I find him funny at times — we Aussies are very happy to have a laugh at our own expense — but in general, the depiction of this allegedly stereotypical Australian man leaves me feeling unsettled.
Maybe it’s the fact that the one-liners need such little introduction. The assumption appears to be that everyone knows what we are like.
The story goes that when actor Nick Stevenson auditioned for the role of Pete, he first did it with an American accent and was on his way out the door having basically blown it. He only got the part when the show’s casting agent noticed in his resumé that he was Australian. He re-read for the part in an Aussie accent and the rest is history.
Can we then assume that as Pete’s character is a heavy drinking, irresponsible misogynist, it was only when they heard the script read in an Aussie drawl that suddenly everything fell into place? I hope that’s not the way it played out.
Perhaps what really concerns me is that I know there is more than an element of truth to all this — somewhere out there beyond the humour.
The issue is not helped by the fact that some young Australian males are not only accepting of this stereotype but are actively embracing it. They seem to feed off the notoriety, which is fueling a destructive rise of hypermasculinity.
This kind of behaviour is more often on display by Aussies abroad, where they believe there’s an apparent “image” to uphold.
I harken back to my early days in London. A newish girlfriend felt it was time to introduce me to the parents. A weekend in the well-to-do English countryside ensued. On the first evening, I was presented with a range of questions that led me to believe they were expecting me to drag their daughter into their home by her hair with a club slung across one shoulder. As a young man, it was an unusual sensation to feel awkward about your heritage and your gender.
Wikipedia will tell you that heavy drinking in Australia has been a cultural norm since colonisation. In actual fact, alcohol consumption in Australia is — according to the WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011 – less than most European countries.
There’s clearly a dichotomy at work here that needs further investigating.
I’m an Aussie through and through. I grew up in Melbourne and had a very Australian upbringing. I spent holidays at the beach, went to the footy on the weekends and had more than my fair share of family BBQs.
I eventually wound up a corporate senior executive living in Hong Kong and London — among other places — and now I’m back home in Australia living a very different life.
Along that colourful journey, it became clear to me that the approach to manhood has a great deal of similarity regardless of nationality. It has a lot of cultural differences of course, but ultimately, the flag on your passport doesn’t appear to be the single largest criteria dictating your male identity.
The truth is most Australian men are no longer the Harper stereotype.
We are now very different from our forefathers. Most of us shower regularly and care about our presentation; sometimes we even go inside to cook. We’re much more likely to show our emotions; talk about our feelings and even cry. We have gay friends, and might just be out ourselves. As fathers, the majority of us are completely engaged in the experience.
The concept of the quintessential Aussie bloke began when our population consisted of mostly men, living a very tough existence on the land. Our poets and storytellers of the time venerated their masculinity and it quickly became the representation of the hardcore Australian man.
In the years after settlement, the population ratio was six men to every woman, as so many convicts and their guards were male. The influx during the gold rush continued this trend, as did post-war immigration.
Even fifty years ago, the average Australian was still a 29-year-old male, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as of last year, it was a 37-year-old woman, married with two kids in the burbs. Times have certainly changed.
When you consider the expansion of modern Australian society, it’s actually quite difficult to see how this old historical stereotype has held on to the degree it has, and why it continues to retain such a cultural grip.
The Aussie bloke has certainly been romanticised on the TV screen — and our exports like Paul Hogan have proved their success overseas. But let’s face it, he’s a loveable, laconic rogue and he puts his mates first.
In a confusing polyglot age of cultural diversity and increasing gender and social equality in Australia, perhaps it’s just an easy notion of manhood for some to fall back on. Or is the Aussie bloke just something to hold on to from the annals of our history that makes us uniquely Australian?
Whatever the reason, I remain a staunch fan of Orange. I accept Pete Harper’s character and I understand that the best humour is often found by pushing a stereotype as far as it will go.
But if we were to find a more suitable version, I’d prefer to look to our Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove:
“Without doubt, the best quality we observe across the entire Australian community is a natural willingness to pitch in and have a go.
“It is a generosity of spirit and a selflessness … a nation of people who care for and look out for each other.”
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