Australian drinking culture: a dominant version of masculinity on the screen

A relationship between masculinity, alcohol consumption, and violence exists in Australian society today. Australia’s drinking culture has become a prominent political issue with recent discussions around lockout laws and one punch attack legislation. ABC’s Four Corners report Punch Drunk (2013) says “police, paramedics and trauma doctors across the country are frustrated and tired with alcohol fuelled violence.” This essay will examine drinking culture as a toxic form of masculinity presented in Australian film.

The concept of masculinity can be difficult to navigate. Raewyn Connell (2014) says masculinities are patterns of conduct that have to be learned. “For young men, masculinity is often in question or under challenge” (2014).  Is hyper-masculine culture to blame for a culture of drinking and alcohol fuelled violence? Does film and television play a role in constructing this dangerous version of masculinity?


Image credit: Allure

The power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed). is surely an awful thing?

…Poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue’:

(Plato, 1987, p.437)

Plato’s words are not lost today. Film and television has a power in it’s influence on society, but also the meanings audience’s can draw from it. Dangerous versions of masculinity are legitimised by many popular films and television. However films such as Wake In Fright (1971) may serve to scrutinise rather than legitimise hegemonic masculinity. Wake In Fright (1971) is the key screen text that will be discussed upon consideration of drinking culture and violence as a dominant version of masculinity. Australian productions Mad Max (1979), Barracuda (2016) and Brock (2016) will also be drawn upon.

Exploring alcohol, violence and masculinity in society today: 

Drinking is embedded in Australian culture. “Do you drink?” a friend who recently moved to Australia from Pakistan asked me last week. “Because I know all Australians do.” Think the rite of passage that is ‘schoolies’, beers at barbecues and stubbies at the local football ground after a big game. ABC Four Corners program Punch Drunk (2013) describes drinking as “a national past-time that has got way out of hand”. It’s a problem statistically too. Around 3.8 million Australians average more than four standard drinks a day, twice the recommended amount according to a Herald Sun report (Powley, 2016). Drinking has become the Australian way, perhaps more concerning, the masculine way. “Young men are expected to drink large quantities of alcohol, to drink frequently and to excess, to drink certain “manly‟ drinks such as beer or hard spirits and to reject “girly‟ drinks like cocktails and cruisers, to be able to keep up with their male peers, to “hold their piss‟, to not pass out drunk and to keep drinking when others cannot” (Rogan, 2016 p.8). Men are often called ‘lightweight’, ‘pussy’, ‘soft’, ‘faggot’ and so on, for not drinking  or not drinking enough alcohol.


It is alcohol’s relationship with violence that has generated policy debate in recent years. 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks laws have been put in force across the new Sydney CBD Entertainment Precinct as a part of the New South Wales Government’s crackdown on drug and alcohol-fuelled violence. The crackdown also includes a NSW-wide ban on takeaway alcohol sales after 10pm. St Vincent’s Health Australia have called for Sydney-style lockout laws to go national (Butler, 2016). St Vincent’s Health Australia’s CEO, Toby Hall says “the evidence in Sydney… is the early closing in lockouts has led to a 10 percent reduction in assaults” (Butler, 2016).

But gender and masculinity has not been taken into account in current policy discussion around alcohol and violence. The issue is clearly a problem for men more than women. Deaths from acute forms of alcohol-related harm due to risky and high risk drinking were almost three times more likely to be experienced by males (12,463 deaths) than females (4,293 deaths) according to the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (2006). In response, the Queensland Government has recently introduced the Safe Night Out Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 which includes a new criminal offence of unlawful striking causing death. 19-year-old Patrick Cronin was killed in April this year after being hit from behind during a brawl at The Windy Mile hotel in Diamond Creek. Raewyn Connell (2014) says macho, hyper-masculine culture is partly to blame for this devastation.

ABC Four Corner’s program Punch Drunk (2013) shows shot after shot of groups of intoxicated young violent men on the street. The audience clearly notices they are all men. The program shows how alcohol fuelled violence driven by a warped sense of masculinity is changing lives every day. The footage is confronting to the audience. Shots of two men fighting on the street, grabbing and punching each other, encourages the viewer to feel angry, and hence desire change. The program begins with the emotionally powerful story of an 18-year-old boy who was knocked to the ground by a heavily intoxicated attacker when he was walking to meet his brother at a Queensland nightclub. The attack has left him profoundly disabled; he has severe brain damage, cant walk, can’t talk, is deaf in his left ear, can’t smell and has double vision. Sam needs 24-hour-care. Sam’s brother says “he’s trapped in a body he can’t use.” The viewer is devastated hearing Sam’s story from his family whose lives have been changed forever. Anne Fox in the Sydney Morning Herald (2016) says the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour need to be addressed. “Address the cultural reinforcers of violence, misogyny, and aggressive masculinity in all its cultural expressions from schoolyards to sports fields, politics and pubs, movies and media” (Fox, 2016).

Masculinity, alcohol and violence in Wake in Fright (1971)

1971 Australian film Wake In Fright reflects a masculine drinking culture and consequent violence that has long been embedded in Australia’s history. The film provides a unique examination of the male psyche. It reflects a dominant understanding of masculinity, but also scrutinises it in a raw, gritty, brutal, and confronting realism. What it has to say hasn’t dated. John Grant plunges into a nightmare of alcohol fuelled violence in a quintessentially Australian setting, an outback town where we hear the incessant buzzing of flies and see long sweeping shots of a dry, red, barren, isolated landscape.


Wake In Fright

The scene at the Bundanyabba pub featuring John and policeman Jock is particularly telling. Long shots show a packed pub, filled with noisy and rowdy men crowding in groups. John’s first conversation with Jock immediately highlights Australia’s culture of heavy drinking; “pleased to know you Jack, how about another beer?”. Close up shots of the long line of beer glasses being filled at the bar again emphasise an excessive drinking culture, an image that is reinforced as John and Jock down beer after beer at what some may describe as admirable speed. It becomes clear that alcoholism is their definition of masculinity as John moves Jock’s hand to grip a jug of beer painted onto the wall outside the pub: “You’re the Yabba man Jock.” John is frowned upon and mocked for initially refusing a drink. Perhaps Jock considers him to be weak, failing to fulfil his definition of what it is to be a ‘real man’. The crowded pub indicates a ‘real man’ downs countless beers with ‘the blokes’ after a hard day’s work. It’s an accurate, concerning, confronting and dangerous reflection of reality for many Australian men. But the diegetic sound – constant yelling, the distinct sound of the cash register’s ‘chi-ching’, the buzzing of the flies – is unnerving for the viewer, reminding them of the film’s scrutiny. It’s a crazed reality, a version of masculinity which, as following scenes show, can become violent and dangerous.


John Grant, Wake In Fright

Characters Dick and Jo act as representations of this aggressive, dominant, but dangerous form of masculinity. It’s an ideal that is symbolised through their bone crushing handshake; one that is powerful, strong, rough, and exemplifies a ‘manly’ dominance. But it’s a masculinity that is also presented as vulgar, through the films emphasis on their loud burps and clear disrespect of women; Dick plays power games with Janet by refusing to let her pass.

John’s character represents society’s strange compliance to this form of masculinity. “Soon he’s soggy with booze, torn between revulsion at the full-on, unadorned masculinity of the Yabba and the desire to prove he’s one of the boys” (Jennings, 2009). Violence is most clearly highlighted in the kangaroo hunting scene. The men never stop drinking during the entirety of this section of the film – they wake up and cure their hangover by cracking open another can –  which results in violence against both people and animals. The film’s raw, brutal, and unrelenting representation of drunken violence is frightfully honest, emphasised by close ups of dead kangaroos and blood. For the viewer, it’s as upsetting and horrifying to watch John fight the kangaroo by hand and cut off it’s head, as it is to hear of one punch attacks which kill young men and destroy lives like Sam’s (Four Corners, 2013) today. The group of drunken, testosterone filled men in the film throw stones at the pub windows, arm wrestle, shoot foxes and physically fight each other. Nothing is hidden in this version of reality. It’s so raw, uncomfortable, and sickening to watch this alcohol fuelled violence unfold as a result of preconceived versions of macho masculinity. Wake In Fright (1971) tells a larger truth about the nation’s collective psyche, a truth that is hard to swallow.

Exploring masculinity in Mad Max (1979)

Greg Miller’s iconic Australian film Mad Max (1979) presents a different form of masculinity to Wake In Fright (1971), one where ruthlessness, aggression and violence creates the figure of the ‘manly’ hero. The high intensity action scene where Max takes on the ‘Nightrider’ highlights a masculine quality which can be translated to street alcohol fuelled violence today. Max stands his ground against those who dare to challenge him, refusing to swerve as he drives head on towards the Nightrider. There’s a message of “boys will be boys” underlying the film; all of the men in the film fight back. None, particularly Max, will let themselves be beaten; he kills one of the gang members after being shot in the leg and run over. Nevertheless, Mad Max (1979) presents a masculinity that is glorified and admired on the screen.


 Mad Max (1979)

Australian drinking culture is more subtly represented in Mad Max (1979) than Wake In Fright (1971). It is not the main feature of the film, but the few times it appears on the screen allows the audience to infer a lot about masculine culture. Max comes home to drink beer after a hard day at work. The shots cut abruptly from Max looking at the Nightrider explosion, to sipping a beer with his toddler at home. This shot works in conjunction with the Cabaret scene to normalise male alcohol consumption. A close up shot of empty beer bottles lined along the table reflects that of Tim Hynes’ house in Wake In Fright (1971).

Connections between violence and masculinity are also evident in the film.

“Both Max and the biker gang use violence to confirm their masculinity to everyone they encounter. Through Miller’s film we can see that violence is a pillar of Australian masculinity up to the point of becoming a ritual, a habit that has become socially normal in the post-apocalyptic world of the film.” (cultureXchange, 2014)

A look at Barracuda’s (2016) presentation of violence and alcohol: 

For Christos Tsiolkas “fiction is not about representing society, but confronting it with unpalatable truths” (Bradley). ABC’s production (2016) of his book Barracuda follows the story of a young man battling dominant ideas of sexuality and masculinity. A dominant masculine force is present at the prestigious boys school Danny attends and he conforms to it while betraying a part of himself before he comes to be accepted and respected as a winner.


ABC’s Barracuda 

Bradley (2013) speaks of the “capacity of fiction to speak to the world it inhabits.” Like Wake In Fright (1971) and Brock (2016), Barracuda (2016) is a realist text, addressing social issues by focusing on ordinary life. The boys’ swimming coach encourages the team to drink shots of whisky, exemplifying a mentality ingrained in boys from a young age that drinking alcohol is a part of asserting their manhood. Barracuda (2016) also allows an exploration into alcohol fuelled violence when a drunk Danny Kelly throws a glass at the man he loves. It’s an act that changes his life and one that reflects an issue plaguing modern day society. Kelly’s is a similar story to that of Sam’s (Four Corners, 2013) 18-year-old attacker –  a moment of drunken thoughtless masculine aggression saw him convicted with a criminal record and sentenced to jail.

Masculinity and alcohol in Brock (2016): 

The opening scene of Channel Ten’s mini-series Brock (2016) immediately creates an image of the masculine ideal; Brock is driving fast, he’s got a girl and perhaps most notably, he’s downing a beer. “Crack us a beer will ya.” Brock (2016), unlike Wake In Fright (1971) and Barracuda (2016) does not directly link alcohol consumption to violence, however it does present drinking as a characteristic of masculinity, particularly in the male sporting world. Shaking the champagne bottle on the podium after a win would be a familiar scene to most audiences. Peter Brock then downs a beer with the team as celebration after placing well in the race. Close up shots on the glasses of wine at the launch reflect shots of beer bottles at the Cabaret in Mad Max (1979). The first thing Brock does when he walks into the Holden team launch is to grab a glass of alcohol, emphasising how closely intertwined alcohol is with the male sporting world.


Channel Ten’s mini series Brock (2016)

Perhaps Wake in Fright (1971), Mad Max (1979), Barracuda (2016) and Brock (2016) work to make modern day audiences aware of the culture of drinking and violence that is closely intertwined with an understanding of masculinity in Australia. Perhaps they serve to scrutinise this relationship and encourage change. More likely, they do both. One punch legislation, lockout laws and alarming statistics on alcohol consumption and hospitalisation make clear alcohol fuelled violence is a challenging issue facing contemporary society. Perhaps it is time for, as Raewyn Connell (2014) suggests, dominant constructs of masculinity to be looked at as an underlying cause of the issue. After all, “young mens engagement in risky drinking and public violence is shaped and informed by their understandings of masculinity” (Rogan, 2016 pg.2).


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