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No place like Hom(m)e: Aussie Men and Mummy-Issues

by: Naomi Riddle

The last time I was writing about masculinity I was in Melbourne, Australia; a young woman was missing, just vanished from a suburban street while walking home from work on a busy road. This case infected Melbourne, the way in which it was so random, that it could have been any woman walking alone at night. There were signs pasted up on street posts across the city and suburbs, a frantic social media campaign and a police press conference announcing the discovery of a shoe and phone. Trepidation and unease wove its way into the narrative I was writing, particularly during the weird in-between period when a person has been missing for so long that it seems impossible for them to still be alive, but at least that’s kind of better than the certainty a dead body brings. The posters were rained on, started to tear, the young woman’s smile became smeared, dirty decomposing paper. Her body was found in a shallow grave just outside of Melbourne; she had been raped and then disposed of by a man on parole who had been convicted for just such violent crimes before.

Australia and New Zealand have this preoccupation with crime and violence, and this type of aggressive masculinity has a significant place in our imaginary. This has become clearer to me simply because of the recurring way in which masculinity is represented in the suburban and domestic space across Australasian film. It points to a fundamental anxiety surrounding the male within the home environment, an anxiety that pushes males to violence, particularly against women. This type of masculinity repeats itself again and again in recent Australian and New Zealand cinema, and this turn toward a kind of static, impotent and violent male now spans decades of films from “The Night, The Prowler” (1978), “Once Were Warriors” (1994), “Head On” (1998), “The Boys” (1998), “Whale Rider” (2002), “Animal Kingdom” (2010), “Snowtown” (2011) and “Wish You Were Here” (2012). These successful and critically acclaimed films all engage with a distinct suburban malaise, propelled by a constant sense of failure, boredom — man negotiating his incoherent presence within a claustrophobic and myopic suburban space. All of these works are doing something different, there is something uniquely Australasian in the their flatness, the boredom, the jokes, the drinking, the brick houses, something apart from the American engagement with suburbia, urban decay, unemployment and masculinity.

What Australia and New Zealand have in abundance is space, empty space, and those outside of these countries will always envisage this as a distinct trademark of both nations. Yet the focus is always reduced to a small, claustrophobic house, the home that contains an endless and unmediated stream of violence. Such films concern themselves with moments of unravelling; any ascent or triumphs achieved by the men and boys is unnecessary, deliberately excluded. What we are concerned with is the boredom, the failure, the point of decay, the decline. Its creepy and confronting, that pervading feeling that something is not quite right.

I want to take up this preoccupation here and suggest that the representation of Australasian masculinity is always tied to this idea of a kind of failed masculine performativity. It is a failed masculinity that results in hysteric behavior, and that subsequently causes a disruptive and violent retreat into the domestic domain, the house, the suburban home. It is a failure to dominate the public space that results in this retreat – a retreat that retains rather than denies masculine patriarchal authority. We are preoccupied and anxious about this type of man: destructive, violent, an unstable mix of authority and instability, power and impotence. The houses, the claustrophobic, threatening and uncanny spaces in these films are not just feminine but maternal, and Oedipal bonds weave their way around and inhabit these males. There is an almost sexual closeness that Grandma Smurf has for her children and her grandson in the family crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” and Brett desires after his mother, and the rage fuelled by his mother’s new boyfriend propels him toward an inevitably violent outcome in the thriller “The Boys.”

This type of masculinity reappears yet again in the popular and well-received television series “Top of the Lake” (2013). Directed and written by Jane Campion, and set in the small fictional township of Lake Top in New Zealand, this series exposes a confused blend of violent, sadistic and manipulative masculinity that is always bound to the maternal, the feminine. All the males in this series are in some ways hysteric, paranoid, walking a fine line between the need to persecute and punish others, and destroy themselves. Their relationship to women is fraught, violent, derogatory and confused; the recurring references of rape and sexual assault, particular to minors both male and female, points to a severe preoccupation with the perceived dangers surrounding a failed and unstable masculinity.

“Top of the Lake” has been portrayed as being heavily influenced by Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” with the obvious references to a small town with secrets and connections between families, and the overarching police investigation into 12-year-old Tui’s sexual assault and pregnancy, but I want to move away from this comparison. Of course, “Top of the Lake” has a pervading sense of unease and the uncanny, the familiar and the strange, yet it is decidedly without the Lynchian surreal and dreamlike stamp. Instead, the uncanniness and anxiety that surrounds the episodes is perpetuated by the kind of incestuous and reoccurring claustrophobic nature of the drama. Even though the vast natural spaces of Lake Top, the mountains, the lake, the forests are an essential part of the narrative, much of it also occurs in distinctly suburban spaces, particularly houses. These houses are at once rendered uncanny, threatening in their liminality, and this particularly emphasised through the way Campion constantly tracks across the outside of these houses, the rooms lit up, the spaces inside neither friendly, comforting or homely, but haunted, claustrophobic and unsettling.

It is this domestic space that the Mitcham family, including the pregnant Tui inhabits. Although Tui leaves this space early on, with the tearful announcement that she ‘can’t handle [her] dad right now,’ her older half-brothers and the family patriarch Matt Mitcham remain. There’s a clear link here to the boys and men that constantly occupy the frame of Australasian film: unemployed, violent, bored, abusive, drug-addicted as well as dealing in methamphetamines, and pushed out into this marginal space haunted by absent mothers. Matt moves the narrative, just permeates everything, his force, his perceived violent nature, his intensity, and his undeniable involvement in not only his daughter’s pregnancy, but also the rape and covering up of violence against women that runs through the entire community. Yet his entire subjectivity, his way of engaging with the space is driven by his love for his dead mother, extravagantly brought to the fore in the scene where he whips himself on his mother’s grave for losing the land on which she is buried.

The maternal is everywhere in “Top of the Lake,” seeps into the earth, in the houses, in the land. Each episode is filled with babies, wombs, wandering wombs, absent babies, absent fathers, absent violence that weaves its way and infects both the men and women living in Lake Top. The entire series questions who is related to who, incest and hidden violence rages across the narrative, and we are left in the final episode not entirely sure who fathered Tui’s child, and indeed, how many or which children Matt Mitcham has fathered, pushing again an uneasy absence of the paternal. This pervasive nature of violence, the way in which all of the men in Lake Top are in some way connected with rape, murder, drugs and assault, Detective Sergeant Parker in his shiny and almost too-clean house, the domestic space once again points to the inevitable outcome when so many men are tied to the home, when they have failed and retreated to this space. It is just the same outcome that is seen at the end of “Animal Kingdom,” or “The Boys,” or “Snowtown.”

So where does it leave us, this need to represent this type of masculinity? Of course it points to a deep-seated anxiety surrounding suburbia, masculinity, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, a Freudian influence on these antipodean shores. A maternal that seeps into everything is just so threatening to Australasian masculinity. The aspect that I haven’t taken up, but which requires attention, is the undoubtedly racial element to all these films, particularly those that are Australian: the fact that this anxiety surrounding these men carries such weight and has so much traction is most likely fuelled by the fact that they are disenfranchised white Australian boys, failed males with mummy-issues. Although “Top of the Lake” is racially diverse, particularly through its reference to Maori culture, all the perpetrators are decidedly white. However, the yet-to-be-released Australian film “Mystery Road” takes up these preoccupations in relation to indigenous Australians. Although it’s another story of another detective investigating the death of another young girl, it points to a shift in this repeating story arc, where outer suburbia and white male violence collides with the outback, the vast open space and indigenous tensions. Whether the mummy-issues will once again seep into this representation remains to be seen.