Ableism and the Aussie Battler
I want to talk about how Australia’s ideas of the ideal Australian exclude people with disabilities. But first I have to explain a little about the Australian national myth.
The ideal Australian figure is known as “the Aussie battler”. Essentially this is an ordinary man working hard to get by and support his family without complaining. I guess it’s a bit like “the little guy”. I’m going to paraphrase how Queen Emily explained it (as we discussed this on Twitter with its 140 character limit): ‘It’s an idealisation of (implicitly working class) struggle, self-sufficiency. You work hard and get paid fairly – but not well. I think it’s different from the US rags-to-riches story, because it doesn’t imply that hard work produces social mobility.’
I’m not sure how to convey to you how ingrained the idea of the battler is in the Australian consciousness, but it really, really is. It’s everywhere from our popular culture to our political discourse. Our previous Prime Minister, John Howard, drew on it a fair bit. (In fact, in 2007, US President George W. Bush referred to him as a battler at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, a moment which caused a few raised eyebrows.) Our current PM, Kevin Rudd, doesn’t do so quite so much, but it is still very noticeable.
There’s a whole culture around cheering on the underdog and tall poppy syndrome (tearing down high achievers). But the Australian idea of the underdog – the “Aussie battler” – isn’t really who is at the bottom of the kyriarchal pile. If white, abled men represent the struggling Australian, that’s a pretty warped idea of hardship. It’s not about valuing the real battlers. A lot has been said about the racism and misogyny coded in the battler legend, and I could say a lot about the assumptions regarding family (structure); today we’re talking about the ableism.
The Aussie battler ideal is about a person working hard to get enough money for the family to live on. Every feminist knows how problematic it is to set up paid work as the only sort of real work. After all, women’s work in the home, raising children, running the household – the second shift – has been devalued in Western society as a matter of course. It also is very ableist. Many disabled people cannot fulfil the paid work requirements to be a battler, or not consistently, because those standards are designed to fit abled people, to privilege what they can do over what people like us can do. It would seem that only particular kinds and amounts of contribution to family and society will do. Setting up “typical” as “best” is just about always problematic, and there is no exception here.
And if you must be disabled, there’s a battler’s way to do that, too. Complaining is not the Australian way, you must be stoic and soldier on. Never admit that you need assistance, because not being able to do everything on your own is weak. Having to rely on anyone else is a matter of shame. If the Aussie battler must be self-sufficient, and a source of strength and support to those around them, then what of those people who require that support? The Aussie battler idea devalues those the battler is actually working for: wives, children… disabled friends and relatives, perhaps. It’s not that those people are valuable and worth fighting for, it’s that the battler gets to prove their toughness and reliability. For whichever group, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to just be human: needing help, giving help, everyone deserving of love and support regardless. That’s what archetypes do: set up impossible tasks and cut out those on the margins. It’s okay to lend a hand to a mate as a one-off, but you better get back on your feet straight away. Assuming you have that hand, and you are able to get back on your feet, of course (oh, bodily metaphors, how much you do assume).
In an effort to keep this less than novel length, I’m not going to explain any more about Australia’s notions of ideal citizenship, but if you’re interested, you can try looking up larrikins, the ANZAC spirit and mateship.
Do you have specific cultural features like the battler ideal that make life a bit tougher when you’re disabled?