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?

10 thoughts on “Ableism and the Aussie Battler

  1. Generational differences here in the US make all the difference. My grandfather’s generation never admitted to any disability that could be hidden, or drank away. This is why my mother’s father, who had bipolar disorder, never ever let out that he had such limitations. The family kept secrets, and that was one of them.

    My father’s generation softened to the idea of being a bit more sensitive, but some of the same fear of seeming vulnerable and weak (female, really) has a strong stigma attached. My generation, which spans the gap between X and Y are much more open with such things, but I find that the stoic male ideal still persists, though it is more acceptable to openly complain about one’s unfortunate situation then would have ever existed in generations prior. In short, you can bitch about it, but you better not admit it.
    .-= Comrade Kevin´s last blog ..The Parallel Universes of Politics and Popular Sentiment =-.

  2. I’m from Oklahoma, the descendant of true Sooners. I’m familiar with the Aussie battler idea – both my dad and my FIL lived in Australia for some time – and it’s not very different from the idea of the Oklahoma guy/gal. We’re tough frontier folks. Pull yerself up by your bootstraps kind of people.

    For me, it’s not been a problem dealing with the attitudes of other people. I’ve just had to readjust my idea about my own bootstraps.

  3. Thanks for the cultural info, Chally–I’d been unaware of this concept in the Australian societal mindset. (Still trying to check my Americentrism at the door.)

    And now my cultural studies hat: along with what Comrade Kevin says above, I would argue that the bootstrap meme in the US isn’t just financial or class based. It also provides a sense that regardless of the problem, if you have enough inner resolve and strength, you can sort things out. Yourself. You are not due any help, it is not your right to have assistance; if people provide you with help, it’s a gift (out of the sheer altruistic goodness of their hearts) or a loan. Either way, you’re indebted, either by guilt or by trying to pay the person back.

    Which is, of course, what we’re seeing with the healthcare debate at the moment, and with all of the continuing struggles for accessibility. The trouble is that the meme is archaic and dependent on a societal structure that hasn’t existed for nearly a hundred years. It doesn’t fit with the other societal meme of upholding a modern, free, diverse and open society, and the conflict between the two memes is epic.

  4. So true! Don’t be a whinger or a sook, mate!

    I found Howard’s version especially offensive, as he used it to redefine middle-class heterosexual white suburban families as “battlers”, and direct state welfare their way for votes, while characterising working poor, non-nuclear families, disabled, poor and rural people as greedy whingers. Aboriginal people, of course, were completely hopeless and had to be personally “managed” – something Labour seems to be continuing.

  5. Yes, thanks for sharing that as I had never heard of it before. It sounds similar in some ways to some of the US myths in this area, but obviously different in ways, too.

    I agree with Bene about the US’s bootstrap ideals, as in “picking yourself up by the bootstraps”, meaning if you’re struggling you just pick yourself right up and keep going and if you work hard enough, you’ll get there. “There”, of course, being the illusive American Dream. You live in your little family unit – spouse and kids and that’s it, because families beyond spouse and kids should NOT need one another so it’s not cool to take in an elderly parent who needs extra help or let your grown child live with you past college age if they aren’t able to support themselves for whatever reason or live with extended family so you can all save money and share in childcare expenses. These are all BAD things. We must all be self-sufficient. And if you can’t manage to be self-sufficient and afford an upper-middle class home, two cars, and private school for your kids? Something is terribly terribly wrong with you.

    This, obviously, is marginalizing for people with disabilities and their loved ones for many reasons. First of all, there is a stigma attached to supporting one another (how can there be a stigma attached to helping your loved ones?!). Secondly, because this is seen as a bad thing to do, there are very few provisions for people to do it. People who are caring for a family member who needs extra help still have to work full time and still bring home the same amount of money and often find it difficult – impossible to become eligible for extra help or financial support. So not only are we stigmatized for needing help, but we are also financially punished for it. People get fired from jobs for taking too many days off to care for a loved one in need, and the loved one in need is made to feel guilty for even existing in the first place.

    Classism, meet your intersection with ableism.

    Will be curious to see more comments on this from other cultures as well as other takes on the US mythos.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..More peeks inside my head right now =-.

  6. I may be a bit off the mark here – but while reading this I got to thinking about how this would relate to how Australians view the disabled.
    The only time I hear people with disabilities spoken of in a general context (meaning, not when amongst lefty friends – more so among work colleagues, general public) is when a person with a disability has acheived a brilliant ‘body’ based achievement. “Did you hear about XX, who scaled mountains, did the haiwaian triathlon, etc etc..” Now, not to denigrate these achievements in the slighest – but I find it interesting and infuriating that the only time I hear about the achievements of the disabled is when they are acheiving something that most able bodied people would struggle greatly to do! I think in one sense this relates back to the battler image (although it has nothing to do with money, we Aussies love to think about people going up against something bigger and harder than us – that we cannot change)… I would theorise that this is how people are perhaps viewing a disability..? Additionally, I find it interesting/infuriating the way that bodied achievements versus intellectual achievements by the disabled are framed…. I often feel like there is a subtext when people talk of the intellectual achievements of the physically disabled – of – “well, I guess you would focus on (insert intellectual achievement) that, wouldn’t you.” hmmfph – long ranty comment – sorry!
    .-= Natalie´s last blog ..The 17th Down Under Feminists’ Carnival =-.

  7. Mary from the article you linked to: “It is vital that a civilised, decent society care for the sick, and those who are so severely disabled, physically or intellectually, that they are unable to work. But it helps nobody, least of all those in genuine need, if the disability support system is overloaded with people who need a firm nudge to join or rejoin the workforce, or undertake suitable job training.”

    This links in with changes to the UK’s system of welfare – changing the names of the benefits and (we’re told) insisting that people on disability benefits meet even restricted criteria or seek work, when no employer would realistically take them on. Least of all the government department making the change which is dispensing with the services of its sick staff as rapidly as it can, and many of those sick staff have disabilities.

    I’m sorry if this is incoherent – it just makes me furious.

  8. Perhaps we are unusually prone to … ahem … bad backs, chronic fatigue, “crippling” stress, RSI, burnout and other ills, but Australia has one of the highest rates of disability pensioners in the OECD. Aaarh, that article from the Australian, really, fuck you.

    I love reading Australian culture specific articles… but being rather restricted by being Australian, I would really love to see how this is contrasted with other cultures, in order to understand its uniqueness, rather than the bits which are same shit, different name… (Not from you, this is a longstanding wish and I need to do some more reading on it.)

  9. I rather doubt that this is culture-specific – you can probably see it in many different countries, but a pet peeve of mine is the way parents treat a child’s disability.

    I was often told “Just because you’re deaf doesn’t make you any different from everyone else”. That wasn’t true – I WAS different from my hearing peers. Even with hearing aids, I still have difficulty, but everyone seemed to think that if you’re wearing them, then you’re back to ‘normal’. (I’m sure anyone with any kind of disabilty aid can see the fallacy there!)

    The way ‘different’ was equated with ‘lesser’ by my parents left me feeling that I should try to hide my deafness – I should try to be the same as everyone else. In a very real sense, I was made to be ashamed of the way my hearing impairment DID make me different.

    Over time, I’ve realised that my difference has had some advantages – I’m much better than most people at reading body language, for example. But for the most part, I still see all the things I can’t do well (like talking on the telephone) rather than those I can, causing a great deal of self-doubt – especially in any situation where I need support.

    It seems to me that, regardless of the type of discrimnation, be it sexism, racism, ableism, or any other, the first thing we need to do is make sure people know that different is acceptable, and nothing can make you less than anyone else.

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