If one were to pick one place, pastime or object that truly encapsulated the cultural identity of Australia, it is highly possible they might pick the beach. A source of great cultural importance and antiquity, not to mention the centerpiece of Australian social activities and national beauty, Australia's beaches form quite an important part of what makes Australians who they are. In order to understand in greater depth the connection of Australians to their homeland, one has to explore the varying roles that the beach plays in forming that vital cultural identity. The beach is an absolutely essential component of the Australian identity, due to its visual and historical connection to traditional notions of masculinity, aboriginal history, the Australian sense of leisure/fun, and national pride.
The beach is said to be tied to Australia's cultural identity due to many different factors, the most important being the primary components of Australian culture being that of the surfing, sunbathing and sea-based subcultures to which most Australians seem to belong. A great deal of free time in Australia is spent at the beach, whether it comes through surfing or other beach-related activities (Bonner, p. 270). In particular, the beach has been noted to be a huge differentiating point between Australia and Europe, and was often used by Europeans to characterize Australians as the 'Other,' as the beach was the most frequently seen geographical attribute that was noticed by Europeans. The sheer exposure and repetition of the beach as a landmark for Australian geography has helped to cement the beaches of this country as a fundamental part of their being. Since it is the primary way in which other countries view Australia, it is inescapable that Australians would use it to define them as well (Bonner, p. 272). The beach itself is a powerful vision of nature, and as such is often valued for its aesthetics and inherent beauty - by signifying one of Australia's more geographically pleasing and unique attributes, it creates a clear example of what Australians are proud of in their country.
One of the biggest factors that plays into the beach as Australia's cultural identity is its connection to Australian masculinity and sensuality; the more liberating and free-spirited nature of the beach and its surfing culture helps to identify the Australian as more laid-back, more physically active, and therefore more masculine and virile. The beach exists as a privileged site in Australian culture, creating the surfer archetype as a man who is serene and worshipped - this creates a huge atmosphere of masculinity and virility in the country (Evers, p. 893).
The beach, through its emphasis as a setting for physical activities that inspire good health and active lifestyles, has led to a huge preoccupation in the Australian culture with beauty and fitness. It has many purposes that cater toward this end, which were freely exercised after the 1902 lifting of the ban on daylight swimming; "the beach variously became a free playground for the average Australian; a venue for the middle classes to show off the latest in beach fashions; the location of unconscious (or conscious) sexual forces, and a place to re-establish physical vitality" (Crombie, p. 176). This also ties it in with notions of masculinity, as this physical fitness, and the active lifestyles of many Australian men, has resulted in a culture centered around machismo and professions of sexual prowess on the part of heterosexual Australian men (Evers, p. 898).
The beach itself is considered to be a close connection with Australia's aboriginal history. "In the construction of white Australian national identity, the ocean represents both a real and symbolic power: to enforce, to reinforce, to welcome and reject, and to provide a simultaneous point of reference for 'one-ness' and diversity" (McGloin, p. 93). Toward that end, white surfing and beach culture is a way to connect with the history and the different peoples that make up the Australian population. Indigenous surfing is a huge phenomenon in Australia, with huge tournaments like the Billabong Indigenous Surfing Invitational happening every year that showcase aboriginal history and culture while offering white Australians the chance to observe the end result of thousands of years of aboriginal culture and ritual. Surfing itself, as a practice, stems from aboriginal songs and dances, as well as other activities, linking current activities with the past. Therefore, the beach connects Australians with their history, as well as the aboriginals who live there now.
Even now, however, aboriginals continue to be socially and politically marginalized by the dominant white Australian culture and society (Butler, p. 391). Despite this, the phenomenon of surfing and its culture is often used in documentary films and real social action to advocate for the plight of aboriginals; many surf groups, like the Bra Boys (a notorious aboriginal surf gang) are seen as 'battler' figures, "the embodiment of the national values of hard-work, egalitarianism and perseverance" (Butler, p. 392). Through these images, the surfer becomes the new Australian cowboy, the hero and battler - the professional surfer, even while indigenous and aboriginal, can still use this tool to make money and escape their own poverty and neglect (p. 397). By personifying these essential Australian values, these surf gangs become heroes of Australian working culture, connecting their home - the beach - with the free-spirited and hardworking frontier that Australians strive to explore in their culture.
The surfer figure is thought to be anti-authoritarian, rebellious, yet dedicated and committed to his craft. At the same time, there are unique undercurrents of civic duty and discipline attributed to these figures, especially when they put their skills to use as lifesavers:
"Lifesavers have drills, march-posts and patrol squads, while exercising a conservative pastoral interest in their members' moral health. They are agents of social control. Further, they see themselves as servants of the community, sacrificing their weekends for others - a tradition of sacrifice dear to a nation which twice voted no to conscription in the Great War." (Fiske et al, pp. 64-65)
Toward that end, it can be said that the surfer is one of the most fundamentally iconic and defining social images for Australians, carrying both their idealized notions of leisurely enjoyment of life and their steadfast dedication to helping their fellow man. By making the beach their own frontier to cross, their home to protect, the beach itself becomes inexorably part of the Australian identity.
There is a major geographical connection that the Australian people have to the beach. The majority of Australia's population lives incredibly close to the coastlines of the continent, making it a central and unavoidable part of Australian culture by proximity alone. In fact, it is so omnipresent that many issues regarding ownership of the Australian beach have arisen, especially between modern white Australians and aboriginals. This often represents some of the uglier aspects of Australian culture at times, which are the significant class divides between aboriginals and non-aboriginals; "there are class differences in Australia and the beach is a space that can reveal these markers of difference" (Ellison, p. 15).
The 2005 Cronulla riots, in which Lebanese-Australians and Anglo-Australians rioted against each other over ownership of Cronulla beach, shows just how important these locations are to Australian identity, for better or worse. The beach seems to bring out both the best and the worst of Australian culture, making it a perfect symbol for the microcosm of its people's cultural identity. The localism that people exhibit as a result of their connection to their individual beaches echoes other countries' loyalty and national pride regarding their own particular areas - the Cronulla riots was one of the most extreme examples of this territorialism. However, when all is said and done, surfers and non-surfers alike will fight to defend or keep sacred their own stretch of beach in Australia, cementing its importance to their social and cultural lives (Evers, 2007).
The Australian lifestyle being so centered around fun, the beach, with its culture revolving around leisure, is a natural symbol for the Australian mindset. In fact, the beach notes one particular aspect of Australian culture that sets it apart from other Western cultures: it prides itself on being far from the intellectual elite, instead focusing on the fun quotient and joie de vivre they so value. By wishing to define themselves by how down-to-earth and willing to let loose they are, Australians naturally pick one of the locations least suited to elitism: the free-wheeling fun of the beach (Fiske et al., 1988). Australians place great emphasis on fun and leisure in their activities, especially as pertains to the beach; "the ritual of the Bar BQ is as formal and culture-created as a high-church mass" (Fiske et al., p. 43). With this importance placed on fun and enjoying oneself, and the beach being one of the primary locations facilitating this emphasis, it is a place many Australians pride themselves on having.
In conclusion, the beach is the essential symbol for Australian cultural identity for many reasons. Its connection between Anglo-Australians and the aboriginal Australian through historical notions of dance and song, as well as the modern ritual of surfing, is centered around the beach. The geographical ubiquity of beaches in Australia, as well as the defensiveness Australians have about their local beach, demonstrates a sense of loyalty and community centered around the beach. The surfing culture that has arisen to dominate Australian leisure culture cements Australians' preoccupation with both physical fitness and a life of relatively easy living. By being a place that represents both the antiquity of history and the ideals of the present, the beach offers a unique and fascinating landmark for Australians to latch onto. So much of their active and conceptual lives revolve around the beach, it is impossible to totally remove all notions of the beach from the culture identity of the Australian citizen.
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