Chris Lilley's new show Angry Boys was the most popular show on ABC TV so far this year. It's being hailed as outrageous, in-your-face, and a work of genius. Some are finding it too confronting, or perhaps unfunny. It also points us to a twofold story about boys and men.
On one hand we have the angry boys that Lilley portrays. They are rude, obnoxious, detest authority and seem addicted to the F-word. Everything they don't like is "gay" and anyone they don't like is "faggot". What's the reality out there? It's boys in trouble in school, with deputies complaining that their discipline list is nearly all boys. It's low marks for boys in literacy-related subjects, often with the significant exception in Australia of Asian boys (mostly Chinese and Indian). It's worrying rates of literacy among Aboriginal and white working-class boys. Boys' disengagement from learning has been long discussed in the UK and the European Union. It's the subject of a briefing to a new group to lobby for boys' initiatives by a panel of experts in Washington DC. [17th May] It's taken Americans longer than those in other countries to admit that we are having major problems with boys.
On the streets, boys gather in groups. They are harried and hurried on by security guards in the malls where they gather for warmth and companionship. You can see them eyeing-off or wolf-whistling the girls. Probably, boys have always done so. There are more and more cases of alcohol-fuelled violence among older boys. Apparently the way to do it is to throw twenty glasses of grog down your throat and look for a fight. Many boys feel different and have to try hard to fit in: especially Asian boys or dark-skinned boys. Will the blatant racism in Angry Boys help such kids? Or increase racist comments by their classmates?
More worryingly still, there are high rates of depression and suicide among young males, especially in isolated areas. When you live in a town where everyone knows everyone, it's difficult to tell someone you're unsure about your sexuality, or mention problems with a girlfriend. And time and again, we hear of a deadly cocktail in rural areas: fast cars, alcohol, and a boy's desire to impress his mates and fit in with the wild crowd. The results are horrific rates of injury and death on country roads.
Young males have been attempting foolish stunts called "planking". People pose lying down and post a photo of it on the internet. Some media "personalities" have actually encouraged it. Just this week we have had a 20 year old die attempting such a stunt.
Meanwhile, where are the men? In many upper and middle-class groups, they are knitted into families and connected with boys. But far too often, we see families without men, and men disconnected from families. Boys are being raised in the absence of men. Men are busy with shiftwork or struggling to pay bills.
Moreover, so many man go into crisis after separation and divorce. They feel nobody will listen to them and they don't know how to deal with the emotional distress that happens after they only see their kids every few weeks. The Family Court is sympathetic to women and to kids. Is it sympathetic to men and their needs?
Or men have left the family, living alone while kids are raised by the mother. This is certainly the case in many black families in the USA. In other cases, men are attracted by highly paid work in mining and leave the family for months on end to work in Queensland or Western Australia. Rises in the cost of living are intensifying all these difficulties for all family members.
Nor is there much help for boys needing a masculine ear at school. Teaching was once a good job for a working-class man who could read and write reasonably well. Now it has become a job mainly done by women, especially in government schools. One young teacher traineee said : "Teaching- it would be a good job, if I was a woman". Statistics for men in teaching suggest that the proportion of men in teaching falls again and again, especially in primary school. A boy who wants to talk about who he is and where he fits in to another male can't often find one. In this vacuum of leadership, boys talk to each other, or pick up ideas from the media.
But the media don't help much with all these problems. The media are crammed with images of men as warriors, muscular creatures who storm out and get revenge, battle-scarred tough guys who don't flinch from pain. Witness the endless parade of NRL footballers pummelling each other on the field and often off it. They are caught drinking too much and emptying their bladders in public, or being hauled into court for injuring a girlfriend. (Many footballers aren't like this, but there's no interest in a quiet family man. ) An article in Sydney's Telegraph on 13th May portrays a footballer as "all angry and animal". Yet the guy is doing a masters degree.
For another version of today's male, the self-absorbed new man, look at the new reality show, Jersey Shore. It depicts real-life pumped up Italian muscle boys who preen, pour on buckets of hair gel and admire themselves in every mirror they can find. It's like "Twilight of the Muscle Gods".
Or witness The Immortals, yet another new movie about a strong man who goes out to seek honour and defend his country. It follows many similar examples from Tarzan to the Terminator. Men are selfish and wild. They go out to kill, punish and destroy.
Which takes us back to where we started. Chris Lilley shows us strong women like Gran, who runs amok in her own way and keeps the boys in line with her weird attempts at humour. Lilley shows us single women like the mum who raises the two boys in the town of Dunt. And when mum's boyfriend moves in, his attempts to become the boys' de facto dad are mocked and rejected. Lilley's men are weak schoolteachers who try to pacify errant boys and make excuses for them. Or we see yet more punishing males, like Jonah Takalua's dad in Summer Heights High - "When we get home, I'm gonna smack you".
We need men to be stronger. Not in obvious ways, with more muscles and physical bravado. Fathers have a huge power to help kids achieve. We need more men patiently engaged in the daily work of raising kids. Boys need men in their lives as part of a loving family. And men need to belong to a family to stay sane and survive.