Disability, Heroism and Australian National Identity

Martin Mantle


Never simply itself, the exceptional body betokens something else, becomes revelatory, sustains narrative, exists socially in a realm of hyper-representation. (Thomson, “From Wonder to Error” 3)

The title of Chris Lilley’s television mocumentary We Can be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year (ABC television, 2005) begs the question that is the source of much of the humour of the series: What does it mean to be a hero in contemporary Australia? The series explores the efforts of six “ordinary” Australians who are vying for the title of “Australian of the Year” and brings a satiric lens to choosing the individual winner. Lilley, who plays all the lead characters, depicts characters both with and without disability, and this mix of ability and disability is key to his satiric vision of what it means to be Australian.

In the course of nearly four decades of debate about disability and its representation, there have been significant changes in how disability is theorised. By moving a focus from the individual to the social, disability scholarship has sought to uncover the following:

  1. the history of the representation of disability, in literature, film, television and non-fiction narrative;
  2. the beliefs that underpin and are fortified by those representations (Barnes and Mercer; Corker and Shakespeare; Covey; Cumberbatch and Negrine; Longmore; Mitchell and Synder; Norden; Stiker).

Uncovering the social regulation of disability, that is, the disablement of individuals and groups by environments, social custom and cultural norms, enables activists and social commentators to question the way disability is represented and argue for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the making of these cultural artefacts (Hevey 209). However, whilst this work has been vital, it remains unclear as to whether the representation of people with disabilities has become something other than the site of entrenching and reinforcing the cultural norm of the able body. There is no doubt, in the Australian context, that in the history of representation, characters with a disability are present, and at times those images seem to proliferate (Ferrier 65-7). Nevertheless, as Katie Ellis argues, these representations may not result in a significant alteration in the way disability is perceived, except in terms which make it marginal to, or an exception of, the able body as a cultural figment of national identity. The social model provides the point from which questions about disability can be asked (Thomas 26).

The social model may tend to assume homogeneity among people with disability and can ignore the real personal implications of “pain, medication or ill-health” (Humphrey 174-5). Carol Thomas has also argued that the study of disability that universalises the experiences of people with a variety of impairments misses particular social effects specific to an impairment (42-4). This debate about marking disability in terms of the particular and/or the universal, runs parallel to debates within cultural studies about the place of the individual in the construction of national identity. Individuality (and particularity) is both the site from which national identity arises and the source of much of the anxiety (and questions) about that identity. The relation of individual to national is, as Graeme Turner argues, paradoxical, and in the Australian context, leads to an ambivalence about the individual, even as the individual is continually evoked (87). The following analysis of Lilley’s series draws on both the analysis of disability as a complex interplay of individual experience and social regulation, and the analysis of the individual in the development of national identity, to account for the series’ potential critique of the presence of disability in Australian cultural production. Illness, impairment and injury are present in representations of Australia – in literature, film, television and non-fiction narrative – but their presence can also be continually erased in the dominant cultural conception of what it means to be Australian. This paradoxical erasure occurs because of four features of the representation of illness, impairment and injury, which are key to the narrative of We Can be Heroes:

  1. it is predominately sited in representations of individuals;
  2. it is subsequently only the concern of those individuals, and their identity as individuals;
  3. it is hidden or lessened at times of cultural scrutiny;
  4. it is used as a metaphor for the deficiencies of the cultural representations of other identity categories (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class).

This essay is divided into three sections. The first section explores the contention that the able body is constructed within narratives about Australian identity, and suggests that the series We Can Be Heroes draws attention to the interdependence of “ability” and “disability”. The second part underlines some of the ways in which “disability” is always in relation to “ability”. The last section, explores how the heroic is used in the series to critique the place of disability in the maintenance of Australian national identity.

“Ability” and National Identity

“I didn’t want to be average.” Phil Olivetti – Queensland State finalist for “Australian of the Year”.

National identity is a classification based, to a lesser or greater extent, on discourses and policies of exclusion (Meekosha and Dowse 54). While the critique of exclusion has focussed attention on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class (Pettman; Wilton and Bosworth), the intersection of these and disability requires continued investigation. To unmask and undermine the dominance of the able body in conceptions of the “typical” Australian requires a re-thinking of “ability” in the construction of national identity. The use of the word “typical” deliberately evokes Russel Ward’s defence of his thesis in The Australia Legend where he seeks:

…to trace and explain the development of the Australian self-image – of the often romanticized and exaggerated stereotype in men’s minds of what the typical, not the average, Australian likes (or in some cases dislikes) to believe he is like. (vi)

The opening montage of We Can Be Heroes exhibits the series’ narrative interest with an Australian ideal. Moving quickly through images of young Surf Life Savers, a male cricketer, a female zoo keeper, a swimmer, an older suburban couple, a farmer, ballet dancers, firemen and finally indigenous children in an outback setting, it establishes Australia as geographically, socially and ethnically diverse. Providing a mix of characters from around the country, Lilley seems to be going out of his way to emphasise the idea of the vastness of Australia and the ideal of Australian identity as encompassing people so geographically isolated. The constant use of a satellite image of the Australian continent, which then zooms down to the place in which the main characters of the series live, reinforces the connectivity left unspoken in the stitching together of the disparate character specific sequences in each episode.

Ward’s thesis about the development of a “national mystique” of Australian identity has been criticised for its limited view of the origins of a type based in the experiences of stories of the bushman (Reynolds 24-5). This critique of Ward’s omissions of class and gender also requires the identification of a foundational aspect of national identity, namely the bodies, in concert with the environment, that form and regulate the terms of national identity. As Carol Thomas states:

Human bodies possess a materiality which exists in a relationship of dynamic interaction with its social and physical environment. Put simply, bodies shape these environments through their (purposive) activity, and these environments shape the body – giving rise both to some bodily variations themselves, and to meanings and significance which these variations come to have. (8-9)

“Struggle and sacrifice” is given value in the development of an – albeit white, male – Australian identity (Barnes 41) but the body of the idealised Australian is an able body, which is then subsequently impaired. For example, in Arthur Adams’ poem “The Australian”, Australian identity is personified in a figure:

Pallid of face and gaunt of limb,
The sweetness withered out of him.

Sombre, indomitable, wan,
The juices dried, the glad youth gone.

The dried, withered body that is envisioned is depicted as an alteration of a vibrant youthful body, transformed through its encounter with a harsh landscape. More significantly, the lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem “The Fallen”, recited at every Anzac Day ceremony: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. /Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”, reinvests the body of the young soldier, an icon of Australian virtue, as a body that does not decay, acquire impairment or become ill. That bodies are impaired, injured and acquire illnesses is often viewed as the consequence of an engagement with the environment – both natural and built – rather than more central to understanding what it is to be Australian. As Ellis notes of the films of the 1990s, which feature disability:

By locating disability within a ‘problem body’… films are again valuing strength and perfect bodies in a similar way to the male ensemble cycle that excluded a number of marginalised groups.

Significantly, in the opening montage of We Can Be Heroes, is the absence of any obvious physical or psychological impairment. This is in marked contrast to the characters that are the focus of the narrative. Of the five contenders for the award – Ricky Wong, Ja’ime King, Phil Olivetti, Daniel Sims and Pat Mullins – Pat was born with a congenital leg defect and has breast cancer, Daniel Sims’ brother is deaf, and Phil has apparently suffered a workplace injury resulting in the loss of some hand and arm functionality (though later we have reason to suspect that his claim to impairment is questionable). The opening sequence could suggest that these disabled characters are embedded in a community that is dominated by the able-bodied – and these able-bodied are the norm against which the exceptional actions of these individuals are to be measured. Lilley’s characters make visible the construction of disability and ability as a deviation from the ordinary or everyday. Both able-bodied and disabled are made exceptional within the social domain of the designation of “Australian of the Year”. Yet, it is difficult simply to assign a positive value to his disabled characters – Lilley’s satiric vision, which relies on our recognition of the real in the representational, exposes alterity inherent in both the characters and the narrative. Moreover, his use of his own body, reproduced but with difference across the multiple characters, emphasises Peggy Phelan’s claim that “[r]epresentation reproduces the Other as the Same”( 3) but may also suggest that the Same is reproduced as the Other. The binaries of Self and Other, able and disabled, ordinary and exceptional are explored in characters who attract both acclaim and derision. Ann Pointon argues that one of the difficulties in unpacking the representation of people with disabilities is:

It is too simplistic to talk about ‘negative’ compared with ‘positive’ images because although disabled people are in general fairly clear about what might constitute the former, the identification of ‘positive’ is fraught with difficulty. (1)

Deciding what may be positive or negative is particularly difficult in comic representation. Laurence Clark, a comedian and academic argues that almost every successful comedy television show in the last forty years has used impairment, and the majority of these representations are “unrealistic, inaccurate and negative”. Laurence uses the social model to critique the disabling effects of comedic representation of impairment, and suggests that comedy that focuses on an individual’s impairments is part of the way people with disabilities are made other. He counters that comedy, which generates humour from the social conditions that contribute to disability, is enabling. It is possible that some comedic representations of disability are “unrealistic, inaccurate and negative”, but one of the formal qualities of comedy is that the portrayal does not accord with the “real” world and this disarticulation of representation and reality is one of the ways laughter is generated. Comedy does not necessarily seek to be accurate but to distort, and in the distortion it generates comic commentary. As William Paul argues, of a wider social phenomenon of “grossing-out” and its relation to films of the 1970s and 1980s, such comic representations “offer distorting mirror visions of culture and society, but the distortions are valuable in themselves because the manner in which we seek to stylize reality is itself a comment on that reality” (79).

Comic use of absurd and at times grotesque characters challenges the state of being by reminding us of the “unfinalized state of becoming” (Horton 13). Few depictions of characters with impairments are actually performed by actors with an impairment. The performance of impairment and how such performances are valued is given voice by Ricky Wong:

I have always wanted to play a retarded person on stage. Down Syndrome. Something like that. Chinese Down Syndrome. Always people win Academy Awards, always play a retarded person. So I think that is where I am headed mainly.

Here, Lilley is amusingly pointing to his own performance of these characters. Ricky’s aspiration to be a great actor, measured by an award, parallels the series’ predominant concern with the award that marks out national identity. Lilley’s characterisation of individuals who are deeply flawed brings attention to the way cultural norms erase difference.

Lilley’s embodiment of the culturally othered – racially, physically or psychologically – is both difficult to assess, as Pointon indicates, and difficult to watch, because they too possess qualities which are both admirable and disturbing (Fontaine 34). All the characters embody characteristics that are admired (e.g. bravery, resilience, commitment) and condemned (e.g. self-centredness, dishonesty) in the Australian character. The series does not simply challenge stereotypes by pitting rich against poor, male against female, or Anglo against ethnic, and then characterising “rich, male, white” in morally deficient terms. Rather the series depicts both able-bodied and disabled in situations in which they are seen as bearers of questionable behaviour – particularly in the context of a competition that seeks to nominate an individual whose character represents the best example of Australian identity. For example, the wealthy Ja’ime King sprays her vitriolic verbal barrage indiscriminately throughout the series, and Phil Olivetti fakes his impairment and resorts to bribery to secure his nomination. Yet the series also depicts the swearing and crude physical gestures of Nathan and Daniel, and the ironic (and cringe worthy) racial stereotyping by the Chinese character Ricky Wong of indigenous Australians. Even the most lovable character Pat Mullins is seen treating her husband with aggression. The series’ satirical view of Australian identity resists strategies of social critique that simply align positive attributions to able bodies and negative to disabled bodies or visa-versa. In part, the series maintains an ambivalence about “ability” and “disability” because of the interdependence of these terms, linguistically and socially.


“…once I give up my ear and that I might be more attractive to chicks and that, because I’m sort of a little bit handicapped.” Daniel Sims – South Australian State finalist for “Australian of the Year”.

Disability scholars have argued that the language of form and activity places disabled subjects in a determinately relational mode. Disability is always in relation to the able-bodied norm (Linton 530). This relational mode arises firstly, and perhaps not surprisingly, from the theorisations of disability as a social relation. Campaigns such as the 2007 “Don’t Dis my Ability” run by the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability & Home Care, characterise, and impugn, the way physical, psychological and sensory impairment are socially constructed – that is, our ideologies and personal beliefs disable people. However, such campaigns risk positioning “ability” as the undifferentiated and natural norm against which disability is measured. This, in part, stems from the social construction of disability that, Iris Marion Young states, presumes the “fixity” of bodies “and thereby understands many of the experiences and self-conceptions of persons positioned as disabled as grounded in such bodily facts” (xiii).

Thus, the difficulty for identity theorisation and the categories with which we understand human bodies is to adequately recognise and account for the messiness of bodies. Bodies somehow resist being only by-products of cultural forces:

… although it has been accepted in recent years that there is no such thing as nature, that everything is culture, there remains within that culture a core of nature which resists examination, a relationship excluded from the social in the analysis – a relationship whose characteristic is ineluctability in culture, as well as in nature… (Wittig 209)

The interdependence of nature/culture has important implications for theorising disability. Moreover, the interdependence of bodies, environments and cultures is in part why the disability/ability binary is so difficult to unbind and thus reinforces its relational qualities. This leads to the second reason why disability is always relational and that is because there is no universally accepted overarching category found in language for the binary able/disabled. Thus it becomes difficult when representing able-bodied and disabled characters, as Lilley does, to avoid the relational dominance of ability as normalised in the able-bodied characters within the series. However, Lilley’s characterisation of twins, one who is deaf and the other who is not, suggests ways of conceiving of identity in terms that both confirm and resist the relational dominance of disability and ability.

Daniel, nominated by his small local rural community for “Australian of the Year”, has agreed to undergo a “world-first” eardrum transplant; an operation which will result in the donation of one of his eardrums to his brother Nathan. They are depicted as typical teenage brothers, conflicted in their fierce loyalty and rivalry. They are identical twins and their identical features reinforce the notion of an ideal as conforming to a form. Albeit a platonic notion, the notion of an ideal as an aspirational pursuit is inherent in the conception of a singular nomination of the title “Australian of the Year”. Lilley’s use of deeply flawed characters potentially returns to the use of impairment as a metaphor for moral deficiency. But Lilley’s characters do more than simply relay stereotypes of disability; instead, the obvious use of his own body as the site of the embodiment of each character also brings attention to the way bodies are constructed within social discourses.

If disability is in relation to ability, then understanding “ability” also depends on how that term is used in language – “whether it is a noun, an adjective, an adverb, or even a verb” (Lohman 82). Whether descriptive or explanatory (Howe 39-40), what the competition for “Australian of the Year” clearly suggests is that it is measurable. Somehow the achievements of each of the contestants can be stacked up against one another so that a final winner may be announced. The series thus exposes that whilst we may not know the actual terms of the competition, the act of finding an “Australian of the Year” does imply a set of measures to which the wider national audience ascribes.

While in the main this essay has used scholarly debates about the cinematic representation of disability, it should be noted that We Can Be Heroes is a television production. In their study into the use of disability in British television in the early 1990s, Cumberbatch and Negrine noted a mismatch between the prevalence of disability in television programming and in the population (16-19). Their data showed that characters with an impairment were more often from lower socio-economic backgrounds, experienced high levels of sympathy, pity, patronage, sadness and fear, were less likely to be sexually active, and were more likely to be dead by the final credits (62-72). In fictional programming Cumberbatch and Negine identified only 0.5 percent of all characters as having some kind of disability.

However, one area where impairment features most often is in the non-fiction narratives of such programs as Australian Story (ABC1). Australian Story forms part of a long history of productions that present stories about Australians to Australians, and so serves an ideological role in the establishment and maintenance of a national identity. As an everyday activity, television can at once stabilise dominant notions of national identity and disrupt them (Edensor 21). Such Australian stories mark out the individual for special mention. When impairment is present in the narratives of Australian Story it generates the kind of anxiety that Turner indicates is a particular suspicion of the individual in Australian narratives (96). There is a limit to the tolerance of difference, which Cumberbatch and Negrine’s study clearly shows. Des Power, in a study of Australian newspaper reports from January 2004 to December 2005, demonstrates that whilst people with disabilities are present in the media they are depicted in modes of dependence (119). Moreover, Power identifies the predominant use of “disability terms as a metaphor” (120). The extent of disability as a metaphor, of loss, lack or dependence, is, as Naomi Schor shows, in regards to the metaphor of blindness, so entrenched as to become fixed in language (77). Australian Story uses first person narrative to impart a sense of truthfulness, as if their appeal to the real lives of people does not involve the use of disability metaphors (that is, disability as a sign of dependence). But this methodology also masks it as a constructed cultural artefact. Lilley satirises the way the show constructs a sense of “real” Australians, uncovering the instability of a national identity, particularly when the ordinary is marked as extra-ordinary.

The title of We Can Be Heroes signals the show’s concern with an anxiety about heroic status. As the characters are exposed more fully throughout the series there is a sense of urgency in the title, We Can Be Heroes, given the increasingly obvious dubious claim by some of these characters. Daniel’s willingness to undergo the “world-first” transplant operation, subjects him to the acquisition of an impairment. The result is that Nathan is no longer hearing impaired, and so not subject to disabling social norms. However, he is also no longer a member of the Deaf community. Lilley’s use of a deaf character brings attention to debates about the use of technology in impinging on communal identity among deaf Australians. If deafness is integral to the personal identity of those who are deaf, then the acquisition of hearing radically alters that identity. Identity as Deaf results from a shared language and experience of the world, which is radically not the experience of those who hear. That Lilley places this into a narrative of the “Australian of the Year” suggests that personal identity and national identity are interdependent. Removing one eardrum does not result in the disablement of Daniel, even though he seems at one point to claim a benefit from being “handicapped”. The depiction of the twins is an enactment of a deep ambivalence in Australian culture about impairment. The willingness to acquire a hearing impairment recalls the long history of impairment as a metaphor for the Australian character – it is an heroic attribute. But the loss of disabled identity is yet another example of how disability is paradoxically erased in Australian national identity through the acquisition of impairment. Lilley’s critique of heroic action contrasts the brothers’ efforts to maintain difference with the ironic aligning of their forms. As the narrative builds towards the final episode the series raises considerations about the exceptional nature of each character that signals his or her status as a “hero”.


“I don’t care what my body is doing to me.” Pat Mullins – Western Australian State finalist for “Australian of the Year”.

Modern heroic figures, in some ways like their ancient counterparts, represent what we can aspire to. But in contrast to ancient heroes they mark a path for our own lives, more explicitly through narratives of ability rather than chance, fate or divine intervention. However, it is arguable that an extensive study of heroic figures from past cultures would uncover examples of the place of impairment in the construction of the heroic activity of those figures - Samson’s blinding is one such example.

Heroes are individuals who exhibit behaviour in extremis. They are profoundly not ordinary, and that is their appeal. It is certainly the appeal of Australian Story (Jones 1). Joseph Campbell’s influential work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which charts cross-cultural and trans-historical aspects of the heroic character and narrative trajectory, defines the hero as: “the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms” (18). It is the movement from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary that marks the hero, both physically and spiritually, and sets them apart, giving them the capacity “to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed” (Campbell 18). The opening voiceover of the first episode of We Can be Heroes places each of the figures of the series in the kind of heroic framework that the series is evoking:

Each year thousands of Australian citizens are nominated: people who make a significant contribution, demonstrate excellence in their field or are inspirational role models for their community. On Australia Day one of them is named “Australian of the Year”. We chose five nominees from across the country: people who have been nominated for their unique achievements; people who could be the next “Australian of the Year”.

Whilst it is claimed of the characters in the series, in a later voiceover, that they are variously “[r]ole model; high achiever; people who inspire; Australians who are our heroes”, nevertheless, heroic figures, according to Campbell’s schema, are at the commencement of their transformation indistinguishable from everyone else. Thus Campbell must presuppose a form (most obviously physical but it includes wider social issues such as class and race), that is a “generally valid”, “normal” form. This “form” is largely left undefined in Campbell’s work, though it is contextualised within specific cultural norms, and these norms are exhibited in the opening montage of We Can be Heroes in terms of the able-bodied.

It is the character Pat Mullins, with her visible physical impairment (born with the right leg shorter than the left and wearing a built-up shoe) and interest in sporting achievement that provides a critique of the traditional (or rather continually evoked) male heroic figures of Australian identity.

Pat Mullins is both physically impaired and a survivor of cancer. She exhibits the way disability is socially constructed. Patently refusing to be made incapable, she turns a necessity – having to roll around the house to reach her crying child – into sporting prowess. She has been acclaimed as having set a new world record for rolling nineteen kilometres from Perth to Fremantle. She proudly claims she will “get out there and take on the world. Yes, I am disabled but I can roll.” Pat is revealed to be embarking on a new world record, namely rolling from Perth to Uluru. The comedy is generated in part because of the homonym of “role” and “roll” and, moreover, that sports which involve rolling usually do so by rolling objects (for example, cheese and logs). Pat’s claim to resist her body (“I don’t care what my body is doing to me”), buys into discourses that suggest national character is built on activity which occurs “in spite of” the body’s actual capacity. Pat is the only character who dies in the series; having been in remission from cancer, her efforts to roll to Uluru are curtailed by the return of the disease. Uluru is an iconic national place in the conception of Australian national identity, a central monument that is the site of competing associations (pioneering endeavour, indigenous dispossession). Whilst it provides the comic naming of her journey as the “Rock and Roll Tour”, Uluru is also emblematic of her failure to achieve what is, in the series at least, her ultimate ambition. Pat’s inability to reach her goal brings critical attention to the way bodies are not always up to achieving the ideals of national identity. Within her narrative arc from ordinary mother and wife to potential “Australian of the Year” Pat’s efforts to roll to Uluru exhibit the tension between “effort to attain” and the “failure to achieve” ideals of national identity seen so often in representations of Australia.

Pat Mullins, in her heroic action, articulates Garland Thomson’s wry comment on the social construction of abilities and disabilities that “[p]eople who cannot lift three hundred pounds are ‘able-bodied,’ whereas those who cannot lift fifty pounds are ‘disabled’”(Extraordinary Bodies 7). Pat’s achievements display the way abilities are not just displays of the capacities of individual bodies but are also contextually dependent (Kasser and Lytle 15; Howe 44). In the context of friends and family she is seen and heralded as a great pioneering athlete. The act of rolling is transformed in the action of her impaired body into a socially acceptable and beneficial (she has raised money for charity through her rolling) activity. As the voice over states:

Pat’s friends have gathered to farewell her on her massive rolling endeavour. They have come (shot of Pat’s built-up shoe) to celebrate a woman who despite her struggle with disability and illness is on the verge of achieving national sporting glory.

Pat Mullins doubly represents the absent other in Ward’s taxonomy of the Australian ideal – women and disabled. Lilley’s satire suggests the extent to which physical activity and the assumptions about the kinds of bodies that underlie that activity must be interrogated, as a source of individual inspiration and social rhetoric, in the development and maintenance of a national character.


I would like to thank Heather Attrill, Fiona Utley, Ian Olorenshaw and Ruth Thompson for their support and assistance. I especially thank the reviewers and the editors for their generous comments and guidance.


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ability; disability; Australia; nation; identity; heroism

Copyright (c) 2008 Martin Mantle

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