AFL series smashes the ‘stoic, tight-jawed athlete’ stereotype. (Image source: Flickered (CC BY-SA 4.0)
By Michelle Wakim | @michellewakim
The question is simple; the concept: ground-breaking.
When was the last time you cried?
Hamish McLachlan, Channel Seven sport journalist, asks this of high-profile male Australian Rules footballers and, just like that, the mini-series The Last Time I Cried is born.
For 10 episodes, McLachlan invites the icons of Australia’s beloved game to sit across from him and recount the last time they were overcome with emotion. In starting this discussion, McLachlan makes space for vulnerability and sensitivity in the loud and cluttered world of lad-culture and traditional masculinity.
McLachlan told the Australian Men’s Health Forum The Last Time I Cried “shines a light on mental wellbeing and the importance of sharing strong emotions, happy or sad, to break down stereotypes of the stoic, tight-jawed athlete”.
The stoic, tight-jawed athlete is a familiar hero in the sporting narrative. To be ‘stoic’ is not intrinsically detrimental but, over time, this characteristic has become a constricting, oppressive and toxic trait.
The ideal of stoicism has been glorified widely and carelessly in traditional male characters: the knight in shining armour, the war hero, the athlete. By definition, to be stoic means the “repression of emotions”; consequently, the stoic character is now part of the traditional masculine ideology “shown to limit males’ psychological development … and negatively influence mental health”, as suggested by the American Psychological Association.
According to Beyond Blue, “one in eight men will experience depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives”. This, paired with the statistic that men make up six out of the eight suicides committed every day in Australia, is harrowing.
Dr Erin Carlisle, a sociologist at Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), confirms the stoic character’s presence within sporting culture, saying the gendered representation of the sporting hero often falls into standard hegemonic masculine lines.
“They [footballers] fit the archetype of strong, tough, physically fit males who are attributed a sense of celebrity and cast as role models,” says Carlisle.
As Carlisle suggests, the male footballer is elevated to a “role model” and the highest marker of accepted masculinity. As sport is, for many, a belief system, the AFL and its figureheads make up the folklore and moral teachings which underpin the normalised Australian identity.
The romanticism of the sporting hero insinuates a relationship between gender representations in the AFL and broader society, a relationship Carlisle says is “two-directional”.
“What we see represented in the AFL is influenced by the norms surrounding society’s ideas of an idealised hyper-masculinity. Those who play AFL…are more likely to align with and act according to these norms,” says Carlisle.
Almost two years ago, dual premiership captain at Sturt Football Club in the South Australian National Football League, Zane Kirkwood, spoke publicly of his battle with anxiety and depression – a battle he had been fighting in secret for 20 years.
When I approached Kirkwood, I was met with a broad smile and a “G’day”; his nature was open, and he exuded a generosity and willingness to share. Admittedly my gendered assumptions came to the surface as I wasn’t expecting such candidness from someone who, for so long, was restricted by the ‘stoic’ sporting hero label.
Kirkwood rattled off podcasts, books, articles, songs, quotes, and other media which resonated with his experience. The Last Time I Cried was amongst these recommendations and was described by Kirkwood as one of the “good ones”.
I started by asking Kirkwood how he defines masculinity. This had him speechless, and although he couldn’t answer in his own words, he shared a quote from the late Danny Frawley, an AFL icon who grappled with his mental health for years:
“Manning up in the past was to suffer in silence. Manning up now is to put your hand up.”
Conceptualising mental health took time for Kirkwood, and he was joined by sporting colleagues who didn’t know how to talk about their struggles. But the Sturt captain came to see his “mental health issues as nothing different from a soft tissue injury you get from sport”. This analogy gave Kirkwood the language to “put his hand up”.
Although it has been helpful in some ways, Kirkwood also explained how this analogy can further restrict men if it’s not understood holistically. Many men will try and play through injuries and are praised for this ‘resilience’, stemming from an insecurity of “letting the team down or being a burden to the team”.
“We praise these people for showing incredible bravery and courage for playing through pain,” says Kirkwood.
“I believe this mentality translated for me into my mental health where I didn’t want to let my family, friends, and teammates down by showing this perceived weakness.”
Kirkwood’s experience parallels the widely explored Aussie character of the ‘stoic farmer’.
“In Australia, the cultural paradigm is of the stoic farmer who works the land and never complains, cuts his hand with a chainsaw and just wraps it up and keeps working,” writes general practitioner and psychodynamic psychotherapist, Dr James Antoniadis, in a blog for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“It’s very much a ‘get on with it’ sort of masculine ideal.”
The ‘get on with it’ is the problem. The ‘playing through the pain’ is the problem. As Kirkwood describes, “mental health can be like shaking a bottle of soft drink for years then eventually opening the lid and it explodes everywhere”. The injury, pain and pressure will always blow off the lid of stoicism.
Although stoicism is still anchored in male athletes, the AFL as an institution is on the precipice of a new narrative. History is being rewritten as female footballers stand at the interchange gate, good and ready to take the field. With this shift in player demographic, norms of what now constitutes the footballer have been drastically challenged.
This is where we circle back to McLachlan and The Last Time I Cried.
McLachlan hosts this series in a ballet studio. The space itself – traditionally associated with femininity – provides a stunning juxtaposition to the boisterous football club environment. The studio’s walls are white and bare, serving as a blank canvas for guests, and offering a conducive foundation for openness and expression.
McLachlan is transparent about his perspective on emotional expression, proudly stating, in agreement with Richmond 2020 premiership captain Trent Cotchin, that he is a “crier”.
“I really don’t care who I cry in front of,” says McLachlan.
“We are all built to be emotional creatures,” he discusses with Hawthorn great Campbell Brown, who was brought to tears when recounting the sudden death of his mother. McLachlan sees crying as a human response, rather than an inclination of weakness.
“No one is without incident…when we cry, we ask ourselves ‘Why are we crying?’ Who cares! You are, so do.”
Campbell’s response, “there is definitely nothing wrong with it, everyone does it,” is a circuit breaker, disrupting the discourses which relentlessly ring through our gendered echo-chamber.
The circuit is broken when Patrick Dangerfield, “the normally jovial and easy going” lad – as described by McLachlan – shares how emotions toppled over after the horrific death of Crows coach Phil Walsh in 2015, and how comfort was found when the league wrapped their arms around the players.
The circuit is broken when Dayne Beams describes reoccurring melt downs, substance abuse ‘band-aids’, and how much he now enjoys “getting out of bed everyday”.
The circuit is broken when Tom Boyd – who “had it all” and walked away from AFL due to mental health struggles – tells McLachlan, “No one is immune, and it is not proportional to your life”.
And it’s broken when Kirkwood says he tried “writing songs, poems, drawing, skateboarding, yoga, playing basketball” to alleviate stress and find peace in his mental health.
While The Last Time I Cried plays its role in unsettling conventional gender representations, there is still more work that needs to follow.
Carlisle reiterates players who are supported after speaking out are still few and far between. Vulnerabilities continue to be dismissed across the AFL, with Carlisle using Heratier Lumumba’s story as an example: Lumumba was “gaslighted by his club and the AFL; his experiences of racism were belittled as issues with his mental health and made him an outcast”.
“Media like this from the AFL is not enough to spark change on its own,” says Carlisle.
“Education programs in schools, family networks that provide space for healthy emotional behaviours and growth, as well as a wider range of stories that show complex male emotions in film and television are also helping to change the narrative for men.
“It takes a village,” she adds – a community, a team, an army.
As a united front fighting for systemic change, emotional expression, support, and empathy are our weapons.
The Last Time I Cried is a small battle won.
“It’s a bloody big war at times and it’s shit, but if you keep working towards improving yourself and your health, it is making you a better person in the long run…it’s a beautiful war,” Kirkwood explains as he shares his connection with the song ‘Beautiful War’ by Kings of Leon.
“Getting your feelings out with no judgement is key, rather than hiding it and burying it away.”
Circuits are being broken, battles are being won and stories are being told. There is more to come, but here, in 2020, we find ourselves in a place where our heroes can sit their weary hearts and bodies down in a ballet studio and tell us about the last time they cried.
If this story has raised any issues for you, support is available.
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline: 13 11 14
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
Originally published in The Junction.