Sunday, October 15, 2006

Crocodile Tears

Steve Irwin in Toyota advertisement (2004)

Since Steve Irwin's death, The Artswipe has been engaged in some unofficial vox pop, hitting the streets with a series of really important questions:

1. Did you cry when Steve Irwin died?
2. Did you give a shit about Steve Irwin before he died?
3. What will become of Bindi Irwin?
4. Have you hurt a stingray in the last month?

The answers yielded interesting results. Regarding Question 1, the general consensus was people were devastated their great cultural icon had gone. Not everyone cried, because since Diana, it's been hard to make celebrity grief meaningful. With Question 2, the results were certainly mixed, with most people saying they were so proud of his accomplishments they considered him one of the family. Very few confessed to not liking Irwin before he died, and feeling a tad guilty now he was in celebrity heaven. One angry dame spat in my face for using the word "shit" in the same sentence as "Steve Irwin." Someone's gotta tackle the big issues, lady!

With Question 3 things get really complex. Before Steve Irwin's death, The Artswipe didn't know about eight-year-old Bindi Irwin, having been indifferent to popular culture founded on crocodile cowboys like Hoges and Irwin. Their careers are crassly commercialised clichés made with American audiences in mind. Steve Irwin's fame was rock solid in the US long before it took off here in Australia. It seems Australians only gave a shit about Irwin after he'd been validated by Americans. If a celebrity's image is founded on a renegade touristy stereotype, then how can it have any relevance or authenticity in its originating country? That Irwin had reared a media savvy, delightfully named, crocodile huntress in Bindi had simply escaped me. I was too busy coming to terms with the fact that people eat this myth with a spoon: man tames beast in rugged terrain, film it for network television, package it with merchandising and charity causes. Erase all signs of big dollar network mediation, emphasise how Irwin was actually doing worthy work (helping sick animals and the like) and what you have is instant hit validated by one and all. When Germaine Greer gets on her soapbox, the media jumps on her, reminding everyone she's a cranky old bitch. What would Germaine know? She's an ex-pat which makes her an instant traitor. Despite her wacky ways, she's basically a signifier of any vestiges of intellectual culture Australia has ever produced. Therefore, she is discredited immediately. What would a pioneering radical feminist scholar know? Nothing if her work is not perpetuating cultural dumbness.

Bindi Irwin and mum Terri Irwin at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards

The results to Question 3 confirmed that indeed I'm not alone in only discovering this little miss sunshine in recent times. Bindi made such a beautiful speech at her dad's funeral. Having taped the funeral – I even took out the ads – I often return again and again to Bindi's performance, the svengali in me recognising I could make a wad of cash if I kidnapped her and set her loose on the stage. Perhaps she could be the opening act for Kylie's Showgirl tour? Bindi could at least read from Kylie's new children's book. Such instincts to exploit this little girl have simply become commonsense. When you're born into the media, you perform or be damned.

Presenting Guy Sebastian the Favourite Australian Artist award at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, Bindi in her now customary khakis and crimped pigtails, ate up the stage. "Isn't this great?" Bindi said. "I'm the smallest presenter but I get to give the biggest award." When the Awards climaxed with a big slime fight that saw Bindi, Guy and the hysterical tweeny audience smeared in all shades of green, I just knew Steve would have been proud of his number one girl. If you haven't achieved a televised slime fight in your life so far, then you basically haven't achieved anything.

But all this fame has an ethical dimension when one is so young and thrust into a spotlight rendered brighter since the death of a famous parent. Headlines have been preempting what will obviously take place: Bindi Irwin will be a big star. Despite psychologists like
Alison Garton voicing concern over Bindi's emotional or psychological wellbeing amidst the turmoil of losing dad, we all know that Bindi's basically hot media property. The Sydney Morning Herald's headline for their report on Bindi's appearance at the Nickelodeon awards: "Make Way for Bindi the Rock Star." Well, she's already a rock star. In today's Sun-Herald, a two page article on "the Bindi debate," reports that she already sings and dances in a band called Bindi and the Crocmen, has her own line of clothing and will debut in a 26-episode pay TV program in the US.

When The Artswipe reported on
JonBenét a few months back, I was implying how the saturated depiction of such kids whose early success is based on their precocious smarts and their ability to perform as apprentice adults, represents a new kind of media sanctioned pornography. The Artswipe is not trying to sound like a moral crusader, far from it. The Artswipe is just sick and tired of how in death we turn fairly vapid celebrities like Steve Irwin into saints. Before his death, he was just another larger-than-life Aussie whose celebrity was based on a kitschy brand of Australiana.

"I don't want Daddy's passion to ever end," said Bindi in her heartfelt eulogy. Dear Bindi, as long as "passion" can be merchandised (just ask Mel Gibson), you'll never have to worry about that. Just keep on wearing your khaki uniform, conforming to a recognisable visual identity that melds humanitarianism and entertainment, and you'll be Daddy's passion incarnate. And when you're 18 and trying to throw off your youthful image, I'll support your decision should you go the way of Nikki Webster, to spray that raunch in

As for Question 4 about whether anyone had hurt a
stingray. Nobody admitted to human vs nature vengeance in the admittedly smallish sample of people I randomly asked yesterday at work (don't question my empirical research methodologies, ok). Who would even admit to that shit anyway? Oh that's right, I don't think my vox pop sample featured any of the Steve Irwin fan club freaks, who in avenging their master, are really imagining Germaine Greer's face when trampling all over the poor docile stingray.


Ben Denham said...

do you really have steve erwin's funeral on video? that's great! my partner is a recently arrived mexican immigrant and she was keen to watch it out of curiousity as to how this sort of thing goes down in australia. the bits and pieces of the production that i saw so infuriated me that i couldn't watch the whole thing, (good on you for sticking it out). the bits that i did see (including bindi's speech) were a bit like the the soundtrack of a hollywood blockbuster, with so many explicit cues telling you how you should feel that all i could manage was a vague nausia. in fact the whole memorial service felt like a hollywood production that had a kind of uneasy responsibility to continue Erwin's work by presenting a version of Australia as an american audience wants to imagine it.

This only added to the nausia inducing cues for outpourings of nationalistic pride. the nausia was largly connected to the knowlege of all the horrible manifestations of nationalism (one nation anyone?)that crop up as a political means to manipulate the masses. the steve erwin memorial was further tainted by the fact that it wasn't even our own cliches of national identity being presented, it was those cliches packaged to the specs of TV networks in the states.

Skanky Jane said...

Hey! Been literally gasping waiting for your next post Artswipe (it's not a dig I know you are busy - but I missed you! I need to get out more I know).

I was wondering if you were going to touch this one - I am so glad you did. And of course you pick up the JonBenet Ramsay thread. Sorry, I'm still gasping but this is a great post - Germaine Greer trampling the sting ray - now that's pure gold!

I admit I was too scared to say that Bindi's speech at her father's memorial service made me queasy. Crocodile tears indeed. And her mother's interview with Ray Martin didn't do much to settle my stomach either. I just kept thinking "the woman's husband and father to her children has just died - what the hell is she doing on TV?" Maybe she was just thinking of everyone else's needs. I told myself.

I know Americans are a lot more "heart on thier sleeve" than anglo/aussies (my 'ol man is a septic tank). Although from the numbers who tuned into this saga it would seem we too like extra cheese with our lei's.

Bravo Artswipe for handling this subject matter so well. That photo you have of Bindi's mum whispering in her daughter's ear speaks volumes. Although I sense another media fave lurking there too...


lauren said...

funny what the responses are when you write about this stuff.

a couple of days after the double death of irwin and brock - otherwise knows as Celebrity Death Match Part IV: The Fight for Australian Masculinity - i got some surprising backlash from friends who i was sure could see through the tripe.

however, it appears that i'm part of a minority of people that would like to see Orstraya become a little more cultured in its identity, not just some beige (oh, sorry, khaki) wearing ocker idiots who chase dangerous animals for attention.

seems you're part of the minority too artswipe - welcome to the fold.

Skanky Jane said...

*snorts at Lauren's 'Orstraya'!*

I just got back from a good ol' feet up in front of the teev, watching an old movie medley - Showbiz Joins the War - which reminded me of Shirley Temple's efforts at cheering everyone up during the 'Great Depression'. Is there some propogandascope for Bindi in the war against terror? Perhaps we'll find out on Australian Story this week.

Or perhaps as Ben Denham suggests, Bindi's propoganda potential is already well employed.

As an aside about Aussie identity - according to AM Willis (Illusions of Identity 1993)landscape is the most pervasive theme in Aussie high culture. European and American traditions mattered a lot to early Aussie landscape painters - we well know now that this is a story of colonisation. Within a nationalistic discourse the Heidelbergians have 'Orstrayan' qualities. It's a convoluted tale and recent scholarship has modified former claims but it is amusing (to me at least) to note that Tom Robert's images of stockmen, shearers and bushrangers were often drawn from illustrations of cowboys and the American West (see Frederick Remington). 'Aussie identity' is a mongrel bricolage and Brian Adams doesn't call 'Orstraya' the 51st state for nothin'.

SJ xx
In my excitement, when commenting before, I fluffed the bit about Germaine!

Ben Denham said...

Your right Skanky Jane their are definately parts of Australia that slot in quite nicely with the cheese perchant of US TV networks. I guess i just wanted to live with the illusion that i could cast that aspect of Australian life out of the country but really it would never get past Brisvegas, or castle hill for that matter.

was it just me or was the Erwin memorial like a kind of hillsong funeral. thinking back it wouldn't have been out of place if a christian rock band was there given us their version of waltzing matilda complete with jesus/god loving overtones.

i guess just like the hillsong people the Erwin church is very much a commercial enterprise. One that must continue regardless of the loss of their spiritual leader.

Skanky Jane said...

Amen Ben.

Seen this?

(Actually I saw Jesus recently - during an orgasm. He was radiating acceptance and positive vibes at me - BIG TIME! I realise though that if I was a Hindu I probably would have seen Shiva instead.)

...errr...just thought I'd share that ...

SJ xx

Ian Milliss said...

Steve Irwin a national icon… that’s how pathetic life has become here in New South America.

I first heard of Steve Irwin when I was in the US in the late 90s. I was at Florida Atlantic University with my friend Prof Teresa Brennan (yes the same Teresa Brennan who was speeding around Sydney in Judge Marcus Einfeld’s car despite being three years dead) and everywhere I went checkout chicks, waiters, shop assistants would all say “Oh you’re an Australian just like Steve Irwin”!? Uhh? So when I finally saw him on cable I started to explain to them that No-one in Australia had ever heard of Steve Irwin but we did have a term for people like him… “fuckwit.”

Basically he was an American with an Australian accent, a parody that fitted the US fantasy of Australia as their little brother, as you’ve all been saying. Since so many of us now live in Virtual America rather than Australia it was hardly surprising that he should get presented back to us as an image of ourselves, and equally the people who are most embedded in Virtual America, living through commercial television, go in for conspicuous mourning despite the fact that all they knew was a carefully manufactured and manipulated image.

But this is just one more example of the culture war, it’s not new, and the closure of art schools etc is just the mopping up. It’s a war that’s been in full swing ever since the late 70s, I spent twenty years working with trade unions constantly saying to them “You have to understand we are in a culture war being run through the media, lose people’s hearts and minds and you’ll lose everything you have gained.” They mostly thought I was a bit crazy but now they have lost everything, just look at the return to nineteenth century industrial relations.

There are innumerable other examples, flag adoration for instance. In my childhood I was surrounded by WW2 veterans (the same people who we are constantly told fought for the flag etc) and they all regarded any sort of flag waving as an unAustralian obscenity but John Howard’s phony American version of patriotism regards it as a test of loyalty. And last night on TV they were openly talking about conscription because not enough young Australians are volunteering to die for Uncle Sam. I am prepared to put money on someone making a serious suggestion that we become a US state sometime in the not too distant future.

Ian Milliss said...

Further to my grumpy old geezer've got to wonder why anyone would name their child bindi, its a type of weed around here.

Artswipe said...

Awww you guys! I feel so validated. Thanks for the support. Love the comments. And yes Ian, a bindi is a fuckin weed. A stinger no less. Was at the beach at the weekend and had my fair share of them.

I was in the US in 2001 and visited a distant family member I'd never met (basically she was the only one in the extended family tree not to migrate to Au in the 1960s.) She told me that she loved OSSIES. "I love Steve Irwin! Do you know him?" she asked.

I'd never heard of Steve Irwin, and thought she was referring to a cricketer or something?! Really, I had no idea about my own so-called culture and was so totally embarrassed. Well at least for, like, two, like, minutes!

Skanky Jane said...

Funny Artswipe!

*sigh* and not so funny Ian...

Hey! I was in the US in 2001 too - in Jeb Bush' state. Nobody paid me or my Ossie-ness much mind at all though and apart from store assistants calling me Madam I had the feeling that I was still at home (especially as South Florida is just as flat as Adelaide).

Other more important points aside - don't you think that 'likewise' we project and consume stereotypes of America and Americans?

Ian Milliss said...

I was there in 1999 for four months in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, Broward County, home of the scam that got George Bush into power. I even canoed down the Loxahatchee River, about as wide and deep as the average bathtub but with added gators.

I used to think Carl Hiaasen novels were an OTT parody until several months of living there, then I decide he'd toned it all down because the reality is so unbelievable. I agree that we do stereotype Americans, both for good and for bad, it's a huge country full of contradictions and areas that are almost different countries in themselves, but southern Florida in particular is like a weird zoo containing examples of all the bizarre human critters found in other bits of the country. The variety is so full of contradictions, every extreme represented. I would now never be surprised if the US disintegrated as suddenly as the USSR did. The wonder is that it still holds together.

But I came back saying that southern US is really a third world country and that was demonstrated in the St Louis cyclone disaster. Ben has been there too, we could probably reminisce about southern Florida for a week. It's a long time since I was in Adelaide but surely it hasn't changed that much?