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 FHM.
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.