Cultural cringe

Words by Nicolas Zoumboulis
Art by Annie Ngo

It is notoriously difficult to describe ‘Australian culture’.

It always seems to come across as just a bunch of outdated stereotypes that are irrelevant to the ‘average Australian’ – whatever that is. The more we elaborate, the more likely we are to be filled with a sense of cringe. We’re wanting to assure people that, although it’s our country, we’re ‘above’ or different to what we’re describing.

There appears to be several contradictory tightropes that our nation balances on when it comes to questions of our national identity. Australians are deeply critical of our politicians’ tendencies to appear as either America’s lapdog or sycophants of the Queen. When former PM Tony Abbott knighted Prince Philip, he was met with massive media scrutiny for an act that was seen as acutely out of touch. However, it’s not just politicians that act in this way. Our failed attempt to break away from the monarchy in 1999 cemented the image of a divided country, insecure in its ability to stand on its own two feet.

This unspoken lack of cultural confidence and inclination to look towards England for guidance or approval has been characterised by some as “colony mentality”. Most colonised nations tend to suffer from a “colonial mentality,” meaning they dismiss their own culture as inferior when compared to their coloniser. Considering Australia’s colony status was even lower than most due to its convict roots, this may seem understandable. Although we’ve since tried to take ownership of our convict history, now wearing it as a badge of anti-authoritarian pride, our actions today suggest we are still feeling its harmful effects.

When A.A Phillips coined the term ‘cultural cringe’ in 1950, he was referring to the disregard that Australian artists faced from their own people who favoured foreign products and talent. Today, as the number of Australians managing to break through to the international stage increase, how many have been met with tall-poppy syndrome along the way? The totally flawed belief that our own talents pale in comparison to foreign nations ultimately leads us to tearing down incredibly talented individuals. It’s as though we can only idolise celebrities so long as they’re not Australian. The most recent and notable example of this was the series of defamatory attacks magazine Women’s Day made against actress Rebel Wilson. Although Wilson later won in a defamation case against the magazine, her reputation had already been severely tarnished.

Of course there are some Australians who have managed to break through to the elusive Hollywood elite status; Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and the Hemsworth brothers – just to name a few. However, these people are exceptions to the rule, and they have all faced similar challenges in their rise to fame. When Margot Robbie was asked if Australians were proud of her for landing the role in Wolf of Wall Street, she said, “You just can’t do better than everyone else or they will cut you down to size”. We tend to conveniently forget that before we clambered over each other to commend these superstars, they often faced an unscrupulous level of disdain from the public.

The overall problem with this mentality is it creates damaging rifts within our society, and snobbery towards different sub-groups that we struggle to explain. Take the fundamentally Australian “bogan,” an identity group inextricably linked to the heart of our society. Although most people have a fairly similar idea of what a bogan is, it’s not difficult to demonstrate that the idea is fairly abstract. For example, it’s not clear whether being a bogan is always linked to lower socio-economic class, otherwise the terms cashed-up-bogan (CUB) would cease to exist. If a bogan exists because of their ‘unsophisticated’ tastes (think Kath & Kim), then who are the cultural gatekeepers deciding what does or doesn’t makes the bogan-grade? Why should riding a jetski be any more embarrassing depending on who owns it and whether or not they drink VB? We all have aspirations and wish to see our position in life elevated, but it seems like it’s only acceptable for some of us to feel this way. The intense shaming of people’s aspirations speaks deeply about our cultural cringe and tall-poppy syndrome; we hate seeing each other do well.

The bogan character is a truly important part of Australian culture, it’s probably one of the first images conjured up when you think “Australia”. Yet the malleable term is often used to create social distance and alienate others with the implication being; it’s an embarrassing type of Australian-ness to have.

The cultural cringe is a form of self-destructive behaviour on a national scale, that we need to stamp out. Does anyone really still buy the tired narrative that because “we’re a young country,” we must be lacking in culture? This is nonsense. Australia has an abundant culture and talented people that are being recognised worldwide, it’s time we publicly recognised this too, but without any sense of envy or condescension. Like a child that’s been told too many times, “you’re not good enough,” we need to go on a journey of self-love and realise that this is simply not true.


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