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Cultural Cringe in Australia (soc essay)

Posted on October 28, 2012 at 7:10 AM

The term “cultural cringe” was first used in 1950, by the Melbourne critic Arthur Phillips, and refers to the ingrained feelings of inferiority felt by local intellectuals, writers and musicians. Phillips pointed out that the public widely assumed that anything produced by Australian artists was inherently deficient, when compared to British and European works. He argued that the only way local art professionals could gain public esteem was by travelling overseas and receiving acclaim from European critics (52-53). While Phillips coined the term, this phenomenon was already present in Australian society, as far back as the 19th century, as evidenced by Henry Lawson’s preface to the 1894 Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Lawson writes that the Australian writer, until recognised by London critics, “is only accepted as an imitator of some recognized English or American author”; the “Australian Burns” or the “Australian Kipling”, so to speak. Thus, “no matter how original he may be, he is branded, at the very start, as a plagiarist”, and while his countrymen no doubt believe they are complimenting and encouraging him, they are “really doing him a cruel and an almost irreparable injury” (Rodrick 108).


Ironically, the term “cultural cringe” seems to only have been coined a few centuries after the word “culture”, which rose to prominence in Europe, during the 18th century. Originally, it referred to the process of “bettering” and “refining” an individual, through education, and the fulfilment of national ideals. Today, “culture” signifies the “distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classify and represent their experiences”, through art and intellectual achievement (Salt 288). A culture can encompass a nation, a state, or an ethnic group, but above all it is the creative and academic manifestations of a collective. The great fear of Australians is that they do not have a cultural identity of their own, or that, if they do, it is inherently inferior to that of other countries, especially Britain and America. This “cultural cringe” has many contributing factors, including Australia’s relatively short and seemingly uneventful history as a British colony; its relationship with the British Empire, especially when compared to the United States; a sense of shame over having been descended from criminals; and a natural distain for self-important behaviour and “tall poppies”. The phenomenon is further aggravated by a feeling that the Australian culture is being absorbed by the world’s mass media, and is regarded with meagre standing in the global village (Pickering 47).


When addressing cultural cringe in Australia, and the effects of globalisation, it is important to establish just what Australian culture is. The difficulty of this task further emphasises a feeling of cultural vacuum felt by Australian academics. It is nation located in the Asia-Pacific, yet wholly isolated from the cultural values and customs of its neighbours. Rather, Australia is the product of British principles, particularly with regards to law, religion, language and literature. In the past few decades, however, Australia has been saturated with American media, film and television, and has been criticised in its attempt to emulate American cultural forms (Brown 138).


If there is a uniquely Australian culture, it is symbolised by the countries unofficial mantra “a fair go for all”. Australian’s are a proudly democratic people. While one of the youngest nations in the world, they were one of the earliest to institute democratic government. Australian’s value mateship, equality, hard work, and like to champion the “underdog” (Curan). Australian’s dislike self-important behaviour, or those whom they regard as “tall poppies”; common people who are raised into the spotlight by the influences of governance or celebrity. Even after the demonization of socialism during the Cold War, this working man’s, egalitarian spirit has endured. In fact, Australia was federated under the dream of being a “working man’s paradise”, and is reflected in the progressive labour laws of its constitution (Curan). Compared to European nations, it is also rather progressive and practical in its approach to law and judicial process. This attitude may come from the relatively short period since the countries federation. Australian’s are not part of a thousand year old nation, and rather than being content with simply analysing a problem, they are open to reform and can embrace change when it yields practical results (Curan). Social mobility is also far more possible in Australia, than in Britain or Europe. Any Australian citizen, regardless of who they are or where they were born, is able to ascend to the highest rungs of the political and economic ladder, based on merit. On the other hand, in England, a person is likely to be categorised or even discriminated against based on their regional accent (Salt 291). The European class system, if not entirely absent, is vastly diminished in Australian society. Finally, while Australia was certainly born into a policy of racial discrimination, it came to embrace multiculturalism during the 1970s, and today, stands beside America as one of the great “melting pots” of the world (Salt 301).


Australia’s early distrust of authority—informed by its convict heritage, mining rebellions, and bushranger legend—evolved into a “distinctly Australian aloofness”. It was not disillusioned, but “illusion free” (Curan). The country’s propensity for mythmaking was thin, and it valued the useful over the beautiful; function over fashion. High culture—the world of art and literature—had become associated with social authority, and was consequently spurned by the Australian working man. Passion was regarded as suspect, since “it could enslave you”, and frustrated by this lack of passion, many Australian artists and creators of illusion travelled overseas. They felt unappreciated and “accused Australia of lacking a complete identity”, or for being too “immature” to appreciate them (Curan).


One theory offered, regarding Australia’s cultural identity crisis, is the idea that tragedy and cultural cringe are “inversely proportional”; that only through war and suffering can a people learn who they really are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what meaning they attach to life. Identity is best forged in opposition to an oppressor, and whatever else countries like Poland, Russia and Germany have suffered, it has never been from an identity crisis. Compared to the American Revolution, Australia’s Federation had all of the conflict, drama and anxiety of a game of cricket. Australia’s self-consciousness, and the insecurity of cultural cringe, is really a great self-indulgence, reserved for people with not a lot to complain about (Wierzbicka 1188).


It wasn’t until 1914 that Australia’s first great test arrived, and the fledgling nation emerged on the world stage. It was during World War I, that the first collective Australian story unfolded in the form of the ANZACs. During the Gallipoli campaigns, journalist Keith Murdoch described the Australian soldiers as “noble men… who have endured… Oh, if you could picture ANZAC as I have seen it, you would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer” (Curan). It was not through victory that the Australian soldier was lionised, but through his endurance and bloodshed on the beaches of Gallipoli. The suffering of so many men during World War I played a big part in honing Australia’s identity, and brought its citizens together in pride and patriotism. On the other hand, the incompetence and callousness of the British officers further hardened Australia’s mistrust of authority.


However, in the 1970s, this ANZAC tradition was pushed aside by the “cringe community”, whose cultural highpoint came in anti-Vietnam protests. They believed that glorifying the ANZACs glorified war. It wasn’t that Australia didn’t have an identity; “it just wasn’t one that they liked” (Wierzbicka 1186). The “cringe community” disapproved of the patriotism of the new generation, particularly the increased interest in the ANZAC legend, cultivated by the Howard government. For example, when the National Museum of Australia was opened, the ANZAC tradition was trivialised and mocked while reverence and passion was reserved for the Aboriginal gallery “with its holocaustic imagery” (Curan). Thus, the cultural cringe was not instigated by the “little Aussie battler”, but rather the cultural elite; people in political and academic positions. Australia had become the victim of “an internal version of class discrimination” (Pickering 57)


One final manifestation of the cultural cringe comes in the form of the “convict stain”. This refers to a sense of shame many Australian’s feel about being descended from British convicts (Adams). It has led to very few Australian’s researching their family history; for fear that their ancestors committed some heinous crime. The phenomenon has made it very difficult for historians to trace the lineages of early settlers. The convict stain effected people personally in the late 1800s, with known convict descendants being banned from places, like sports clubs. The Melbourne Cricket Club maintained a well-known convict stain policy, making exceptions in only a few cases, such as Tom Wills, the inventor of AFL. The “stain” is perpetuated by people of other countries, especially Britain, who often mock Australian tourists as “returning to the scene of the crime” (Adams). In recent decades, however, the “stain” has become far less pronounced, with more and more people actually investigating their families past.


Australia now encompasses two competing strands of cultural engagement: the identity of mateship, hard work, patriotism, and national pride exemplified by the common man; and the identity of Australian art, literature, film and historical revaluation exemplified by the intellectual community. However, the two sides are still bonded by an enduring spirit of egalitarianism.



Annotated Bibliography


Brown, Ruth. “English Heritage and Australian Culture: The Church and Literature of

England in ‘Oscar and Lucinda’.” Australian Literary Studies 17.2 (1995): 135–140.


This article is an exploration of the relationship between England and Australia, as realized through the literature of Australian author, Peter Carey. It speaks specifically to the cultural relationship between the two nations; how Australia has evolved and matured from a British colony, and into an (near) independent federation. One point that Carey makes, is that, if white Australia has a culture, it is tied directly to Christianity. It is a cultural and spiritual history which has destroyed 40,000 years of Aboriginal tradition to establish itself. However, as Christianity begins to fade in influence and importance in Australia, Carey (though himself an atheist), sees a fading of whatever cultural link we still have with Britain. In its place is a distinct lack of any unique Australian identity. The article argues that much of Australian culture is spawned out of opposition to British colonialism and society, and an almost contrarian approach to its social structure and values. Class divides are far less pronounced in Australia, than they are in Britain. In fact, the only thing that seems to separate the rich from the poor, is the size of their income. Pretention and pomposity are also derided in Australian society. Brown argues that Carey’s work signals a need to move away from English literature and church, since they are designed as instruments of oppression. Other critics, however, such as David Callahan, see the novel, not as a call to abandon old heritage, but for the creation of a new, easy relationship between father-and-child nations; a merging of British and Australian culture.



Kidd, Evan, Nenagh Kemp and Sara Quinn. “Did you have a choccie bickie this arvo? A quantitative look at Australian Hypocoristics.” Language Sciences 33.1 (2011): 359–368.


This article examines the use and representation of Australian expressions and terminology. After conducting a survey of 150 Australian-born citizens (all English-speaking), it considers the age, region and socio-economic backgrounds of Australian’s who use Australian hypocoristics (e.g. choccie, arvo, bickie, etc.). The study concluded that Australian hypocoristics are the product of a linguistic process that captures “inflectional morphology”, and is far more pronounced in rural areas, than urban and suburban regions. The reasons for this are a mixture of globalisation, and multiculturalism (non-English speaking migrants, learning the language), and is therefore declining among younger Australians. The article also talks about the Australian lexicon itself, arguing that the peculiarities of Australian-English (or AusE) cannot be attributed solely to accent, since there are thousands of lexical terms which are vastly different to their standard English forms. Kidd also points out the abject difficulty for foreigners forced to learn AusE, and that there are actual dictionaries designed to assist the strange aberrations in dialogue.



Phillips, Arthur. “The Cultural Cringe.” Meanjin 69.4 (2010): 52-55. Accessed April 14, 2012.;dn=501786897597346;res= IELLCC.


In this article, Phillips discusses the idea of “cultural cringe” in Australia. The term refers to an internalised inferiority complex which causes people to dismiss their culture as inferior to that of other countries. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in Australian society, and has led to compulsive, unfavourable comparisons of Australian art and literature, and that of English, French and American works. It has led to the demolition of many world-class, pre-war buildings in Melbourne and Sydney, and the destruction of some of the world’s greatest examples of Victorian architecture. It also cultivates an anti-intellectual attitude, which has isolated many Australian intellectuals. Phillips argues that Australian writers and artists need to overcome their “cringe” and communicate their culture and way of life in a factual manner, rather than in an inferior or melancholic one. He further examines the nature of ordinary Australian’s to express an almost obsessive curiosity to know what foreigners (particularly Americans) think of them and their culture. The over-saturation of imported shows on Australian television (mostly from the U.S.) has been seen as one cause, particularly with regard to Australia’s own attempts to emulate said shows. Another manifestation of cultural cringe is the “convict stain”, which is a sense of shame many Australian’s feel over their convict heritage, and has led to native citizens refusing to research their family history, for fear of being descended from a criminal.



Pickering, Jonathon. “Globalisation: A Threat to Australian Culture?” Journal of Australian Political Economy 48.1 (2001): 46–59.


This article examines the influence of globalisation on Australian culture. Pickering addresses the fears of Levi-Satrauss, who wrote of a global village that was absorbing all of the western nations’ history and heritage, and producing universal monoculture in their place. Pickering argues instead that globalisation has had a mixed influence on Australia; that the nation’s popular and political cultures have been transformed both from within and from without, as well as retaining old rites and rituals. Far from Levi-Strausses’ vision of a monocultural “vegetable garden”, Pickering maintains that Australian culture is stronger than it’s ever been, and that, while globalisation may burden us with the awareness of new problems, it also broadens the pool of resources we have at our disposal to deal with them. Globalisation is a two-way street capable of creating homogeny, hybridity, as well as communication and egalitarianism.



Robinson, Shirleene. “Inventing Australia for Americans: The Rise of the ‘Outback Steakhouse’ Restaurant Chain in the USA.The Journal of Popular Culture 44.1 (2011): 545-562.


This article analyses the Australia-themed, American-owned restaurant chain, “Outback Steakhouse”. With more than 1200 locations in the U.S., Robinson poses the question, of how these restaurants present and depict Australian culture for Americans. And more importantly, who decides, controls and maintains this depiction? The article goes on to explain the creation of the chain, in the wake of the “Crocodile Dundee” film series, and its enormous success in America. The film itself is a vastly exaggerated and comical depiction of the rugged Australian outback, and the restaurant plays off this depiction to an even greater degree. While the restaurant owners are likely in on the “joke”, that doesn’t stop these two depictions from created a very real image of Australia in the minds of Americans. Robinson discusses the gradual construction of the Australian image in America, and how it links in very closely with the American idea of the “wild west”. The international success of the chain has demonstrated the exportation of a fragment of Australian culture (absurd as it is), as well as the inescapable appeal of the “Australian legend”, even if such an ideal fails to accurately represent our contemporary society.



Salt, Bernard. The Big Shift: Welcome to the Third Australian Culture. South Yarra: Hardie Grant Publishing, 2001.


This book touches on wide range of topics, relating to modern Australian culture and growth. Specifically, it looks at population growth, urban changes (such as suburban migration), the attraction of central city living, interstate migration, as well as rich and poor regions. Salt charts the course of Australian society since European settlement, correlating shifts in population and demographic distribution with cultural changes, and making observations about the likely future of the country. He points out that the Australian beach culture is nearly as old as the bush culture, and the shift to the beach has been going on for a long time. Salt also discusses the result of an aging population on institutions such as emergency management. Many of the people shifting to the rural area, or to the coast, bring with them an urban mentality.  They have little or no experience with sustainability or natural hazards, and expect such services to be provided for. Salt argues that this is a serious generational problem.



Waterhouse, Richard. “The Minstrel Show and Australian Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 24.3 (1990): 147-166.


This article discusses the phenomenon of “mistral shows” in Australia, from 1838. Though originating in America, “Jim Crow” became popular in Australia for a short period, after shows were performed at the Royal Victoria. Australian colonists were greatly amused and entertained by the mistral sketches, jokes and songs. Waterhouse further reveals that, not only did British and American troupes enjoy extended and profitable tours, but that the influence of “Jim Crow” shows extended far beyond the professional stage. In the wake of tours by international companies, local amateur minstrel bands flourished. One of the earliest such companies organized, in Hobart in 1856, operated on such a limited budget, that it was forced to provide its patrons with handwritten programmes. The tradition of amateur minstrelsy became so entrenched in Tasmania, that on the eve of World War I, the Hobart Amateur Minstrels were still offering weekly concerts in the King’s Theatre. The article reveals a hidden vein of Australian theatre, that very few people are likely aware of.



Wierzbicka. Anna. “Australian Sultural Scripts – Bloody Revisited.” Journal of Pragmatics 34.1 (2002): 1167–1209.

This article is also an exploration of the Australian lexicon, but it focuses primarily on the use of the word “bloody” in everyday language. Wierzbicka argues that that the adjective is far from meaningless, and that by unpacking the use and history of the word we can throw a good deal of light on traditional Australian attitudes and values. She further states that the word offers a vantage point from which to investigate a whole network of information, regarding the changes and continuity of Australian culture, speech and society. Wiezbick demonstrates that frequently used “discourse markers” do in fact have their own precise meaning, and that this meaning can be revealed by means of the “Natural Semantic Metalanguage”.


Categories: ESSAYS, Sociology

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