VOGUE Australia


ON DITCHING THE CULTURAL CRINGE Australian­s are proud of our beautiful and vibrant nation, yet we’re also the first to deride it. Eminent journalist Joe Hildebrand reminds us why we really do live in the Lucky Country.


Mad Men: a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertisin­g executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.” Thus reads the very first line of the landmark US series that reintroduc­ed the world to style and sexiness – not to mention good old-fashioned sexism – by going back to the very genesis of modern pop culture. If there is an ancient forebear to Kylie Jenner’s Instagram account then surely it is Don Draper’s Kodak Carousel.

As the opening title says, these men of Manhattan coined the term themselves – projecting all the power and confidence of New York’s most self-assured street.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, we coined a term of our own: ‘cultural cringe’. Yes, while the Americans were making up words to define how proud they were to be American, we were making up words to define how embarrasse­d we were to be Australian.

By a completely unrelated coincidenc­e both these things happened about 60 years ago when Vogue Australia was born, so it is high time we asked ourselves: do we still really need this chip on our shoulder? And if so, can we at least get a battered flake to go with it?

Australia’s cultural cringe goes back a long way – even before we knew what it was called. Henry Lawson complained in the late 1800s that Australian writers were not taken seriously unless they had made it in London. It is unclear whether this contribute­d to him drinking himself to death or the state funeral that followed, but it’s hard not to suspect that it was one or the other.

Decades later, the cultural cringe, unlike Lawson, was still going strong. In fact it was both named and defined in 1950 by critic A.A. Phillips in a rather remarkable piece in which he managed to condemn it, sympathise with it and exhibit it all within the same article.

Among other things, he called it “a disease of the Australian mind” while lamenting “Australian life, let us agree, has an atmosphere of often dismaying crudity”.

This atmosphere was apparently inhaled by members of the famous ‘Sydney Push’, a loose intellectu­al movement whose most effective push was at the back end of a boat bound for London. There went such famous public intellectu­als as Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Apparently the Australian cultural landscape was too barren to sustain them. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the only reason it was barren was because people kept leaving it.

This is both the greatest and saddest thing about Australia. On the one hand we have a refreshing instinct for self-deprecatio­n: “Hi! We’re just a humble island-continent in the South Pacific trying to make our way in the world. What would we know?”

But aside from the ANZUS treaty there’s also this idea that Australia is a dumb, ocker, backwards country.

I first started to fully appreciate this notion when I was filming the ABC TV series Dumb, Drunk and Racist – which, as the title suggests, didn’t exactly anticipate a positive finale. As I travelled around the country with four Indian guests who were supposed to be in fear for their lives, I was shocked by a couple of things. The first was that there are definitely some dumb, drunk and racist people out there. I saw a couple of dickheads throwing Nazi salutes and the usual deadbeats calling out the predictabl­e crap. But the second was that my Indian mates were largely untroubled. If you could sum up their response it was: “There are dickheads everywhere. This place rocks!”

And the truth is it does. Australia, for all its faults, is an incredibly vibrant, multicultu­ral, cohesive society. It is a strong and stable liberal democracy in which no election has resulted in civil war. It is something of an economic miracle compared to other countries battered by the Global Financial Crisis. And it is a generous and benevolent state which acknowledg­es it has a duty to provide for the unemployed, elderly and disabled – even if such provisions are still not enough.

And that’s just me with my nerd hat on. According to internatio­nal sources, Australia is also actually cool, a subject I know very little about.

In London, our fashion designers are considered edgy and political – just like my jokes used to be. In China, a small Asian nation that Donald Trump keeps banging on about, they’re shouting: “Come for the Aussie beef, stay for the baby formula!” And in Tasmania, another overseas country where the coins at Wrest Point weren’t the only things accused of being two-headed, you couldn’t roll a bowling ball down the main street without hitting a perfect 300 of hipsters.

In short, Australia might be a little bit shit but it’s a whole lot more awesome. And speaking of the former, why do we shit on ourselves so much? Other nations bend over backwards to find something they can be proud of. For some it’s easy: see Bastille Day and the 4th of July. Sure, France just set a few dodgy prisoners free and the land of the free ended up perpetuati­ng slavery for decades longer than its colonial oppressors, but at least it’s an occasion.

Australia has no such revolution­ary moment. We’re just a humble island-continent in the South Pacific trying to make our way in the world. But we’re peaceful and we’re productive, we respect election results and the rule of law, we have a world-class health system and a world-class education system and we have a safety net for those left behind. And we have Chris Hemsworth.

‘Cultural cringe’: a term coined by an Australian in 1950. We just uncoined it.

“Australia, for all its faults, is an incredibly vibrant, multicultu­ral, cohesive society … and it is a generous and benevolent state”

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