Nation of stereotypes or country of contradictions: UK look at Australia

AUSTRALIA DAY | In the lead up to Australia Day, it seems appropriate to ask questions about the nature of Australian identity and how we are perceived as a nation. A recent article by the BBC’s Sydney correspondent suggests global misconceptions about Australia have rendered us a nation of stereotypes, typecast as laidback, beach-going, sports obsessed fitness fanatics.

 
 

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MODERN Australia is a complex nation often riddled by staggering contradictions, according to a column published on the BBC News Magazine website earlier today. Sydney correspondent Nick Bryant wrote an opinion piece discussing the clichéd misconceptions that the rest of the world has regarding Australia, claiming that the common stereotype of Australian culture “is a kingdom of the mind that has come to be rendered in high definition”.

Bryant says that Australia is one of the most stereotyped nations in the world due to the sense that much of the international community already feels like it has an intimate understanding of Australian society, despite the fact that their beliefs bear little resemblance to the realities of Australian life in the 21st Century.

Australia may be partially responsible for the stereotypical image of the nation that exists within the collective global psyche. As Bryant says, “Australia itself is culpable. Efforts by Tourism Australia to persuade potential holidaymakers to take a fresh look at the country have proved commercially less successful than peddling images that are familiar and easily digested. The country has a tendency to typecast itself.”

This ‘typecasting’ can be largely attributed to the long-standing success of Australian soap operas, particularly in the United Kingdom. Bryant suggests that the popularity of television programs such as Neighbours and Home and Away gives the British public an understanding of Australia that is not representative of the majority of the nation.

Bryant said: “In shoring up stereotypes, soap operas are also serial offenders. Despite the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country which have made it so richly multicultural, Neighbours has only recently introduced an Indian family, the Kapoors, into the mix.

“Let us hope they last longer than other Asian characters, none of whom survived more than a year. In terms of understanding Australia, then, Ramsay Street should be seen less of a cul-de-sac as a blind alley.”

With British Foreign Secretary William Hague visiting Australia this week in an effort to solidify relations between the two nations, it may be that the rivalry between the United Kingdom and its former colony has become a myth that has yet to be entirely demolished within the British psyche.

The sporting ‘rivalry’ between Australia and the UK is often pointed to as an example of hostility existing between our two countries. However, it seems this misconception belies the true nature of the relationship, which Bryant suggests is instead a friendly celebration of shared sporting heritage. He references the favourable coverage of Team GB in the Australian media during the 2012 Olympic Games and the emotional connection to the Ashes series as examples of Australia’s continuing tradition of reaffirming its links with the United Kingdom.

Regarding the London Olympics, Bryant said: “The London Olympics also demonstrated a magnanimity that most Brits would not normally associate with Aussies. For sure, Australia would have preferred to win more gold medals, but the coverage of Team GB’s success was far from grudging.

“Likewise, the Aussie press had few qualms in proclaiming the London Olympiad the best ever games, even though it meant surrendering Sydney’s twelve-year bragging rights.”

Bryant has also defended Australia against its reputation as being a nation of belligerent drunks. He points out that, while binge drinking is an issue in Australia, the country ranks 44th in terms of global alcohol consumption as opposed to the 17th ranking of the UK.

Bryant’s article is particularly significant in its comments regarding the ‘bush spirit’, a stereotype welcomed by many Australians who derive a sense of pride from the tradition of resiliency and mateship often associated with living in rural Australian communities. Bryant states that while covering the bushfire threat this week he observed the legendary ‘bush spirit’, however it was worth remembering that over 89% of Australian citizens lived in urban environments.

The Australian concept of mateship and a ‘fair go’ is also questioned: “Then there is the thorny issue of why such a welcoming country ties itself in such knots over asylum seekers trying to reach these shores by boats, a subject that requires lengthy explication.”

The debate regarding Australia’s image in the international community is one that has plagued Australian tourism authorities in recent years, with a push to portray a more modernised perspective on the Australian culture rather than the stereotypical “beach and bimbos” image popularised in the 1980s.

Despite this push towards modernisation, a 2008 commercial prepared for Tourism Australia by director Baz Luhrmann was widely slated for being “overly artistic” and “pretentious”. Meanwhile, Paul Hogan’s “throw another shrimp on the barbie” commercial remains one of the most recognisable quotes associated with Australia within the international community.

Where it all started – Paul Hogan’s 1984 ad campaign:

Watch Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Walkabout’ Tourism Australia ad:

 
 
 

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About the author

Paul Bleakley is a journalist and academic raised on Queensland's Gold Coast. After graduating with a Bachelor of Journalism, he went on to teach high school English and History in his hometown. Paul's work on democratic revolutions will be featured in the upcoming book 'The Cultivation of Peace'. He loves reality TV, wandering aimlessly and wearing flip flops on cold London days.

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