September 9, 2006
The Canberra Times

It’s sad about Steve, but this national blubber fest is too much

What a nation of blubbering and blinkered hypocrites we’ve proven to be. If Steve Irwin was an embarrassment to Australia in life (his suggestion), in his death it’s Australians who are embarrassing.

This national outpouring of grief for the ”loveable larrikin”, ”the nation’s greatest cultural export” and ”the Australian that we all aspire to be” is ridiculous in its extreme. Of course it’s sad that a good bloke is dead: a loving father, husband, son and cherished friend to many. But this national blubber fest is as exaggerated as Irwin’s antics.

Sure Irwin seems to have been a top bloke, if you like all that poking, prodding and pinching of animals to raise a laugh (grumpy Germaine has a point). But to most of us he was just a kooky bloke with a ripper smile, confected enthusiasm and an inexhaustible energy. He was also a terrific entrepreneur, a canny showman and a smart celebrity – all good reasons to wish him well.

But he was not ”the Australian that we all aspire to be” – and Russell Crowe, if you really believe that drivel, then you have a pretty tenuous grip on the depth and breadth of our national psyche. Crowe says about Irwin, ”I loved him”. Sure you did Russ. Did you tell him that when he was alive? Of course not. And nor did Australia. Because this nation didn’t love Irwin – we were amused by him. Some of us were embarrassed by him. Steve was a latter-day Crocodile Dundee, still stuck with an ’80s mid-part hairdo: a larrikin, a laugh, but a cartoon type character that most of us know is the stuff of outdated, outmoded, outback Aussie advertising. It’s an image that ran its course with Paul Hogan. Sure Irwin was a real-life version – but a throwback.

The Crocodile Hunter was a worn- out Australian caricature, and a cliche. Even the Australian Tourism Commission thought so. A few years ago, when faced with the option of using Irwin and his ”crikey” tag as the centrepiece of Australia’s tourism campaign, it declined. Irwin’s Aussie bloke image was no longer appropriate. We’d all moved on. We knew the croc-hunter thing was a bit of vaudeville, a tired old joke best left for the enjoyment of children – and Americans. And didn’t they lap it up? It’s only in his death that we’ve learned just how loved Irwin was in the United States. Hell, the guy’s cable TV show apparently scored 200million viewers at its peak! (Although, who counted them all remains a bit of a mystery). His in- your-face, cartoonish hamming it up for cameras was adored by that nation that likes its celebrities to be larger than life and loud. Very loud. And when Irwin bawled and boohooed at the camera, as he hugged and rocked an old dead croc – his ”really special friend” called Mary – no doubt his American fans bawled too. (Sorry, but I laughed. I know the passing of an aged reptile deserves a moment of respect, but Steve’s blubbering was so utterly unconvincing, it was, well, funny.)

Talk-show king Jay Leno had Irwin as a guest on his show 17 times. They played, they laughed and Irwin bounced up and down like the irrepressible Aussie Americans wanted him to be. For a nation gripped by its own self-importance and superiority, Irwin was a wonderful fit for the American fantasy: a fantasy born of wishful thinking about an island paradise full of carefree, blond, bronzed Aussies and playful wildlife. No one had the heart to tell them it was all a croc.

When Irwin turned up in his khaki costume at the backyard bash Prime Minister John Howard threw for his buddy US President George W.Bush back in 2003, members of the media groaned. ”What’s he doing here?” was the collective murmur. It wasn’t just that Irwin had flouted the dress code which stipulated ”lounge suit”, it was that, of all the dignitaries and eminent persons in this fair nation, the PM had invited the dorky Irwin to banter with the leader of the Free World. And banter they did. Irwin, thanks to his costume, was perhaps one of the few people present that Bush recognised. And true to form, he performed to character as the cliched Aussie outback bloke in the big city, thrilled to be mixing it with the toffs. Now that he’s gone, lost to a horribly tragic and premature death, it seems Irwin’s legacy is bigger than his life ever was. So where were you when you heard about his death? It’s astounding that Australians are discussing this. The media commentator who believes Irwin has provided us with ”our very own JFK moment” is having a lend of himself. And as for the Melbourne academic who wrote how she wept for this man she never knew, it defies credibility.

”For me, the news of Steve Irwin’s death caused a Diana moment”, she wrote in The Age. ”I sat at my computer and cried.”

This emotional outpouring and blatant blubbering surely is a sign that we all need a good cry. Irwin’s sudden death, like Princess Diana’s, simply provided the excuse.

Few of us gave any passing thought to Irwin when he was alive. Frankly, it’s dishonest to use his death for this public wallowing in tears and sorrow.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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