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Popular Culture and Expressions

of Australian National Identity

Dr Sarah Baker
Lecturer, Cultural Sociology
School of Humanities, Griffith University
Friday 1 October, 10am-12pm
Volda University College Australasian Study Tour

Defining Culture
the whole way of life of a people, their
customs and rituals, their pastimes and
pleasures, including not only the arts
but also practices such as sport and
going to the beach
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: viii)

Culture in this sense is the result of

the multifarious processes of making
meanings for a society.
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: x)

Culture is a producer and re-producer

of value systems and power relations,
performing crucial ideological functions
within Australia.
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: x)

Reading Texts (Semiotics)

The study of the social
production of meaning from sign
(OSullivan et al 1994: 281)

Sign anything that has an

accepted meaning for a person
or group of people.
Signifier the carrier of meaning
Signified the mental concept to
which the sign refers
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: xi)

Union Jack: Heritage? Tradition?

Dependence? Loyalty to the British Empire?

Commonwealth star: Belonging to

the West? Part of something

Blue: Girt by sea? Colours of the empire?

Southern Cross: Visible in the Southern

hemisphere morale virtues of Dante?

Myth - a systematic organisation of signifiers around a
set of connotations and meanings
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: xi)

has an important role within ideas of nation, where it is

an essential part of cultural meaning and maintenance.
Foundations of national ideas and values are established
through myth and highlight what is considered natural and
accepted or alien and excluded within a culture. These
continuous narratives are embedded with various rituals
and symbols leading to a collective discourse.
(Price 2010: 453)

The Myth of Australia

GANGgajang Sounds of Then (This is Australia)
List all of the symbols in the GANGgajang music video that help
construct our understanding of Australia.

The Beach and Australian Identity

so much of Australia
seems to be about
pleasure made for it.
Especially the South East
coastline along which the
majority of Australians
choose to live. The beach
has become an integral
part of our life and our
identity Robert Hughes,
art critic.
(cited in Bonner, McKay and McKee 2001: 270)

The voice-over tells us about

Australian national identity as
Webster lays down her beach
towel and prepares to dream,
as we all do, of wide blue skies,
the sand and the sea. (p. 269)

Surf lifesavers ran into the arena

at the end They were pulling
Kylie Minogue on a giant thong,
and she stood up and surfed on it
as she entered the arena. (p. 273)
(Bonner, McKay and McKee 2001)

The interplay of culture and nature is an

important myth-generating mechanism to
address the plight of contemporary Australian
existence. Fiske and colleagues (1987) connect
the rising importance of the beach in Australian
culture to the rise of urbanization, which made
redundant older myths of the bush, the bush
ranger (symbolized by Ned Kelly) and an
isolated hideaway. Instead, suburban-dwelling
Australians brought nature into culture and vice
versa, by means of the beach.
(Hartley and Green 2006: 348)

From the Bush to the Beach

The Beach
and the City
So, as the bushman became less
relevant to modern Australia, the
ideology which once mythologised
him, valuing his harmony with the
natural environment and his tough
physicality, now supports the beach.
Consequently the central image of the
Australian beach is not that of the
tropical hideaway. That does exist,
but is reserved for holidays, preferably
outside Australia. The beach that
contributes to everyday existence
must be metropolitan, therefore
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: xi)

the values traditionally associated with

the Aussie Digger [were] reinvested in
the lifesaver. Through the lifesaver,
humanitariansim, mateship,
ablebodiedness, racial purity, heroic
sacrifice, and public service/duty
continued from the rhetoric of war to
public safety.


(Evers 2008: 418)

he fights the elements to preserve the lives of citizens

at innocent play... Like the Anzac he represents discipline
and sacrifice The representation embodies the best of
the old images and reworks them into a new modern form.
(Saunders, cited in Price 2010: 454)

Central to the format are the lifeguards characters as

mythic heroes This portrayal is consistent with the
national type identified with the sun-bronzed physique,
the masculinity, the cult of mateship, the military
associations, the hedonism and wholesomeness of the
beach The lifeguards are referred to as cast
from a vintage Australian mould as a reflection of
their mythic qualities ...
(Price 2010: 455)

Streets Beach, South Bank

Activity: site
observation of
Streets Beach.
Questions: How is
the myth played
out at this beach?
In what ways does
Streets Beach
confirm and/or
challenge what you
have learned in the
lecture so far?

The Surfer
while lifesavers give
up their time to patrol
the beach, surfers are
seen to be indulging
themselves on the
beach all day whilst
living on the dole. If the
lifesavers are the
heroes of this myth,
then the surfers are its
(Fiske, Hodge and Turner 1987: 65)

Cronulla can be a
dangerous place to go surfing.
Shark Island is the premier
wave of the area ... The waves
at this surf break rise, warp,
peel, and mutate over a
shallow slab of rock. The men
who ride the island are
respected by other surfers and
are considered brave and
tough. These men know
how to negotiate the dangers
of Shark Island. They paddle
out to the waves through
currents hidden below the
surface of the water, which
help them avoid the harm of
the exploding swells. The men
can tell at a glance what waves
will peel evenly and allow a
safe ride.
(Evers 2008: 418)

Surfer as
The battler figures
within Australian
cultural history as the
embodiment of
national values of
egalitarianism and
perseverance. the
battler is closely
related to the pioneer
myth In essence,
the battler is an
underdog figure,
someone who
struggles to succeed
(Butler 2009: 392)

The white,
bronzed Aussie
the battler is the key actor
in the drama of white
Australian history; the key
exponent of the Australian
values of egalitarianism and
mateship. The whiteness of
the battler is amplified by
the historical resonance of
the term its very
mustiness harks back to an
earlier time when
inequalities of income were
not strongly associated with
ethnicity, and when nonwhites did not struggle
economically (because they
were politically invisible).
(Scalmer, cited in Butler 2009: 399)

Cronulla Riots
On Sunday December 4, two
teenage volunteer lifesavers
were attacked by two males,
apparently Lebanese. The
attack provoked a very hostile
reaction in and around the
beach. Lifesavers get respect
from the Australian community,
particularly in beachside areas.
People know that lifesavers do
literally save lives. The
weekend volunteers are not
paid for what they do. For
someone to attack lifesavers
was to commit a very
provocative act which was
likely to cause an angry
(Barclay and West 2006: 77)

This is Australia?
In contrast [to confrontations
based on competition for land or
labour], as the use of the Australian
flag, the national anthem, and
rioters appeals to other national
icons and the Australian way of life
indicate, the contemporary
challenge involves ownership and
access to membership in the nation
and its culture.
(Inglis cited in Hartley and Green 2006: 352)


Barclay, Ryan and West, Peter 2006, Racism or patriotism? An

eyewitness account of the Cronulla demonstration of 11 December
2005, People and Place, 14(1): 75-85.
Bonner, Frances, McKay, Susan and McKee, Alan 2001, On the
beach, Continuum, 15(3): 269-274.
Butler, Kelly Jean 2009, Their culture has survived: Witnessing to
(dis)possession in Bra Boys (2007), Journal of Australian Studies,
33(4): 391-404.
Evers, Clifton 2008, The Cronulla race riots: Safety maps on an
Australian beach, South Atlantic Quarterly, 107(2): 411-429.
Fiske, John, Hodge, Bob and Turner, Graeme 1987, Myths of Oz:
Reading Australian Popular Culture, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Hartley, John and Green, Joshua 2006, The public sphere on the
beach, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(3): 342-362.
OSullivan, Tim, Hartley, John, Saunders, Danny, Montgomery, Martin
and Fiske, John 1994, Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural
Studies, 2nd edition, Routledge, London.
Price, Emma 2010, Reinforcing the myth: Constructing Australian
identity in reality TV, Continuum, 24(3): 451-459.