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Popular culture: Singing a different toon

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Wednesday, 2 February 2005

It’s a bizarre sight. The self-identified right is crowing that they’ve transformed and won over popular culture. Yes, that object of so much neo-conservative disdain and fury has now become “theirs”.

What brought about this change of heart? Was it waking up to the fact that fuelling ridiculous diatribes against so-called political correctness encouraged the sexist and homophobic ranting of Eminem? Or that tripe such as The Apprentice was the ultimate outcome of capitalist greed? No such luck. The object of reactionary celebration is a cartoon about characters escaping from middle-American boredom.

Both here and in America the animated feature, The Incredibles, has incredibly enough been taken as proof positive that (as reiterated on www.rightwing “The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march”. The Fairfax columnist, Miranda Devine, came up with much the same conclusion - yeah, a film that champions the family. And it doesn’t like mediocrity. Pow! Take that, you leftie anti-family lovers of the mediocre.


Other more serious commentators have focused on how the film seems steeped in the particular and often peculiar philosophy of Ayn Rand. Writing in the 1940s and 50s, Rand took Nietzsche to extremes, arguing against altruism and self-sacrifice. Her novels were avidly read (I remember being bemused and entranced by Atlas Shrugged when I was a kid), and underlying them was the central idea “that man is a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. My own Rand moment was quickly followed by French novels and especially the swirling existential world of Sartre’s La Nausée, which wouldn’t as readily lend itself to a cartoon about superheroes.

The Incredibles opened in America the weekend after Bush’s victory. The immediate reaction was that pop culture and politics had joined as one. Or as journalists in the New York Observer put it: “The message of The Incredibles “reported everywhere” was that the chosen few should have the right to exercise their powers over a wide, bland majority of fans and mediocrity-worshippers, and save the world from a bitter, deadly evil.”

Quite a feat for a kid’s flick brought to us by Pixar, the makers of Finding Nemo - a lovely little tale about a clownfish who through collaboration with a multicultural gang of sea dwellers frees his son from a fish bowl. In The Incredibles a family of superannuated superheroes breaks free of their stultifying existence in suburbia where they have been relocated due to a downsizing of their profession. Litigation lawyers have crippled the government with action suits against the superheroes’ actions. Superheroes are out.

The first part of the film drags, but it heats up when they get to return to their costumes and fight the evil Syndrome. The ending is obvious but the character of Syndrome is interesting. He’s a fan who Mr Incredible humiliated in his superhero heyday. The kid grows up to be a nasty competitive jerk, who is nonetheless very inventive. If there is a Randian strain, I suppose it lies in Syndrome’s fate - he simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a superhero. To my mind, the message to kids is watch out who you shame in the schoolyard cos they might come back and get you.

It’s nothing new that popular culture is politicised, although it’s more often its reception that takes a political bent. Nowadays popular culture is such a hodge-podge of everything, most especially ironic self-consciousness, that it’s hard to pin any political label on it. “What’s old is new, again” basically defines the cycles and recycling of genres, and material. It’s like a giant vortex of ideas, and references to world events and local lore taken out of their original mooring, and offered up again for our delectation. As you get older you get to see ideas and fads of your youth spin by, tweaked for current consumption. And nothing dates you faster than pointing out to your kids that you heard the original in concert as a remix blasts through their iPods. Even stranger, you find yourself listening to remixes of your parents’ generation, crooning along with fresh-faced singers like Michael Bublé.

The thing that commentators, right or left, often forget is that popular culture is inherently conservative. You could be fancy and call it our collective memory, but it’s more like a huge attic of jumbled up bits and pieces that generations ransack for gems or baubles. Sure there are explicitly reactionary yarns spun by ideologues of different persuasions. And popular culture will always serves as grist for different arguments.


But then it can also take up personal and political stories and make them rhyme for others. A play at the Sydney Festival is a fabulous example of reworking different elements within the history of popular culture, and mixing different genres as well as crossing high and low. Written by Tony Briggs and first performed in Melbourne, The Sapphires was inspired by Briggs’ Koori mother and aunts who formed a Motown girl band, which toured Vietnam in 1969. The history of Motown hovers (the music first played on Canadian radio across the border from Detroit because of US racial segregation). It’s layered with the contemporary history of Aborigines in Australia, as well as our part in the war in Vietnam. The girls are played by leading Aboriginal actors who, like Deborah Mailman (Secret Life of Us) have changed the look of Australian television. The knockout voice of Ursula Yovich playing the littlest sister, Julie, carries all these stories and histories as she belts out tunes that are now the mainstay of middle-of-the-road radio.

Sure, you could call it left wing if you wanted to, but what a thin way to describe such a rich ensemble of cultures. Conversely, some might object that theatre is elitist, and for middle class white folk. But for The Sapphires such distinctions are pretty silly. As the Motown slogan reminds us, “it’s what’s in the groove that counts".

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First published in The Australian on January 19, 2005.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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