The Null Device

The Larrikin-Wowser Dynamic

Quoted from Graham's blog, whose comments appear to be broken:
Bizarro sex ed animations, produced by the BBC. Theres one for the girls and one for the lads. Not Safe For Work. Also notice the difference in the title banners. And could you imagine the response from Murdochs hounds if the ABC even broached anything like this? More evidence that weve fallen behind the mother country in the prudity stakes. (Edit: or ahead, depending on your point of view.)

Actually, I don't think it's a matter of Australia having fallen behind the UK, so much as "respectable" Australian social morés always having been more conservative and less permissive than in the old country. It was like that in the 1950s, when Melbourne and Sydney were (on the surface) much more buttoned-down and less accepting of any deviancy than London; and in the early 1960s, when a British model British fashion model Jean Shrimpton went to the Melbourne Cup wearing a miniskirt (which was the done thing in London), it caused public outrage and indignation.

Part of this would probably come from the frontier/outpost mentality ingrained into the Australian psyche. Australia is a new country, half a world away from civilisation, and thus needs more discipline to hold the line against barbarism. It is, the reasoning can be extrapolated as, not yet mature enough to be trusted with as much leeway as they have in London or Los Angeles. The fact that it was originally a penal colony, ruled with an iron fist by colonial governors, could have something to do with the political culture as well. The convicts are gone, but the paternalistic streak remains in Australia; from John Howard and his idol Robert Menzies to fictitious civic patriarchs in films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Welcome To Woop Woop, Australia has traditionally been a country of stern father figures laying down rules they expect to be heeded. Australia has also been a traditionally censorious society; other than high-profile cases like Baise-Moi and Nine Songs, many mainstream films have scenes cut or shortened prior to being allowed to be shown in Australia; meanwhile, a number of books, including, allegedly, 18th-century erotic novel Fanny Hill, are banned in Australia. And given how popular Howard's retro-styled leadership is (after all, one can only give so much credit to Rupert Murdoch's news-management for the last election), one can conclude that much of Australia finds this sort of governance reassuring.

Of course, that is only one side of the story. The streak of paternalistic conservatism in "respectable" bourgeois Australian society is counterbalanced by another phenomenon: the larrikin tradition. This tradition, of borderline contempt for authority and propriety, has been in Australia since the days of convict settlements and corrupt, arbitrary government, and is just as firmly ingrained, underneath the surface of society, as conservatism. The larrikin element can be argued to have informed everything from Australian contemporary art from the Angry Penguins onwards to youth counterculture (from bodgies to ferals), from contemporary scofflaws (it's no accident that Melbourne is home to the Cave Clan, dozens of zines and one of the world's most active stencil graffiti scenes) to the fine Australian tradition of political pranks.

And so we get the dynamic between wowserism (the bourgeois paternalist conservatism) and larrikinism, with both sides of the equation reinforcing each other. The larrikin vein beneath the surface of Australian culture is proof that Australia isn't ready for the sorts of license they have elsewhere in the world, and needs a firm hand to guide it. Meanwhile, the conservative, conformistic streak in respectable Australian society fuels the undercurrent of resistance. It is a balance, and a positive feedback loop, between order and chaos, just as that described by Discordianism.

It appears to me that the prominent larrikin-wowser dynamic, and its various consequences, is the main difference between the Australian and British cultures. Britain is less conservative or censorious as a whole (in fact, some have called this Britain's "repressive tolerance"), but doesn't have the larrikin tradition (not that it's a terribly orderly place, just that its disorder seems to be confined to drunken neds punching each other up outside pubs at 11pm, and has no deeper cultural manifestation).

There are 9 comments on "The Larrikin-Wowser Dynamic":

Posted by: Michael S. Sat Dec 18 22:27:00 2004

"when a British model went to the Melbourne Cup wearing a miniskirt (which was the done thing in London)"

Do you have a source for this? The BBC says that in 1965, this act "shocks the world."

Also, what do you mean about Fanny Hill being banned? lists it.

Posted by: acb Sat Dec 18 22:32:47 2004

Yes, it was the Jean Shrimpton incident. My source is Shawn Levy's _Ready, Steady, Go!_, a book about the history of the "Swinging '60s" in London, which mentions the incident.

As for Fanny Hill, I read that it was banned in Australia. Can you actually obtain it from

Posted by: Michael S. Sat Dec 18 23:28:17 2004

Shrimpton's photo was possibly *slightly* more shocking to Melbourne than to the rest of the world, but I don't believe that miniskirts at racing carnivals were "the done thing" in London. (For one, Shrimpton's photo really did appear on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world, as even Ready, Steady, Go! relates. (Page 149; Amazon's search inside the book works.) also lists Fanny Hill, and I find it extremely unlikely that a book written half-way through the *18th* century would be banned in Australia!

Posted by: acb Sun Dec 19 00:16:05 2004

If my memory of Ready, Steady, Go! is correct, this was after miniskirts were widely worn in public in London for a year or so, and the book has no record of the sort of outrage he describes in Melbourne occurring in Britain with their introduction.

I have other anecdotal evidence; one of the actors in _On The Beach_ (the post-nuclear-holocaust film set/filmed in Melbourne in 1959) commenting that the conservative city was the right place for it, feeling like the end of civilisation. And anecdotes from _Wild About You_, a book about 1960s garage rock in Australia, in which young men were routinely stopped by police if they had long (i.e., shoulder-length) hair. Wouldn't you say both of these are indicative of conservatism and intolerance of nonconformity?

Posted by: acb Sun Dec 19 00:50:18 2004

As for Fanny Hill, I don't know. Perhaps it isn't banned, or perhaps it is but the ban is not taken seriously, much like that on iPod radio transmitters in the UK. (Any unlicensed FM-band transmitter, regardless of its power, is illegal in the UK, being equivalent in the eyes of the law to a pirate radio station. However, there are several shops near Tottenham Court Road that will quite happily sell you one of these, and keep them on public display.)

Posted by: gjw Sun Dec 19 13:16:28 2004

Regarding censorship in Australia - I sometimes get the impression this kind of film censorship happens because so few Australians care enough to kick up a stink (not possessing the "Liberty or Death" ethic of the US), thus leaving the decision and activism firmy in the hands of the Festival of Light / Fred Nile crew. When artistic freedoms are threatened elsewhere, a lot more people seem to get on board to fight for purely ideological reasons, while in Australia, the mass populace think "Ah well, I wouldn't have gone to see it/read it anyway". It's not a reflection of out society being more conservative, just a reflection that we care less.

Posted by: acb Sun Dec 19 13:47:59 2004

Then why doesn't it happen in Britain? The British don't have the "Liberty or Death" thing (and, indeed, don't go in for getting very passionate about any issue, as a rule), and yet the UK censors pay less heed to the various Mary Whitehouses (their own Fred Nile types). Films like Nine Songs, Ken Park, &c., are all legal and uncut in the UK.

Posted by: steve http:// Mon Dec 20 00:15:38 2004

that's an interesting train of thought, but it's a bit too anglo-saxon oriented. australia is a diverse society that is made up from peoples who have arrived from many different parts of the world and who have hugely enriched our culture and society.

Posted by: acb Mon Dec 20 00:23:08 2004

That sounds a bit too much like a mantra one recites to stop going down uncomfortable lines of thought.

For one, the Anglo-Saxon influence has been dominant. Other cultures have influenced Australian culture in various ways (the Mediterranean cafe culture is one example that comes to mind), though I don't think one can say that the core values of contemporary Australia were influenced as much by, say, Italy or China as they do to the British Isles.

Granted, though, the Irish contribution could well eclipse the English one, were one to separate the two (look at Australian Rules football for one), though separating two cultures with a history of interaction is often difficult.