Cultural Cringe in Reviews

Is there a cultural cringe in Australian film and literature reviews? An investigation into reviews of The Slap (book) and Samson and Delilah (film).

The term cultural cringe appears to stem from Arthur Phillip’s Meanjin essay in 1950 (Rickard 2002, 43).  Generally it has come to refer to aspects of Australian culture deemed embarrassing, often with colonial overtones to England and a notion that Australia is in some way inferior to other countries in the Western world, particularly the USA (Rickard 2002, 44).  Frank Moorhouse once joked that Meanjin was an Aboriginal word meaning "rejected by The New Yorker” (Johnson 2010).  It is an Aboriginal word, but it merely refers to “the finger of land on which central Brisbane sits” (Meanjin n.d.).  Meanjin is one of several literary magazines in Australia that regularly includes reviews in its pages.  Newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian also include reviews of books and film in their publications.  The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is a book that has been reviewed by several journals and newspapers around the world.  They are examined here for evidence of cultural cringe.

Australian films are generally more present in wider society than literary works.  It is commonly recognised that Australians have an element of cultural cringe regarding films that represent themselves.  In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald of Look Both Ways, it was claimed:

It is widely acknowledged and readily accepted that there is a most discernible cultural cringe factor in relation to the local film industry and its sporadic output. Over the past few years the Australian film industry and its product have taken a consistent battering from critics and the public alike and the apathetic disdain from Oz audiences (who are annually engulfed by and then heartily embrace big budget Hollywood fare) has meant paltry domestic box office grosses. (Bond 2005) 

Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton, is a film about Aboriginal people that was reviewed both within Australia and overseas.  Australia is often subject to criticism of its treatment of its first people, including in reports by the United Nations.  Is there thus a cultural cringe regarding Aboriginal people revealed in the reviews of Samson and Delilah?  Does Bilal, a character in The Slap, cause cultural cringe in reviewers?  Perhaps the biggest cringe remaining in Australia is about its Aboriginal people and reviews of film and literature are not immune.

On the surface The Slap appears to have been reviewed quite consistently in both Australian and foreign journals and newspapers.  It is universally lauded as a fine piece of writing.  However, on closer examination it is more what isn’t said than what is said that reveals an element of cultural cringe in the Australian reviews.  Australian newspapers focused on the physical disciplining of children and the political environment of the book’s setting.  For instance, Armanno (2008) claims “It's a perfect social document of what Australia is today.”  He also says in his review for The Australian that:

His book is distinctly Australian: from the idiom to the blended families to the multi-multi-multicultural lives of its protagonists. 

Gerard Windsor (2008) of the Sydney Morning Herald introduces his review of the book with:

In the first 37 pages of The Slap we're introduced to 31 active characters. In Tolstoy we'd have the chamberlain announcing "Prince and Princess Oblonsky, Miss Natasha Rostov" and so on as they arrive at the ball. Christos Tsiolkas has his characters swarming through an open front door to a suburban Melbourne barbecue.

Do these quotes represent a form of cultural cringe?   Are Australian reviewers embarrassed that the Australian books they review contain distinctly Australian idioms, blended families and multiculturalism and such suburban culture as barbecues instead of more sophisticated matter like balls?  Many of the reviews associate The Slap with a soapie, regarding it as a multicultural version of the television show Neighbours.  Even though they might nod to the multicultural aspect of the novel the newspaper reviews clearly associate the content with popular culture:

There are elements of The Slap that suggest it's a highbrow soapie with a split personality. The author's choices for inclusion are very politically correct but once let loose the characters get up to all sorts of unacceptable mischief. (Windsor 2008)

There’s a lot of judgment contained in these couple of sentences, besides the term “highbrow soapie”.  Is the reviewer seriously saying that Tsiolkas chose the ethnicity of his characters on the basis of being politically correct?  Could it be that Tsiolkas was actually representing a part of true Australian society, perhaps one he even participates in?  Then there is the judgment that the characters’ behaviour is “unacceptable mischief”.  Perhaps Windsor is trying to disassociate real Australia from the one portrayed in the book, suffering from cultural cringe.

Windsor mentioned the presence of an Aborigine in The Slap in passing, whereas Armanno, who is more embracing of the culture depicted, fails to mention the presence of an Aborigine at all.  He merely says the book “encompassed the Australian middle ground while at the same time veering so far away from presenting traditionally white-bread characters” (2008).  Armanno fails to mention any of the ethnicities represented in the novel so even though he supports the book as representing the middle class he cringes away from saying what that middle class really looks like by concentrating on the violence (particularly the original slap of the child) for 70% (578 of 820 words) of the review.

Also from The Australian, George Megalogenis (2009) notes in his blog that many reviewers “reduce The Slap to the question of ‘Would I or wouldn’t I discipline my neighbour’s spoilt brat?’” Megalogenis looks beneath the term ‘multicultural’ which he sees as indicating cohesion as opposed to a “polyculture in a semi-permanent state of fury.”  He then turns the review into a political discussion about race and class.  However, he also only mentions the Aboriginal character in passing, focusing on the Mediterranean and Middle East people instead, but even they in only a very general sense.  Yet Megalogenis seems prepared to embrace these cultures much more readily than the Aboriginal culture.  This is also a form of cultural cringe.

Meanjin didn’t review The Slap, instead Michael William (2009) interviewed the author, Christos Tsiolkas.  There was discussion about age, class and society but not once in twelve pages were race or ethnicity mentioned.  Overland reviewed The Slap, as part of a collection of five Australian novels.  As one expects of a literary journal with scope for more words and a different audience, it digs deeper than the mainstream newspapers.  There is slightly more than the cursory glance to race and again there’s a reference to soapies:

There’s more than a whiff of soap opera in the structure and form of The Slap. With its epic span and its domestic focus, the book suggests what Neighbours could be – if that show was populated with Aborigines who had redeemed themselves through Islam; if episodes featured bisexual AIDS-afflicted men being good parents; if the characters were Indian, Serbian, Greek, Jewish and Arabic... (Ashton 2009)

There is little evidence of cultural cringe with much of the review focused more on the writing technique such as “multiple narrators” and bodily functions as a “relief” from the main narrative.  Overland pitches itself as a “literary and cultural magazine” on its About page (Overland n.d.) but this review definitely leans more to the literary aspect than the cultural.  Is this a form of cultural cringe?  Probably not.

Once The Slap was long-listed for the Booker Prize the foreign reviewers came out in enthusiastic support.  Brigitte Weeks of The Washington Post opens by describing The Slap as being about “middle-class suburbanites...struggling with too little money and too much alcohol” and concludes:

In “The Slap” we live for a few short weeks in suburban Australia, learning the language, becoming intimate with the characters and experiencing their customs. But finally the novel transcends both suburban Melbourne and the Australian continent, leaving us exhausted but gasping with admiration.

Although Weeks felt the need to include and explain some terms such as ‘stubbies’, this review embraces and celebrates Australian culture more than the Australian reviewers do.

In Michael Arditti’s short review (400 words) in the Telegraph (UK) he describes the novel as “a painstaking exploration of Australian domestic life” and Melbourne as a “melting pot”.  He compares The Slap favourably with Australian television soaps and in his brief description of characters includes “Bilal, an Aboriginal Muslim convert”. 

The Guardian (UK) reviews The Slap twice, first by Jane Smiley, then later as part of an interview by Aida Edemariam with Christos Tsiolkas.  Smiley claims the book expresses that “multiculturalism has won” and the most Australian aspect is that all the characters are “touchy”.  She focuses on the relationships and believes the novel scrutinises “modern Australian life as an exercise in liberalism”.  Despite concentrating on the characters in her 650 word review Smiley is the only one in the four foreign reviews examined here who fails to mention the presence of an Aboriginal person.  Edemariam, on the other hand, quotes Tsiolkas as selecting a moment between the Aboriginal man, Bilal, and a quintessential Australian blonde, Rosie, as the “real centre of The Slap”.  Like the Australian reviewers, she places the book in its political setting but takes it further by including the names of the imposing politicians of the period, Howard and Hanson.

From examining these reviews of The Slap it isn’t clear that the reviewers genuinely suffer from cultural cringe.  However, it does appear that the foreign reviews are more enthusiastic about the Australianness of the novel but then so few Australian books are reviewed in their publications that it would make sense to ramp up the novelty factor.

When reviewing Samson and Delilah it is impossible to avoid the Aboriginal characters.  Actually it appears the Australian reviewers loved the movie for their stark portrayal of remote Aboriginal life.  However, some avoided commenting on the social context by merely describing the movie.  David Stratton (2009) was guilty of this in his review in the Weekend Australian, although it could be argued the movie itself gives the social context.  In the same newspaper edition Michael Bodey (2009) writes more of a report on the movie’s makers than a review and thus uses quotes from people associated with the movie as well as the film itself to write his piece.  Political and social context is left to the words of Thornton, the director.  Bodey compares Samson and Delilah to Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, calling Ten Canoes “a whitefella's rendition of Aboriginal culture [whereas] Samson and Delilah is clearly a blackfella's”.  The reporting style of writing removes the obligation for the commentary expected of a reviewer. 

Similarly to Stratton, Sandra Hall (2009) uses the film’s content and not commentary for social context.  “It's a demanding film, so determined to replicate the listless rhythm which governs the community's routines that you feel a need to slow your pulse beat to adapt to it.”   Words such as ‘demanding’, ‘determined’ and ‘listless’ gives the impression Hall was annoyed that it wasn’t a feel-good movie and she concludes, “Yet like all stories about addiction, this one is ultimately's tough going.”  Hall gave Samson and Delilah three stars as opposed to most reviewers’ rating of the full five stars.  Perhaps there was just too much cultural cringe for her.

Unlike other newspaper reviewers, Jim Schembri (2009) of The Age places Samson and Delilah firmly in social context, saying “It is the most confronting, powerful, honest and important film about indigenous culture yet made in this country” and that it “breathes with authenticity”.  By saying all this before describing the film, Schembri accepts that this film truthfully reflects Australian culture, without cringing away from it.

In the literary journal New Matilda, Jennifer Mills (2009) acknowledges the authenticity of Samson and Delilah in her very first sentence.  She goes on to describe the social setting in which the film was made, referring to petrol-sniffing, violence, the general feeling of hopelessness and colonisation.  She is very conscious of writing as a white person on Aboriginal issues, “I don't want to be another white person trying to write authoritatively about that life — I want people to speak for themselves,” so is restrained in her commentary.  This is not cultural cringe. 

Peter Craven (2009), a prolific Australian reviewer, wrote a review of Samson and Delilah for The Spectator, a UK magazine.  He summarises the film’s tale and then lobs his grenade with:

On one level, Samson and Delilah is a petrol bomb thrown in the face of Aboriginal mythologising and self-deception. It is a devastating portrait of people in a state of terminal depravation who, even at their most active, are bewildered beyond any point of helping themselves.

As is typical of Craven (Davis 1999, pp.119-120; Rickard 2002), he is blunt and controversial.  His review is the only one examined here daring to go against the Aboriginal culture so often portrayed as the ideal in the media.  It may be a case of attack being the best form of defence.

Russell Edwards (2009) in the foreign magazine, Variety, claims Samson and Delilah is “an engrossing and touching snapshot too often left on the cutting-room floor”.  Ryan Gibley (2010) in the New Statesman is more sceptical of the authenticity of the film as representing true Aboriginal life, qualifying with words like ‘probably’ and saying “the film conforms to tragic type”.  As seen in these two examples, foreign reviews tend to fall into absolute acceptance of the film as depicting real life, similarly to many Australian reviews, otherwise they lean more to the film being a dramatisation of true Aboriginal life.

Samson and Delilah has also been reviewed bluntly and passionately in historical context by History Australia (Gorman 2009), with an element of cringing at how other (non historians) view Aboriginal Australia and by a German completing her PhD in Melbourne on Australian fiction (Schuerholz 2009).  She brought a unique viewpoint of an outsider living in Australia, and thus not subject to a cultural cringe.  She reveals on a personal level that the film was horrifying, but also uses emotive language (‘rejection’ and ‘pain’) when depicting social context.

It is inevitable that Samson and Delilah is compared to Baz Luhrmann’s Australia of the year before.  Reviewers generally made unflattering comparisons, dismissing Australia as “the film...Baz Luhrmann ought to have made instead of his overblown Outback epic, Australia.” (Canberra Times, 2009) but Thornton defends Australia from these attacks, “’He's so brave, Baz, so brave,’ Thornton says. ‘He made an Aboriginal film but hid it behind this love story. Good on you, mate.’” (Bodey 2009).  It seems Australia was panned by reviewers for its romantic colonisation picture of Australia in the lead up to World War 2.  They were cringing from this unrealistic traditional portrayal of Australian life.

It seems Australia has moved a long way from Arthur Phillip’s introduction of the term ‘cultural cringe’.  Although Rickard claimed in his research of literary writing in 2002 that “the cultural cringe just refuses to stay buried,” it appears there is little evidence of it in the reviews of the book The Slap and the film Samson and Delilah.  From this intense look at the reviews it can be interpreted that many Australian reviewers shy away from giving cultural context in their reviews but they are not in denial either.  If there is any one area Australian reviewers still suffer from cultural cringe it is regarding Aboriginal society.  As authors and film makers embrace Australian culture in an increasingly complete and authentic manner reviewers need to so too.


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Charlotte Crone said…
This is perfect for an essay I'm writing on Samson & Delilah. Thanks very much! I am a big fan of this movie and I have been trying to find critics who have any bad to say about this film. So far not many have come up. Interesting to hear an unbiased blog.

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