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Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

The Australia Day controversy

Australian values
Australian Values

Australian LanguageLanguage and Identity

Iconic Australians
Iconic Australians

Australian symbolsAustralian Symbols

Australian StereotypesAustralian Stereotypes

Aboriginal RightsAboriginal Rights

Racism in AustraliaRacism and Egalitarianism

Australian mythsAustralian Myths
Fact or fables?




Behind The Red Door

Australian Stereotypes

Around the world, people are raised not to stereotype others. Nevertheless, they often define their own cultural identity by stereotyping themselves. Not only do the stereotypes provide the behavioural model that individuals seek to emulate, they also provide a sense of commonality that makes people feel that they are part of a community. For example, in China, the website described Chinese people as:

"peaceful, hardworking and easily contented. They respect elders, love children and are patient with their fellows. Chinese in general are reserve and humble. They believe in harmony and never look for confrontation."

It is not only the Chinese that like to self-stereotype. The Italians self-stereotype themselves as having great style, the French as having elegance, the Japanese as being hard workers, and the Spanish as being lovers of life. The stereotypes are picked up by outsiders and in turn proliferated (particularly in travel guides) where budding travellers are eager to know something about the kind of culture they are about to visit.

In Australia, there are some individuals who can likewise appreciate the benefits of a cultural identity and who have subsequently created stereotypes to affirm that identity. One such Australian is Peter Cosgrove, the Australian Governor General. According to Cosgrove,

"Without doubt the best quality we observe across the entire Australian community is a natural willingness to pitch in and have a go, to help others. We see it of course whenever there is an emergency or a worthy cause. We see it in every community volunteer organisation from the lifesavers to the bushfire brigades through to the thousands of youth and mature age sporting clubs and those great international service organisations like Rotary and many others. We see it in our professional bodies such as the police, fire and ambulance services and of course in the defence force. It is a generosity of spirit and a selflessness that is perhaps our most precious heritage to hand on to younger and newer Australians - a nation of people who care for and look out for each other."

Likewise, the Australian Citizenship study guide proposes:

"Australians are proud of the fact that their nation did not emerge through revolution or bloodshed, but by negotiation and referendum. "

It is impossible to ascertain the accuracy of the stereotypes. Certainly not all Australians volunteer to fight fires, guard beaches, join the army, work in a Salvation Army store, or pick up rubbish. Likewise, it could be argued that few Australians know much about Australian political history so stereotyping them as proud of it may not be completely accurate. Nevertheless, even though a stereotype may not be true in practice, it may be true in myth and for this reason belief in the stereotype is a fact in itself. Furthermore, when evoked in certain circumstances, the stereotype can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Individuals who believe it may conform to the positive social identity that the stereotype promotes. A myth of behaviour can then become a fact of behaviour. In other words, the stereotype becomes a guide about how to act. This conforms people in the process.

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979) proposes that although individuals conform to stereotypes, it is usually only for a short time. Once the need for a social identity passes, the individuals exhibit their unique character traits once more. For example, an Australian may get drunk on ANZAC Day and value mateship on Australia Day because such behaviours are stereotypically associated with the days. On all other days, the Australian may refrain from celebrating mateship and may also avoid alcohol. Likewise, Australians may show great compassion for others after a bushfire because such behaviour is stereotyped Australian behaviour. On other days, the Australian becomes self-interested again.

It is silly to use the individual’s usual behaviour to argue that group stereotypes are not accurate. The stereotypes are only applicable to the individual when the individual decides to make them applicable by adopting a social identity. This is not 100% of the time. For most people, a social identity only matters when a different social group is encountered or a one-off event occurs.

Because individuals often act in conformity with stereotypes, advertisers often define stereotypes in the hope that the target audience will conform to them. For example, the lamb industry has often promoted the stereotype that there is something very Australian about eating lamb (sheep are actually eaten all over the world.) The campaign has been picked up by other businesses, such as McDonalds, which has also exploited the stereotype that as well as eating lamb, Australians also put beetroot on hamburgers. For McDonalds, the stereotypes help build a localised affinity that makes the fast food chain appear less generic.

According to McDonalds, Aussies love lamb and put beetroot on hamburgers.

Vegemite is another product that is stereotyped as something that true Australians consume. Compared to lamb, it is perhaps a better product to create the Australian stereotype because it is a uniquely Australian product (made from beer yeast) and most people from other countries can’t stand it.

Vegemite’s brand image is anchored in the Australian stereotype. In the above advertisement, the Australian flag and the beach help build the image.

Whereas many Australian marketers have exploited stereotypes to build an affinity between their products and the Australian public, many Australian entertainers have created caricatures of Australian stereotypes that can be laughed at and belittled. These caricatures can be thought of the Australian equivalent to America’s “black face” tradition where whites would blacken their face and act in socially demeaning ways. The fictional character of Les Patterson, created by Barry Humphries, is one of the most famous examples of the caricatures. Patterson is a conflation of stereotypes that propose that Australians are obese, offensive and unrefined. The caricature gained great popularity in Britain where the local audience wanted to laugh at Australians.

Les Patterson

Barry Humphries' character of Les Patterson caricatures Australians much like 'blackface' caricatured African Americans.

Although Patterson never gained the same popularity in Australia as he did in Britain, many other Australian entertainers have created caricatures based on negative Australian stereotypes. Sometimes the caricatures aim to be funny, but at other timesthey have prejudicial elements that reflect social divisions within Australian society. For example, cartoonist Andrew Weldon created a "funny" comic strip proposing that Australian traditions involve generalising, deindividualising, stereotyping, distrusting, being prejudiced, and making assumptions in the name of humour. Ironically, his humour was based on prejudice, generalising, de-individualisation and stereotyping so in a way, his work demonstrated his possession of the Australian characteristics he sought to distance himself from. Furthermore, since all his Australians were white, he was demonstrating a belief that the prototypical Australian was white.

Andrew Weldon Cartoon

Cartoonist Andrew Weldon showed the vices he denounced in his derogatory caricature of Australians. The choice of blue bonds singlet basically stereotyped a class of Australians as racist based on their choice of clothing. In an ironic way, he showed there was a kernel of truth in his stereotypes and he was in fact the kernel.

The use of derogatory stereotypes is also a feature of Australian movies. A very notable example of such stereotyping was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Directed by Stephan Elliot, Priscilla was created as a homosexual "correction" to Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee (1986). It followed the story of gays bringing some sophistication to the outback Australia, which was stereotyped as being home to racist, vulgar and intolerant people. In one scene, Elliot showed outback men watching a Filipino woman shoot ping pong balls out of her vagina. The scene aimed to build a stereotype that outback men were uncultured, racist, lewd and intolerant and that Asian women were crude sluts. The stereotype proved contagious and many film critics had trouble differentiating fact from stereotypical fiction. One of these film critics was Paul Byrnes, who wrote of the movie as if it were reality:

"The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert went further than any of these in attacking the Crocodile Dundee mythology of the essentially harmless heterosexual outback male. These same types of men, usually depicted in bars in Priscilla, can be suspicious, violent, vulgar and extremely intolerant, especially when confronted with alternative definitions of masculinity." (3)

Media campaigns by Australia's academics have also shown a strong manipulation of ugly Australian stereotypes in order to achieve a political objective. One such campaign was run by Dr Tanja Dreher, the University Technology Sydney Shopfront Research Manager. Dr Dreher actively went searching for examples of the fair-go stereotype being inaccurate so that she could then publicly deconstruct it, and replace it with negative stereotypes regarding Australian intolerance and ignorance. Dreher's evidence to support her stereotype was that in the two months after September 11 terrorist attacks, 248 reports were made to the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW (CRC). This was a telephone hotline to receive calls relating to perceived racial discrimination. According to Dreher, most of the reports were made by Muslims. Subsequently, Dreher released a press-release that concluded:

"There is in fact evidence of a serious gulf between the myth of 'a fair go' Australia and the reality. As a society we need to start taking responsibility for the intolerant and frequently ignorant nation we have become." (1)

To put things in perspective, at the time there were 340 000 Muslims in Australia. For Dreher, evidence that 1 in every 1500 Muslims in Australia felt they had been discriminated against was a sufficient figure for her to construct a stereotype that Australia had become an intolerant and ignorant nation.  

Political parties, such as the Australian Greens, have used a particularly interesting case of stereotype manipulation which has involved constructing negative stereotypes of their opponents while ensuring stereotypes of themselves are neither confirmed nor denied. In the advertisement below, non-Green voters are stereotyped as banana eating patriots stuck in the 1950s. The Australian flag is proudly displayed on the woman's chest. Simultaneously, Green voters are caricatured as frog hugging, tree loving, muesli munching, and café loving. The advertisement is quite clever in that it doesn’t dispute the truthfulness of the stereotypes of Green voters, either by contradicting them or providing an alternative of what a Green voter actually is. In this way, Greens are self-stereotyped as victims of insulting stereotypes that may or may not be true. In other words, the advertisement allows the Greens to stereotype themselves as progressive victims who may or may not love frogs while stereotyping their opponents as backwards hicks.

Because different groups have spent a great deal of time building negative stereotypes about other groups in Australia, many Australians have developed an aversion to national stereotypes that would combine the groups and make them stand as one. Although it may be a stereotype, most Australians simply reject Australian stereotypes.


Questions to think about

Stereotypes of Aborigines in Australian movies

Compare the portrayal of Aborigines in two movies; Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)

  1. How is traditional culture shown in the two corroborees?
  2. Who has status in the corroborees? How is that status built?
  3. There is some assimilation going on. Who is being assimilated and how?

Curator’s notes on Crocile Dundee by Paul Bynres:

"This is a fascinating scene for its cultural complexities. It reveals Mick as an initiated member of the Pitjantjatjara tribe (even though their traditional lands are a long way from Arnhem Land); it suggests that skin colour is no indicator of Aboriginality, a view that many Aborigines would endorse. It makes fun of traditional white misunderstandings and cultural taboos ('You think it will steal your spirit?’) but makes clear that such taboos exist and must be respected (when Sue raises, then lowers, her camera). There is also the idea that cities corrupt black men like Neville, who has lost touch with some of his culture (although when we see him dancing later, this seems to play against that idea)."

Curator’s notes on Priscilla by Paul Byrnes

"There’s an obvious attempt at suggesting a ‘solidarity of the oppressed’ in this scene, but perhaps something else is at work too. The definition of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is constantly under review in the film, and this scene is a kind of subversion of that idea. The Aborigines, as ‘naturals’, might be expected to reject the ‘unnaturals’, but it doesn’t go that way. The terms become meaningless: everyone likes to dance and sing. The desert also has an impact on the drag act – by the time they get to Alice Springs, the show incorporates costumes representing various desert animals, such as the frill-necked lizard."


ANZAC Stereotype

From Chester Wilmot "Tobruk 1941" Angus & Robertson, Sydney

'Italians with whom I talked found it hard to believe that the Australians were volunteers. They understood their own position. They had been sent to Libya to win glory for Mussolini. They presumed that the Tommies were there merely to defend British Imperial interests. But why were the Australian volunteers there? The ordinary Digger would have found it difficult to tell you. If you ever persuaded him to talk he would not have spoken of defending freedom, or removing injustice, or of saving the Empire. He might have said, "Oh, I wanted a bit of fun;" or else, "I dunno, I was fed up with my job;" or perhaps, "well, all my cobbers were joining up and so I went along too." Not much more than that. These would not be the real answers. Men may join up for fun or for a change, but if these are the only reasons, they would not go into action and fight through with bayonet and grenade when machine gun bullets kick the dust around their feet and they see the man next to them go down. If you could get the ordinary Australian to say what he really feels, it might be something like this: "Well, I came away because I believe in a fair go and I wanted to be with my mates; because I like being able to say to a copper, 'That's all right, copper, you got nothin' on me;' because I want to say what I like when we're having a beer at the pub; because I want to do what I like with the few quid I've got in the bank; and because women and kids are being bombed in London and shot in Prague, and someday this might happen at home if we don't do something about it." It was because they felt the battle was being fought for things like these, which mattered directly to them, that the Mallee farmer and the Kalgoorlie miner, the Bendigo bank clerk and the Sydney solicitor made the soldiers of Tobruk just as they made those at Gallipoli.'

  1. What stereotype is built about the values of the Australian soldiers?
  2. The paragraph talks of the diversity of the soldiers, but also their commonalities? Explain how it does this?
  3. The paragraph uses one stereotype to state what answer diggers would give when asked why they volunteered, but a different stereotype when saying what their real motivations were. What were the differences between the two stereotypes?
  4. In your opinion, why would stereotypes be important for soldiers?


1) UTS Experts Making News October 2005

2)What Lies Beneath: Postgraduate Conference 2003 - The University of Melbourne


4)Stephen Gibbs, Wannabes and ethnicity, Sydney Morning Herald April 26, 2005




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