Extraordinary Ordinariness: Cultural Imagination and the Australian Dream

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In America you don’t just aim for a home, you aim for the ultimate: The White House

The widely discussed “American Dream” is the belief that anyone is free to climb up the ladder of success and be extraordinary. In contrast, the lesser known “Australian Dream” – so the story goes – is the dream of owning a house in the suburbs. As a 30-year-old woman who has grown up in public housing and precarious rentals I feel a strong affinity with this latter dream, even though it seems on the unreachable horizon (as it does for many in my generation). But whether the accessibility of home ownership  is truly as bleak as it seems, the concept of the Australian Dream warrants fleshing out. And, what better place to begin an examination of the heart of Australian consciousness, than the Olympic Games.

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The American Dream: anyone can climb the ladder of success

On the surface of things, the Australian coverage (so far) of the Rio Olympics seems to suggest that the Australian Dream is very close to the American one. For example, Australia’s initial lead in the medal tally was strongly emphasised by Australian news broadcasters (to the detriment of hearing about what was happening elsewhere at the Games). This focus on success, domination, and being number one, seemingly echoes the obsession with being on top à la the American Dream. But the whole point of the American Dream, as historian James Truslow Adams first defined, is specifically about anyone being able to succeed despite their early circumstances. The American Dream is about everyone having the capacity to be an extraordinary individual, as he states:

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”

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American Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hints at the bottomless aspirational quality of the American Dream

US media coverage of individual Olympic athletes exemplifies this narrative. For example, this discussion of wrestler Jordan Burroughs from USA Today highlights his innate ability (apparently visible at a young age), his hardworking attitude, and the importance of holding very high aspirations. The article states: “Though his parents stressed the importance of hard work and being true to his word, dreaming beyond their horizons wasn’t something a lot of people did in his hometown of Sicklerville, N.J. No one had shown them how”. The stress here is on aiming up and ever up. This means not just being number one, but always striving to do better and to work hard to be the best, not just of now, but of all time. As discussed previously, this kind of aspirational attitude has been critiqued by cultural theorists such as Lauren Berlant, who denounce the American Dream as a kind of toxic promise that always fails to deliver but that nonetheless keeps people enrolled in the idea that things might get better. So we might wonder, how different is the Australian Dream from this toxic attitude?

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Australian Olympic champion swimmer Ian Thorpe (who competed at the same time as Phelps) emphasises staying normal

Looking at Australian media coverage of the Olympics, we see the expected focus on stories of success (the Olympics are about competition after all), however, a slightly different dream is visible. While there is a similar story about the importance of hard work, there is an emphasis on ordinariness rather than extra-ordinariness. For example, in this discussion of recent gold medalist shooter Catherine Skinner from the Sydney Morning Herald, the story follows Skinner’s tribulations trying to balance school and shooting practice. While there is a clear message here that you should keep trying and stick to your guns (literally in this instance), there is also sympathy for Skinner wanting to be a normal university student doing assignments and partying with friends. The article labours on Skinner’s hard work ethic, but doesn’t allocate her success to something innate. Rather, there is a sense of luck, as the article quotes her: “I was really lucky to come into the sport at the right time. There were a lot of development programs coming in. It’s really nice to see them all pay off”.

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From Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig

In comparison to the American Dream then, the Australian narrative isn’t just about anyone being able to nurture their unique natural talents to reach stardom, but rather, anyone being able to achieve anything through a blend of hard work and luck. It is useful to remember here that Australia is often culturally defined as “the lucky country” after all.  The best thing you can be in Australia is extraordinarily ordinary, as you don’t want to risk being a “tall poppy” (someone who is too far above everyone else). A great example of this is Stephen Bradbury, who won a gold medal in speed skating in 2002 after everyone else in the field fell over. With his mix of persistence and sheer luck, Bradbury came to epitomise the Australian spirit.

c_13181_234_234_true_trueLooking at these examples, we can see that the Australian Dream is different from the American one, but presents perhaps another version of cruel optimism. Rather than highlighting one’s difference and unique abilities that one can harness for success, there is an emphasis on the importance of sameness and chance. Of course, Australia is also marked out as a land of the “fair go“, that being the idea that anyone should have a chance to make it, to get lucky. Interestingly, in the recent federal election opposition leader Bill Shorten made an appeal to the need for a fair go for all central to his economic plan, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull emphasised the fantastic opportunities already available to Australians. In other words, Turnbull turned up the volume on the myth of the lucky country, and quietly side-stepped the notion of the fair go that might call for some recognition of deeper inequalities.

Perpetuating this particular narrative covers over the social constitution of “luck”, that is, the structural privileges that  contribute to success. The toxic promise here is the lie that anyone can be a champion, if they keep working hard and are in the right place at the right time. There is no mention that as part of this you have to win the lottery of life, that is, be born into the best class position, race, gender and so on, that will guarantee a leg up. The perpetuation of this myth ignores the numerous indications that inequality and structural disadvantage is on the increase in Australia.

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Australia’s Next Top Model, where difference is played down

We also see this myth play out in Australian reality television. Anyone can be a Masterchef, and in fact, anyone can be as good as the superstar chefs. Never mind that if you’re not white or not emphasising your Aussie-ness rather than your complex ethnicity, you don’t stand much chance of winning. Similarly, anyone can be Australia’s Next Top Model, as long as you’re white and have that girl-next-door look exactly like everyone else. There is very little labouring on the unique talents, or features, or traumatic backgrounds of the contestants in any of these shows (which is surprising, given how much we still see the contestants cry). If anything the emphasis is always on how very normal the contestants are, and how normal they will continue to be despite their successes.

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The Australian Dream: work hard, get lucky

As I was watching the coverage of Rio last night, I was struck by the frequent remarks by the Channel 7 commentators that “anyone can be an Olympic champion”. Not only does this seem patently false in a way that papers over important advantages and disadvantages that people experience, it seems to diverge so much from the American narrative of everyone being special individuals. In Australia the best you can be is extraordinarily ordinary. The Australian Dream says: rather than wasting your time fighting for equality or better conditions or more affordable housing, your best bet is to put your head down, work hard, and be grateful for what you get in life. If you play by the rules, you too might get a home to live in one day, heck, you might even win a gold medal in speed skating! After all, this is the lucky country, isn’t it?