Americans may not think about Australia much, but when they do, they try not to let facts get in the way. But why should we be surprised by that? With great passion comes great ignorance. And Americans are nothing if not passionate about Australia.
On the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to Australian shores this week, US attitudes toward Australia are as enthusiastic as they are under-informed.
People here love Australia. Or I should say they love “Australia” – an imaginative projection so cheesy, Vaseline-coated and fact-free it makes Luhrman look like cinema verite.
Only three people out of more than a hundred informally polled in and around New York City on Tuesday was aware of the presidential visit. Only one correctly identified the purpose of the mission.
And when asked to speculate, their answers ranged from the creative to the surreal (“Wait – is it something to do with regional tensions between Australia and New Zealand?”).
“Maybe vacation with his family?” several people ventured when asked why Obama was on his way to Australia. Others guessed that the purpose of the visit was “something about pollution” or possibly Australia’s “bad financial situation” – pretty rich, considering the chronic fatigue that seems to have settled over the US economy.
A university student was pretty sure “the President is going to Australia to discuss how they feel about Greece.” A middle-aged commuter at Grand Central Station had different ideas. “Mmm, is he negotiating his retirement home?” he suggested wistfully.
Yet the most common response was a headscratch of global proportions.
“I don’t really think of Australia. Ever,” a 20-year-old university student admitted cheerfully. Given the extent of Australian coverage in the US media, that’s hardly surprising.
On Tuesday morning, as the Obama delegation were en route to Canberra to announce plans for a sustained US military presence in the quote-unquote frontier town of Darwin, the New York Times devoted exactly one phrase to the mission. The implication was clear that the Australian visit constituted a kind of transit lounge – a bag of foreign policy peanuts between two main meals, the twin trade summits in Hawaii and Indonesia.
At the same time, in one of the great unrequited trans-national love stories of all time, Americans love Australia. They love Australian native animals, from the cuddly (koala bears, Hugh Jackman) to the killer (the Great White, Rupert Murdoch). They love the “outback” - as only a people who fetishise the notion of frontier could do – and “the Aborigines” because, as a 56-year-old North Carolina man explained to me, “no one has managed to exterminate them yet”. “I want to move there!” he declared with feeling.
Asked what she knew about Australian culture, one young woman dredged up a montage of stereotypically vague associations. (“Um …"mate” and “sheila” and the toilets spin the other way …?“) Her information source? A Mary Kate and Ashley movie.
That may be cringeworthy, but it’s hardly unusual. American’s impressions of Australia are overwhelmingly the residue of images from American pop culture. "When I think of Australia, images of kangaroos and men and women in safari costumes come to mind, narrated by the voice-over guy from the [US-owned] Outback Steakhouse commercials,” was how one Ugg-boot-wearing 19-year-old summed it up. What? No Sydney Oprah House?
“It’s always been my dream to visit Australia,” I was told over and over again. Yet for most, the prospect seemed as realistic as a Contiki Cruise to Mars. “Oh heavens, no,” a beautifully dressed woman in her 60s protested “It’s much too far to actually go there”.
Today, shark attacks, surf brands and Victoria’s Secret models arguably cast a longer shadow than Crocodile Dundee – yet a generation on, those fabled shrimp on the barbie continue to sizzle in the American imagination. Julia Gillard or no Julia Gillard, Australia is still seen as a place where women glow and men are bad-asses.
“A good general rule to follow,” I was told by a high school history teacher, aged 36, “is that a if you are in a bar and you are about to throw down with a guy, if he has an Australian accent and is missing a tooth - wave a white flag, buy him a Fosters and get the hell out of there.”
No, he’s never visited the country, he admitted. But, as the father of a three-year-old, he’s seen Finding Nemo at least 200 times, and surely that’s got to count for something.