The Uncanny Valley of Culture

Or: Y’all Slept On The Dressmaker And Now Shall Reap What Ye Have Sewn

Or: Don’t Take It Personally, Americans, Not Everything Is About You (But Please Keep Reading)

This article contains spoilers for Necrobarista (2020) and The Dressmaker (2015). The Dressmaker is kind of a banger of a movie so I recommend checking it out if you got the time. Necrobarista is pretty good too, but I’m biased on that one.

Hello! Today we’re gonna talk about the stifling effects of American cultural imperialism on popular media across the world, and why creators in colonial countries feel creatively asphyxiated. Strap in.

A screencap from The Dressmaker, showing Tilly in haute couture handing her calling card to the plainly-dressed Gertrude.
A screencap from The Dressmaker, showing Tilly in haute couture handing her calling card to the plainly-dressed Gertrude.

I watched The Dressmaker recently for the first time. It’s a 2015 film set in a small Australian outback town, following a woman who returns to her childhood home to uncover the truth behind a deeply traumatic event that she has no first-hand memories of. It’s tightly written, is deeply Australian in its exploration of small-town social dynamics, and is constantly gently coaxing its viewers to read between the lines of its dialogue for what’s left unsaid. This resonated with Australian audiences, winning in five of the thirteen categories it was nominated in at the AACTAs, and it currently stands as one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time.

It is an enormously bleak Western that was marketed as a rom-com. Interesting choice.

In the critical sphere, it was controversial, but American reviewers in particular — an overrepresented category — hated it.

“Quirky overkill,” said Rolling Stone’s critic. “Wonkily uneven,” wrote The Star. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott condemned its pacing, saying “The tone shifts, abruptly and awkwardly… and the plot is a pileup of incident and complication.”

“Above our writers — and other artists — looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon cul­ture.”

The Cultural Cringe, A.A. Phillips

What is cultural cringe? If you’re from outside Australia, or the Commonwealth more generally, it’s probably a foreign concept to you. It ties into the ideas of national identity, of cultural identity, and of the condescension that non-normative, culturally authentic media faces when it’s exposed to the wider Western world. It manifested as a response to anti-intellectualism levelled against creators and thinkers from outside of the American and European media bubbles, as an attempt — conscious or not — to force an inferiority complex upon us, to punish non-conformism.

It’s about power dynamics. In contemporary culture, creators cannot succeed financially without catering to Americans.

When we, as Australian (and colonial) creators, discuss a push-back against cultural cringe, we’re asking these questions: What pressures do we face as creators to conform to the homogenized, largely Americanized norms of Western culture? What are the specific elements of our country’s culture that make us unique? And finally, what compromises are we willing to make, and what are we willing to water down or straight-up remove, to make our work palatable to international audiences?

Necrobarista, a game on which I was the lead writer, is a character study of a group of people who each engage with grief, loss, and trauma in different ways, set in a Melbourne laneway cafe called The Terminal. This cafe, like many others, is a liminal space; uniquely, however, it sits on the boundary between our world and the afterlife, and is frequented by the spirits of the recently departed, who are granted twenty-four hours to enjoy the cafe before they’re asked to move on, lest the cafe incur a time debt from their choice to linger further. The balance must be maintained, after all.

Screencap from Necrobarista, showing a close-up of the main character, Maddy.
Screencap from Necrobarista, showing a close-up of the main character, Maddy.

“Enjoy” is a strong word, perhaps. After all, if you suddenly found yourself wandering the streets of Melbourne as a ghost, you’d probably have a few questions. This is the dilemma that Kishan, the player foil, struggles with. Kishan is a young man who wanders into the cafe after dying of unclear causes, and throughout the course of Necrobarista, he processes his panic, fear, and grief with the support of the rest of the cast.

This isn’t all that’s happening in the cafe, however: former owner Chay has also recently died, and is being kept in the world of the living against his will by his protege (and current proprietor of the Terminal), Maddy, who is trying desperately to resurrect him through the use of illegal rituals.

Screencap from Necrobarista, showing Kishan saying, “Nobody was listening to me… I don’t know how I ended up here…”
Screencap from Necrobarista, showing Kishan saying, “Nobody was listening to me… I don’t know how I ended up here…”

Kishan responds to death with panic and confusion.

Chay (outwardly) responds to death with serenity, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Maddy, whose lack of attention to detail was the driving force behind Chay’s death, does not meaningfully engage with it. She simply refuses; the trauma and guilt weighs too heavily on her shoulders. Her relationship with Chay becomes defined by a ghastly breach of consent, and she is so deeply stuck in survival mode that she sees no way out than to maintain the status quo.

So instead, she resorts to gallows humour. This is a deeply Australian form of introversion — we process trauma alone in our own time, but when in company, we deflect, deflect, deflect.

This is something that’s on show in every scene of The Dressmaker: every person living in the remote town of Dungatar has their own traumas, and each of them absolutely refuses to even consider engaging with them, lest their fragile socially-constructed shells shatter into dust. The only person in The Dressmaker willing to break that veil of silence is the protagonist, Tilly Dunnage, and the consequences of her actions are clear. By the end of the film, her mother has died of a stroke, her lover has drowned in a grain silo, and, having learned the truth behind her childhood traumas, Tilly has left Dungatar behind, burned to the ground by her hand.

The first thing you will be told as an Australian going to America, whether for a holiday, a work trip, or something more permanent, is that Americans don’t understand our jokes. Australian cultural coding runs so deep in our use of the English language that our ingrained sense of irony — and our absolutely relentless use of sarcasm — simply does not parse for outsiders. Gary Nunn, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, argues that these tendencies are a sort of cryptolect, a culture-wide in-joke:

In the case of the Brits, it’s a linguistic one-up-manship; a way of condescending, undermining, confronting or disagreeing without outright saying it, often for the amusement of other Brits — and, I’d argue, Aussies.

I spent most of my childhood living in various parts of California, and something that I always found striking was how conversational dynamics shifted when Americans weren’t at the table. It happened to an extent with Europeans, but the most fun conversations were always with other Australians or New Zealanders: we’d instantly drop the literalist facade, our accents would broaden, and our ‘inside voices’ would become a distant memory.

A shot from The Dressmaker, overlooking Dungatar, the town where the film is set.
A shot from The Dressmaker, overlooking Dungatar, the town where the film is set.

America’s cultural and linguistic hegemony is stifling and all-consuming. If you’ve always lived inside the American cultural bubble, it can be hard to conceptualize the difficulties of creating media outside of that. When you’re part of the dominant culture, all media falls into one of two categories. It’s either Familiar — made for you, an English-speaking American, or people like you — or it’s steadfastly Foreign, made for people very much unlike you. They’re probably from a different continent, and they most likely don’t speak your language. This means that when you’re consuming Foreign and non-English-language media, the context shifts: you may be more likely to accept the cultural norms of the Other at face value, and you are almost certainly prepared to happily accept that anything you don’t understand is simply a different way of presenting a story.

So what happens in your head when something is Foreign, but your surface-level understanding of its context, and its English-language presentation, leads you to believe that it’s Familiar?

When working in games, and especially when working in game narrative, you learn very quickly that players will assume a lot, based on a wide range of preconceptions. A large part of your job as a narrative designer is to harness and direct those assumptions and expectations, shifting and subverting them when necessary.

Still, you can’t predict everything with one hundred percent certainty. And I was smacked in the face with this while monitoring Necrobarista’s social feeds shortly after release, when I saw someone saying (paraphrased):

Wow! It was an interesting choice for them to set Necrobarista in the future.

Necrobarista is very firmly set in the present, so this confused me a little. I reached out and asked them what had led them to believe that Necrobarista was, in fact, a cyberpunk visual novel set in a coffee-obsessed future where technology is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic.

As part of their response, I received a screencap of this ingame text, which is encountered moments into the first chapter.

A screen of text reading, “The Terminal. Carlton, Victoria. Australia 3053.”
A screen of text reading, “The Terminal. Carlton, Victoria. Australia 3053.”
A screencap of the Google Maps entry for Carlton, Victoria. The postcode is marked as 3053.
A screencap of the Google Maps entry for Carlton, Victoria. The postcode is marked as 3053.

It’s a postcode.

3053… is a postcode. Carlton’s postcode.

It’s fine.

I’m not mad or anything. It’s just something that took me completely by surprise. Everywhere uses different kinds of postcodes, after all. America has five-digit ones, we have four-digit ones, the United Kingdom has a seemingly random jumble of numbers and letters. They come in all shapes and sizes.

So when something like this happens—when a small, realistic detail misleads uninformed players into believing that your game is set a thousand years into the future — your first thought as a creator is: should I change it? But it’s little sharp edges like this that prevent media like Necrobarista from being thrown into the culture blender. The vast majority of Australian games, unfortunately, are victim to this: for a wide variety of reasons, cultural cringe included, they sacrifice individuality and identity for homogenized marketability. The uniquely Australian aspects of the game are melted down, and are either turned into something more familiar, or are used in a purely superficial sense (see: games which use Australiana-inspired aesthetics such as kangaroos, boomerangs, or shit-talking shotguns called “Boganella” without engaging with Australian themes or ideas).

And I’m not even gonna get into international productions that use Australian wildlife as set dressing. Who’s gonna expect them to bother attempting to respectfully engage with Australian (or Indigenous Australian) culture? lol.

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Pic unrelated.

“There’s something chokingly terrible about [The Dressmaker], with its two-hour accumulation of sentimentality building to a pure, clanging wrongness in the tonally misjudged mix of unfunny smalltown comedy and unconvincing smalltown tragedy.”

The Guardian’s review of The Dressmaker.

What we have here, in international critical responses to unapologetically Australian media, amounts to a punishment for us daring to write familiar, messy, authentic narratives. The cultural cringe comes from inside, but the real sources of it are the external, oppressive, and prescriptive forces of American storytelling tradition. Isn’t it messed up that when an American critic points at Necrobarista’s dialogue and says, “nobody talks like that,” when in fact I’m almost directly quoting a grieving friend, my first reaction is to apologize or try and see if I can change it to fit their tastes?

I try not to get too worked up over it. They haven’t bothered to broaden their horizons, or attempt to read the work from a different point of view, and we’re the ones who get punished for it. We can’t be uppity, we can’t get loud about it, because pushing back against criticism you find unfair — especially in games — carries consequences, and those consequences include not getting coverage, or getting negative coverage, from Noted Tastemakers, which can make or break your game’s overall critical reception.

It sucks, though.

The primary issue is that to these people, media like The Dressmaker or Necrobarista is something new: it’s structured differently, it approaches its themes and subject matter differently, and that’s not what they’re familiar with. The Dressmaker walks and talks like a Western, but sprinkles in romance, dry Australian humour, and elements of farce. Necrobarista has gorgeous anime aesthetics, but also has behelmeted folk hero Ned Kelly asking an Indian Australian tradie if he’d like to punch a durry — and that is an extremely meaningful and complex moment of bonding between two Australian men that simply wouldn’t read as significant or important to people from other cultures. There’s a lot of communication hidden between the lines that would be destroyed by over-explanation.

It’s reasonable to expect people to miss the nuance in your work, but it’s still a horrible feeling for people who it wasn’t made for to miss that nuance, and then deride it for its lack of nuance.

And that’s because…

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It’s the uncanny valley effect, right?

Australian media sits in the grey area between Familiar (indicated on the diagram by Joss Whedon’s pet trashfire, The Avengers) and Steadfastly Foreign (represented here by Spirited Away). As I mentioned earlier, when media is Familiar, viewers/players have certain sets of expectations, and if they aren’t filled, that media is simply incorrect. When it is Foreign, those expectations either shift or are discarded wholesale, and the people consuming that media are free to consume it without those shackles.

So, as creators in the Australian cultural context, there’s no winning. We either create the next Crocodile Dundee — which, I will note, is a story that centers and was made for Americans — or we create something messy and honest and authentic that gets ignored… because it’s not about Americans, and because it doesn’t have the exact tonal and thematic resonance of an Adam Sandler movie.

It feels impossible to win here.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see a couple of things happen. Seeing more of my fellow creators pushing back against this would be a great start.

But what we really truly need is for tastemakers and critics (particularly American ones) to put more effort into leading the way in championing narratives from other cultures, and to drop the assumptions that all English-speaking countries exist in a kind of bland monoculture: tastemakers’ horizons must be broadened, for everyone’s sake. Like it or not, Americans are the prevailing critical voice, and they need to start using that cultural power more responsibly and thoughtfully. The world extends beyond the borders of the United States. Out here, we’re all aware of it — Americans need to figure it out as well, and preferably sooner rather than later.

A reading list:

  • The Cultural Cringe, by A.A. Phillips
  • The Dressmaker (2015, dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse)
  • Wake in Fright (1971, dir. Ted Kotcheff)
  • Japanese Story (2003, dir. Sue Brooks)
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi)
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, dir. Peter Weir)
  • Muriel’s Wedding (1994, dir. P.J. Hogan)
  • Whale Rider (2002, dir. Niki Caro)
  • Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
  • The Castle (1997, dir. Rob Sitch)
  • Housebound (2014, dir. Gerard Johnstone)
  • Bluey (2018 — , created by Joe Brumm)
  • Upright (2019 — , created by Chris Taylor)
  • Storm Boy (2018, Blowfish Studios)
  • Paperbark (2018, Paper House)
  • Necrobarista (2020, Route 59)
  • The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game (2018, Grace Bruxner)
  • Escape from Woomera (2004)
  • first date/can’t relate (2019, Ruqiyah Patel)

A list of people who’ve contributed to making this a better piece (thank you, friends):

  • Ruqiyah Patel
  • Leena van Deventer
  • Gary Kings
  • Ellen Jurik

Written by

narrative designer (they/them)

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