Crocodile Dundee: God Bless America, Mate.
In 1986, a film was unleashed upon the world that created a stereotype of Australians that has endured ever since. Crocodile Dundee, starring Australian comedian Paul Hogan, is an adventure story that revolves around Mick “Crocodile” Dundee as he transitions from the blistering Aussie desert to the congested New York City streets. After being persuaded to leave Walkabout Creek in the Northern Territory by Sue Carlton, played by Linda Kozlowski, Mick finds himself in a foreign land. Subsequent sequels were made in the years following due to the international success of the first film. Paul Hogan became an overnight sensation and coupled with his role as spokesperson for Foster’s beer, the image of Australians had inevitably been set. The rest of the world, and more specifically Americans, look at this film and believe Australia to be exactly how it is portrayed. While there certainly are some aspects of the film that can be linked to quirky Australian cultural practices, overall the film portrays Australians as culturally inept and undeveloped, while propping up an idealized version of what it means to be American.
Context is the most important thing to establish when analyzing a text. In 1986, conservative hero Ronald Reagan was still in office and the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was still in full swing. Pro-American rhetoric, which pushed these conservative ideals, Christian beliefs, and a democratic approach to politics, was rampant across the country. The Soviet Union wasn’t the only “enemy” of the United States though. Countries throughout the Middle East had shown anti-American sentiment that was due, in large part, to the involvement of US forces throughout the region. With this in mind, one can see that rhetoric aimed at preserving the idealized American way of life would be successful among audiences. Although it may not seem like it, Crocodile Dundee can be viewed as a pro-American propaganda film. Paul Hogan, although an Australian, helped perpetuate a stereotype of Australians that created long-lasting negative connotations.
When I was 18 years old I moved from Australia to the United States. I was dumbfounded by the types of questions I was asked about Australia. Most of them revolved around tired and poor stereotypes like those seen in Crocodile Dundee. Even though I grew up in Australia I had some knowledge of America due to my parents being American themselves. The same cannot be said about Americans view of Australians. Somehow, the Crocodile Dundee stereotype remains a staple, which is the main reason why the film needs to be studied and critiqued. I chose this particular artifact because of the long enduring legacy it has left behind. Regardless of the success of the film, it paints Australians in a negative light and it touts America, and by extension Americans, as stronger; a quality suggesting superiority.
While paying particular attention to the use of Foster’s and the clothing of Mick Dundee and his mates, as well as the juxtaposition of landscapes and scenes where the characters make cultural faux pas, I will use culture-centered criticism and visual rhetorical criticism as a way to describe how Crocodile Dundee promotes pro-American ideals.
Although describing rhetoric as the art of persuasion and influence sounds like an elementary explanation of a complex communication tool, there are no concrete definitions that have been widely accepted. In recent years an emphasis on rhetorical criticism in regards to popular culture has become much more common. Rhetoric focuses on how influence occurs through the management of meaning (Brummett, 2011, p. 7). There are many different forms of rhetoric that affect the meaning of a given text. We can think of these as lenses that can be used to view texts in a different way. There are various lenses that critics use to analyze and describe artifacts but the ones I am most concerned with implementing are culture-centered criticism and visual rhetorical criticism.
The first of these approaches is considered relatively new in terms of rhetorical criticism. Culture is often thought of as a strong source of values, beliefs, and ideologies and therefore can be studied in terms of the influence that particular artifacts have on people who identify with that culture. As Brummett (2011) argues, we must look at cultures through the eyes of that particular culture (p. 148). With this idea in mind, I decided to look at the way Australians were perceived in America through movies like Crocodile Dundee. It’s one thing for a critic to look at the film in terms of its humor and its depiction of Australian life, and it’s another thing to look at it using my knowledge of Australian life and comparing the two. More specifically though, culture-centered criticism relies on the awareness that the culture being observed might see itself and its own artifacts differently (p. 148). Americans may find the movie funny and the character of Mick Dundee as stereotypical of Australia, whereas an Australian, like myself, finds the movie insulting. Ethnocentric stereotypes are considered to be strong tools used to influence audiences, which is quite evident throughout Crocodile Dundee. I will be looking at the use of Foster’s — marketed as an Australian beer — and the clothing of Mick Dundee and others in the bar and the way it portrays stereotypes of Australian culture.
The second approach that I chose to apply to this film is visual rhetorical criticism. Language has a tendency to impose restrictions on how its interpreted, while images are much more ambiguous in their creation of meaning (Brummett, 2011, p. 167). While images may be more ambiguous in nature, they are structured just as language is. A critic can look at the way in which images are paired together, whether or not an image is in conflict with another image, and whether or not the image is a keystone sign or transformation of another sign. The organization of images is rhetorical in that it helps to guide the attribution of meanings (p. 167). By paying particular attention to how images throughout the film are being organized whether it is through the juxtaposition of Mick and Sue and how they deal with other cultures or the environments in which they’re located, I can show how the intention is used to persuade the audience. To do this, the film must be separated into two parts; Walkabout Creek and New York City. By doing this I was able to find a juxtaposition between Sue entering a foreign land and Mick entering a foreign land.
One can argue that the use of stereotypes was a ploy to sell Australia to Americans. This is not outlandish in the slightest as the 2018 marketing campaign for Australia involved creating a fake trailer for a Dundee film. However, the use of stereotypes, regardless of the intent, is still problematic.
Foster’s; Australian for Beer
Foster’s is known around the world as an Aussie beer. Although not popular down under, the beer flourishes overseas due to the constant connection with the Australian way of life. The company doesn’t sell the beer, it sells Australia. Ironically, Foster’s was created by two Americans who traveled to Melbourne, Australia from New York City in 1886 (Oliver, 2011, p. 370). Even though the beer was popular in Australia for a short period of time, it’s now predominantly sold overseas. In 1972, Foster’s launched in the United States acquiring a solid cult following (third most popular imported beer) and coupled with humorous advertising claiming that “Foster’s is Australian for beer” it continued its popularity (Oliver, 2011, p. 371). It’s easy to see that an Australian filmed catered to an American audience needs to have Foster’s in it. I mean, would it really be an Australian film without it? Throughout the first part of the film, where the main action takes place in Walkabout Creek, you can see Foster’s signs plastered all over the place; from the giant signs outside of the pub to the coasters and bottles on the tables inside. Showing this helps the audience maintain the illusion that Foster’s and Australia are inherently linked. Foster’s was making most of its money from overseas sales, so by pandering to their key demographic, they maintained a particular image of Australia that they knew would sell. It’s no coincidence that Paul Hogan was one of the key spokespeople of Foster’s either. The use of stereotypes to sell a beer is a rhetorical device used to make more money, but by doing so it promotes a pro-American agenda.
One of the main principles of the American identity in the 1980s was free market capitalism. Ronald Reagan regaled the country with tales of capitalism and democracy as if they were one in the same. By opening up the market, big business took over by pushing smaller businesses to the brink of extinction. Australia has a proud history of micro-breweries and such an idea would put a lot of these companies out of business. Throughout Australia, beer preference is based on regionality. By suggesting that there is a unifying company that every Australian identifies with is detrimental to the history of these local breweries that are still highly popular with Australians today. The promotion of large enterprises that represent free market capitalism is an American construct, not Australian. Yet, audiences are inclined to believe this to be true because they saw it in this film. These are not the only ways in which advertising Foster’s is problematic for Australians.
By showing Australia in a negative light, audiences will not perceive Australia as a serious country or a threat to the American way of life. Insinuating that Australians are alcoholics is a damaging label. Everyone in the bar had a Foster’s in their hand and coupled with the message that “Foster’s is Australian for beer” alcohol becomes synonymous with being Australian. This is a poor message to send to the rest of the world and when it’s compared with the people in New York City, it makes Australia look even worse. After a night of heavy drinking, Mick Dundee is perfectly okay while all of the Americans are belligerently drunk. Even if we assume they drank the same amount of alcohol, one is better off than the other. Alcoholics have a negative stigma attached to them in most cultures across the globe, so by suggesting that Australians drink all the time it further increases negative feelings about the type of people we are. Damaging labels are prevalent throughout this film, but it’s tough to find one that hasn’t followed Australians more than alcoholism.
Australians as Undeveloped
There is an impression of Australians as bush dwellers who work out in the scorching sun with dangerous flora and fauna surrounding them at all times. While there certainly are people who live like that, most people live on the coast in big cities similar to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The film doesn’t represent this aspect of Australian life, just the stereotypical one that American audiences could engage with more because of the vast difference in their own lives. Obviously, the use of scenery was an indication that they were living in the desert, but the clothing is its own rhetorical device that suggests that Australians are primitive.
All of the men in the pub are dirty from head to toe, with ripped shirts and tattered jeans. By traditional cultural expectations of lawyers, doctors, or businessmen, it is clear that these men are none of those. They are dressed in earth tones that suggest a connection with the land, as opposed to the dark grey, black, or navy suits with red ties that suggest a connection with professionalism. When Mick Dundee walks in you see his brown leather outfit, tattered white shirt, and hat with crocodile teeth engulfing it. Adding the crocodile teeth around the hat just further enhances the link between man and wild. Portraying Australians as wild or primitive suggests that Australians are underdeveloped. The majority of Americans don’t need to worry about crocodiles or wild animals on a daily basis, yet according to this film, Australians do. In the mid-1980s terms like “first world” and “third world” were still in common use. These terms are troubling in their own ways, but America is always referred to as being “first world”. Australia, by looking at the clothing, could not be considered a “first world” country, but more of a “third world” country. Even the tagline of the movie poster says, “he’s survived the most hostile and primitive land known to man”. While Australians are proud of the unique environment that they live in, portraying them as dirty and wild has negative consequences. America is once again propped up at the expense of Australia. The use of stereotypes continues on throughout the film, but the construction of images plays a large part in the creation of meaning.
A critic can look at the way in which images are paired with each other or how they come into conflict with each other to help analyze meaning. The film is full of intentional pairings of images to show just how different Australia and America are, even if it is exaggerated. The first time you see Sue is when she is in her hotel room in Sydney. Her hotel overlooks the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but both are blurred. They are indistinguishable unless you know what you are looking for. The first clear shot you see of Australia is the open red plains of the Northern Territory. Blurring Sydney was a deliberate technique used to hide the metropolis looking Australia, which could be compared to any major city in America, in favor of the desolate outback; the wild terrain that is inhospitable to humans. In stark contrast, the first image you see of America is New York City with its giant skyscrapers, American flags, and thousands of inhabitants; in other words, civilization. Juxtaposing these two settings shows one to be undeveloped and the other to be developed. These images of America further suggest superiority to Australia and therefore the audience is more likely to have a favorable view of the American way of life.
The second set of conflicting images revolve around a character making a cultural faux pas. The first of these occurs when Sue dips her hands into the creek to wash her face. A crocodile pops up out of the water and begins to attack her until Mick comes along and kills it. When out in the bush it’s not smart to just dip your hands or head into a body of water just in case it does have crocodiles in it. When this happens, Sue begins to cry and the audience has empathy for her. After this incident, she continues on. The audience then sees her as brave. If you compare this with the many moments in which Mick commits a cultural faux pas, you will see a different reaction by the audience. Mick is shown washing his socks in the bathtub while he is taking a bath. I can imagine the uproar in the cinema as the people chuckled at the silly Australian doing his laundry while taking a bath. While this is not quite the same life or death situation, it is still a cultural faux pas. Another example is when Sue walks in on him sleeping on the floor opposed to in the bed. Australians have beds. According to this imagery, Mick, and by extension Australians, don’t sleep in beds and the audience is inclined to believe this. The jokes don’t come from when Sue makes a mistake; they come from the mistakes Mick makes. Australia becomes a laughing stock and this idea has continued on in public discourse. Americans were told that moving to Australia was like moving back to the 1940s in terms of technological advances and thanks to films like Crocodile Dundee this myth remains true to this day.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they are ethnocentric views of a culture which promote xenophobic ideas. To this day, the Crocodile Dundee stereotype survives as a mold for which Australians are forever trying to break. However, there are Australian films that show more positive imagery, yet did not enjoy the same cult following that Crocodile Dundee did.
Films like Gallipoli, showcase positive attributes of the Australian culture like mateship, the ANZAC spirit, and the “battler” mentality. Gallipoli is the heroic story of two mates who join the army during World War I after Australia is asked to provide more troops to help the allies in Europe. The film was made in 1981, 5 years before Crocodile Dundee, and before a single scene is shown there is already a sense of pride that surrounds the film. The battle of Gallipoli is famous in Australia, and the struggle of the troops on the beaches of Turkey is one of the proud stories we share as Australians. Starring a young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee, who are track stars that are eventually recruited into the army where they form an unspeakable bond. This film highlights two common beliefs held by most Australians; mateship and the ANZAC spirit.
Mateship is the idea of helping out those around you before you help yourself. This collective view runs counter to the individualistic notion of what it means to be American. The two characters rely on each other to survive up until the very end. Even the non-starring characters help each other out in times of need. Watching this makes you proud to be from a country where we look out for those around us.
The second of these ideas is that of the ANZAC spirit or the battler mentality. ANZAC is an acronym that stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Like most countries, troops are celebrated and revered by most. Not only does this film speak to the pride that Australians have in their troops, but it speaks to the battler mentality; the never give up attitude of the soldiers. The ANZACs were never supposed to be successful at Gallipoli, however, they fought hard and they never gave up. This is a quality most would find admirable and it shines a positive light on the people of Australia. Crocodile Dundee fails to show these qualities and instead focuses on qualities that are questionable. Part of the reason this film was not successful overseas, beyond the push from the studios, is that it shows Australia losing; a concept that many American war films don’t deal with. Most American war films show the US overpowering the enemies, not losing.
With so much star-spangled patriotism running wild during the Cold War, America was told they are number one in the world at everything. By laughing at Australians, and the misfortunes they have in attempting to be like America, they were able to stay number one. The reason movies like Gallipoli were not as successful is because they show Australians as people who were more concerned with the collective group rather than themselves. Depicting Australia as culturally inept, undeveloped, and primitive, has created and sustained a negative stereotype that has followed many Australians as they travel across the US. The American life and culture are not threatened by Mick Dundee. He is a trivial hero. A non-threatening comedian. A joke. America props itself up by putting down Australia.
Brummett, B. (2011). Rhetoric in popular culture (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.
Oliver, G. (2011). The Oxford companion to beer. New York, NY: The Oxford University Press.