Opinion: many of us are no longer mortified by provincialism, guilty pleasures and bad taste

There are many personal cringeworthy experiences. Think of the some of the fashion choices of your youth or occasions when your friends and family make you cringe with their taste in music. However, there is also a greater type of cringe experience. "Cultural cringe" is where you find your country and its apparent bad taste mortifying, ugly and dated.

The history of this idea is decidedly Australian. Coined by A.A. Phillips in 1950 in the context of literature, "cultural cringe" has come to refer to a general embarrassment about national identity and its culture. A decade later, architect Robin Boyd would even identify what he called "The Australian Ugliness". He argued that Australians instinctively avoided, even denied, the beauty of the southern continent in their architecture. Instead of cultivating an Australian vernacular, he saw Australian architecture enthralled to Northern European designs. 

In the early 1990s, Australian art critic Robert Hughes explained it in the following way: "the Cultural Cringe is the assumption that whatever you do in the field of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, dance, or theatre is of unknown value until it is judged by people outside your own society. It is the reflex of the kid with low self-esteem hoping that his work will please the implacable father, but secretly despairing that it can.

"The larrikins were youths with mischievous, uncultivated disregard for social or political conventions"

"The essence of cultural colonialism is that you demand of yourself that your work measure up to standards that cannot be shared or debated where you live. By the manipulations of such standards almost anything can be seen to fail, no matter what sense of finesse, awareness, and delight it may produce in its actual setting." 

In the Australian context, this embarrassment and shame of the "convict stain" has often been understood in terms of a deference to Britain. A result of this attitude is the thought that to be cultured requires leaving ones apparent backward and uncultured province for the UK. The magnetic pull of Britain is evidenced by the exile of many of its great cultural figures throughout the 20th century. Prominent figures such as Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James, to name just a few, all left for Britain. 

In contrast, the exemplification of Australian "cultural cringe" within Australia is that figure known as an ocker or a bogan and their aesthetic predilections. This is a character marked by (usually) his aversion to travel, manual labour and commitment to what is commonly understood to be bad taste in the fields of sport, music, fashion, language, food and drink. Film’s such as The Castle and songs like Chris Franklin’s "Bloke",  a reworking of Meredith Brooks’ song "Bitch" from the perspective of the bogan, summarise the popular imagination of this cliché of anachronistic taste. 

Significantly, there is a historical and even heroic precedent to such characters in the shape of the late 19th century figure of "the larrikin". The larrikins were youths with mischievous, uncultivated disregard for social or political conventions. Undoubtedly, the most famous such character and "prince of the larrikins" was Ned Kelly

Given that "cultural cringe" cuts straight to the heart of national identity, it is not surprising that it is particularly acute in those moments of comparison and competition such as international sport and the Eurovision (it is not insignificant that Australia now competes in the latter). These are occasions where "cultural cringe" and discourses of national shame and embarrassment are routinely expressed insofar as the nation is seen to peddle a troglodyte style.

But these are also opportunities to re-present the nation’s image on the international stage. The Sydney 2000 Olympics, for example, was explicitly seen as an opportunity for Australia to rebrand itself to an international audience as a dynamic, cosmopolitan and culturally diverse society, from the opening ceremony to the design of the design of uniforms for the Australian Olympic team. 

Highlights of the Opening Ceremon at the Sydney 2000 Olympics

The idea of "cultural cringe" has an explicitly political and economic resonance insofar as it asks us to question a nation's place in the world. In the Australian geopolitical context, "cultural cringe" has been associated with a dated and conservative politics that seeks to maintain cultural ties with Britain as opposed to an Australian "pivot to Asia". It has also been argued that the figure of the bogan is a phantom perpetuated to mock, other and denigrate working class Australians and their cultural tastes. Others have even argued that the idea of "cultural cringe" itself is a myth invented to herald new cultural realities,

Though Ireland shares an island colonial history with Britain, the proximity of its orbit, the significant difference in its size and its different history ensure that cultural cringe is a different beast here. I venture that the nearest equivalent to a bogan in the Irish context is a culchie. While not an exact equivalent, the culchie is intimately associated with the rural in a way that the bogan is not, both are defined in terms of their lack of sophistication.

In modern cosmopolitan Ireland, the culchie is likewise a phantom, yet the popular success of novels such as Oh My God What A Complete Aisling, television programmes such as Mrs Brown's Boys, Killinaskully and before it, D'Unbelievables demonstrate a persistent and popular desire to see the culchie represented with sample culchie taste (i.e. "hang sangwiches"). Culchie approximations of Chris Franklin’s "Bloke" would be singles such as Pat Shortt’s "Jumbo Breakfast Roll" or Richie Kavanagh’s "Aon Focal Eile".

However, we can see that the notion of "cultural cringe", while persistent, is something that we are less likely to find embarrassing today. In a certain sense, we have begun to embrace the cringe. Australians and Irish alike are no longer entirely mortified about being a bogan or a culchie. Rather these are increasingly "guilty pleasures" to be broadcast, measured and celebrated. Provincialism is seen as something to embrace and to take pride in and sell, if only to irk the purists

The insular aesthetic concept of "cultural cringe" carries less potency in an increasingly interconnected world. With a growing respect for so-called "cultural cringe", we lose something of real value, namely art and culture that has that ability to visibly and viscerally make us recoil. In fact, recent writing has argued for the potential value of cringe: for example, Melissa Dahl sees moments of cringe as an opportunity to test how true we can be to ourselves.  Likewise, we might ask what is the potential value to "cultural cringe" where its meaning has flipped. "Cultural cringe" is now an oxymoron that describes how we can enjoy culture that is awkward, out-of-place and dated.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ