Upon my move back home from Melbourne to Auckland two days ago, I was confronted with the Eleanor Catton kerfuffle. Rather than simply a battle between Catton and right wing politicians, it reveals far more about ourselves as New Zealanders. The more recent successes of Catton, Lorde, and the Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings and the public and media responses indicate our dependence on individuals for our national and international identity, like a child beauty pageant mother might live through her daughter.
Yet regardless of any international praise New Zealand authors, filmmakers, actors, musicians, or movies filmed here receive, we are a small country fairly isolated from the rest of the world. We overly rely on notions of “punching above our weight” or “number 8 wire” innovation that often seems like a defensive shell to protect us from our insecurities.
As a result, we overemphasise New Zealand artists’ success defined as doing well internationally. This irks me because it doesn’t acknowledge the importance of the cultural benefits of artistic pursuits to the New Zealand public. It reflects a lack of confidence in our own ideas. Catton herself stated “I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example. Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren’t discovered…” In this regard, arts and entertainment bodies seem rather risk-adverse. Domestically, ambitious and original ideas – think Flight of the Conchords or Julian and Camilla’s World Odyssey – are often rejected by domestic funding outlets in favour of safer ideas. Consider television and the focus on reality franchises based on international successes such as The Block, My Kitchen Rules, and Masterchef compared to the potential of more original local content.
Where individual New Zealanders have found success, they have been more experimental and unique to New Zealand. Flying Nun sensibilities owe to the freezing student flats and gothic and oceanic influences unique to Dunedin. Rocky Horror Picture Show was inspired by the traditional double feature shows at the Embassy Theatre in Hamilton, and probably as well as 1950’s sexual conformity of New Zealand. Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ could only be developed by the experiences of being young and Maori on the East Coast in the 1980’s. Not only must arts and creative funding bodies be aware of this, it is the government duty to provide far more funding – in spite of what political views the artist holds.
Catton’s real crime in our eyes was that she questioned our collective pageant mother-like attachment to her success. Catton expressed discomfort, arguing “It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.” In doing this, Catton severed us from her success. As a result, we were exposed as the small country people we deny we are and became angry. Sean Plunket represented the extreme version of this, expressed with the gusto of a spouse being asked for divorce after 20 years of marriage, something like “After all I (we) did for you, you ungrateful bitch.” If anything, ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is about either complete subservience of individual’s international success to us akin to a child beauty pageant contestant working the world stage for Mother NZ, or they’re rejected as an ungrateful snob.
New Zealand at times strikes me as a country not very comfortable in it’s own skin, often aspiring to be ‘international’ when it could better see it’s strengths as a small country. Catton’s words challenge the public, politicians, and arts and media bodies to be more confident. We can be more supportive of artists to tell both individual and unique New Zealand experiences. It’s artists who meld together ideas of what New Zealand is, not only internationally but – more importantly – for us.