Steve Irwin: Why we admired the boy who wouldn’t grow up

For me, the news of Steve Irwin’s death caused a Diana moment: the molasses, freeze-time moment of shock that sears whatever one was doing – going to lunch, cleaning the fridge, having a shower – on one’s consciousness for ever. I sat at my computer and cried.

Why has Irwin’s death hit many of us so hard? In the rush to eulogise him, several explanations of what he meant to Australia and Australians have been served up. According to the Opposition Leader, Irwin was the “quintessential Aussie Battler” who was a “terrific exponent of Australian larrikin values”. Those in the tourist trade – at times seeming sadder about the loss of a product than a person – proclaimed him the “ambassador” for Queensland and Australia.

This is rubbish and, ironically just the sort that was responsible for the subdued response some Australians had to the Crocodile Hunter when compared to the untrammelled celebrity he enjoyed in the US. Few national groups, Australians included, are going to take kindly to being represented at home or abroad by a single individual, no matter who they are or what they do. Such resistance is only likely to increase when the summary of national identity includes phrases like sunburnt, rugged, over-the-top and oafish, not necessarily in that order.

Irwin never claimed to represent Australia or Australians overseas, or to in any way summarise how we think or who we are. The reality, which he knew better than anyone, was that he was about as far from the quintessential Australian as you could get: a bush dweller and conservationist in a land of confirmed suburbanites indifferent to their ever-expanding environmental footprints; a warp-speed extravert whose chosen adverbs of degree – absolutely, extremely, really – contrasted tellingly to the preference of his compatriots for somewhat, rather and “a bit”. In a telling interview with Andrew Denton in 2003, replayed on ABC TV last night as a tribute, Irwin frankly acknowledged the embarrassment he caused his compatriots. I’m embarrassing, he explained because “there’s a little bit of me in everybody”. In addition, what Irwin called the “yeah, yeah, take it or leave it” attitude of Aussies to everything, made them uncomfortable with his passionate embrace of everything.

He may have only got it half right. As far as I can see, there’s way too little of Irwin in most of us. Not only do we know it, we work damn hard to keep it that way, for precisely the reasons Irwin nominates: our fear of appearing too invested in or excited about anything. It’s all terribly English, really. Being so relaxed we’re horizontal is a highly esteemed Australian characteristic, and if the upshot of our commitment to indifference is a loss of our own passion for the things that really matter to us, and a disdain for the untrammelled enthusiasm of others, than so be it.

Are we afraid of failure? This is the classic analysis of those afraid of trying too hard, but I think what stymies us is more pedestrian: a fear of the unpredictable and potentially uncomfortable social situations that could result if people drop roles and abandon lines. Wild, larger-than-life characters like Irwin – hyper-extraverts – are unpredictable; you never know what they might say or do. They could ask you for something you don’t want to give, or beg conflict by saying something you don’t want to hear. They must be subdued through ridicule or marginalisation, or frozen out completely to manage our collective fear of the awkward moment.

Americans have no such fear, and this may partially explain their unequivocal hero-worship of Irwin. In fact, I suspect the real source of American’s love-affair with Irwin was not what made him Australian, but the Americanness of much of his personality. Hyper-extraversion, and its superlative sidekicks of uncontained passion and enthusiasm, are what Americans love and admire about themselves. How flattering to see them emulated by the nation’s good friends Down Under, and in a cute Aussie accent to boot.

It is perhaps testament to the complexity of the Australian character that while Irwin’s energy and passion made us anxious, we also admired it. Many, myself included, couldn’t help but feel terribly fond of the man. As he told Denton, he was the boy who never grew up, and we couldn’t help but smile at his boundless enthusiasm and energy, childlike faith in his invincibility when it came to animal stings or bites, and his inability to be other than himself or to even waste time trying.

He was one out of the box, and I know I’m going to miss him like hell.

Publication history

Steve Irwin: Why we admired the boy who wouldn't grow up  The Age