Friday, June 20, 2008

Bindi Irwin's 10th Birthday: The Jungle "Girl" (for how long?)

There are more signs of something wrong in the marketing of Bindi Irwin as a commodity than the mere presence of snowflakes in an advertisement for a winter event in sunny Queensland. Bindi has taken on a major role in promoting Australia Zoo, recorded her own television program and launched a clothing line since the death of her father, Steve. There is no doubting that she's popular. She has won a Logie award for Best New Talent. Last week, she even beat out the voice of Elmo for a Daytime Emmy for the most oustanding performer in a children's series for her work in Bindi the Jungle Girl.

Whether Bindi is being exploited has been the subject of some public discussion in the past year. The questions and complications surrounding children in the entertainment industry are surely the same whether a child is a film star, musical prodigy or next-in-line to a native zoo throne. It was other things that got me musing on the subject of Bindi, though. She was purportedly named after the Aboriginal word for "little girl". However, as a Queenslander in my childhood, that term just means prickly-thing-that-grows-in-the-grass-in-summer-and-gets-embedded-in-your-bare-feet. Anyway, as I said, it was other things.

The most significant was walking past her line of children's clothing in a department store. The second, while frivolous, still baffles me. So I'd best deal with that first. The crimped hair. To take the style of a '90s comedian: what's with that? I had no idea whether I'd missed the revival of crimping among children (I still have my '80s crimper, mind you), or whether she was sadly behind the times.

The naivete of crimped-hair-Bindi appears to have disappeared, however, with the arrival of an Emmy and the marketing of her clothing line. The recently-launched line includes ranges named "Urban Cowboy", "Warrior" ["incorporating naive graphics, bright colours and a grunge mix of '70s and '90s meets modern vintage"], "Green is the New Black" and "Jungle Safari". Among the environmental calls to arms printed on a number of the shirts is one that is a little troubling. It reads: "Crikey... What an Adventure".

The use of this definitive phrase seems to suggest the way in which Bindi is standing in as a de-facto Steve Irwin in order to ensure the continuation of the "brand" which her father created. While her mother, Terri, has taken on a significant role in promoting Australia Zoo and ensuring the legacy of Steve and continuation of his good works, she cannot, with her American heritage, be a credible image of "Australianess". Bindi's young sibling, Bob, has been spared this role by virtue of his limited linguistic skill, but we can be assured if he were older than Bindi that he would have been the child in this role--a young double for his father and measure for the continued sale of the idealised, broad-accented Aussie bloke.

While Bindi is often shown with snakes around her neck and a story even circulated that she would venture to swim with the same stingray that killed her father, it will be interesting to see whether she is permitted to wrestle crocs as she enters adulthood or whether she will remain in the safe space of song-and-dance edutainment videos, spreading her message of animal conservation. Bindi is presented as a "wildlife warrior", but the word "princess" often accompanies this phrase in Australia Zoo promotional material. There's even a photograph of her wearing a princess crown on the website. Is she just warming this throne for the ascension of baby Bob?

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