Crikey! He was only a TV presenter

He wasn’t a pope or royalty or a great leader. So what explains the international public mourning for croc-wrestler Steve Irwin?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘The ultimate wildlife warrior’, declared Aussie actor and toughnut Russell Crowe. ‘A great Australian, an ambassador for wildlife, a global phenomenon, a superhuman generator of merchandise, books, interactive video-games and action figures’, said antipodean rent-a-quote Germaine Greer, before noting that the ‘animal world has finally taken its revenge’. Amid the talk of a state funeral, and roads jammed with mourners trying to get to his zoo, the thing that’s really hard to come to terms with is why there has been so much fuss about the death of Steve Irwin.

That’s Steve Irwin, the comic-looking Australian crocodile-grappler, whose programmes were something of a cross between Survival and Jackass. Let’s face it, the entertainment value came when a croc or a snake snapped at him. ‘Crikey!’ he’d declare in broad Aussie, his face lit up with alarm. As he told the BBC about the filming of his semi-fictional movie, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course: ‘I got busted up a lot doing the film. There was a lot of blood, my face got caved in by that female croc underwater, I had a cartilage operation in the middle of it all – so that all got edited down so that kids could watch it.’ And they did watch him, in their millions.

But TV presenters with massive fanbases have died in the past without eliciting the kind of response we’ve seen to Irwin’s tragic passing. For me, the reaction to his death is a clear illustration – the clearest you could get, in fact – that the modern culture of public mourning has little to do with the object of grief.

From the mid-Nineties onwards, and really kicking off with the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and, to varying degrees, with the deaths of the Queen Mother in 2002 and the Pope in 2005, the deaths of the famous and not-so-famous have been accompanied by conspicuous and disproportionate mass grieving. While Irwin might have been popular, he was not exactly royalty, a great leader or a vital cog in the life of a nation – which suggests that this kind of public mourning is more about the needs of us, the mourners, than it is about the impact or legacy of the person being mourned. These famous individuals, from a British princess to an Aussie snake-wrestler, are little more than conduits for a broader search for meaning amongst an increasingly atomised public.

From America to Europe to Australia, both online (on web discussion boards) and offline (in the setting up of impromptu shrines, in particular at Irwin’s Australia Zoo), groups of people have tried to ‘come together’ to mourn Irwin’s death. Around the world, major news websites made great play of letting readers share their feelings. Here are a selection of comments from CNN: ‘This nation is in mourning for you our Australian brother and our prayers are with your family.’ ‘GOD needed another great angel, and he was there. He will indeed continue to rescue the crocs that need it under GOD’s supervision.’ ‘Our hearts go out to his family and friends, he was such an amazing person!! An absolute legend!! He will be missed by millions worldwide and never forgotten.’

And on it goes. When someone wrote in from Reno to CNN to say, ‘The entire world has lost a truly great man. He didn’t stop wars or invent new machines. What he did was teach all of us the world to learn how to love crocs!’, it was done without a trace of irony. But the question has to be asked: why are people so widely mourning an individual who didn’t stop wars or invent anything, or, if we’re being brutally honest, contribute very much to the sum of human knowledge and endeavour?

This is the latest symptom of what we on spiked have labelled ‘mourning sickness’ – a search for a sense of collectivity and meaning through the shared national experience (or in this instance, a shared international experience) of death. In recent years, the deaths of celebrities – from A-listers such as Diana to C-listers such as British TV presenter Jill Dando, from former wideboy footballer George Best to Pope John Paul II – have been greeted by outpourings of public mourning. Books of condolences are set up for the public to sign; flowers, teddy bears and messages of sorrow are left in public places. Such public expressions of grief increasingly follow the tragic deaths of non-celebrities, too, including schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, murdered in Soham, England in 2002, and schoolboy Damilola Taylor, killed in London in 2000.

Now there is Irwin, who has been referred to by one mourner in Australia as being like ‘Diana for kids’. Of course, Irwin and Diana had very little in common, only that they were both well-known. But then, there is little that ties together the various individuals who have been publicly mourned in recent years. Rather, the emergence of such mourning speaks to a loss of meaning and purpose in society more broadly. The rise of this ‘politics of emotion’ mirrors the demise of the old politics. The exhaustion of traditional movements of both left and right, and the loss of authority experienced by established political institutions, means that society can often feel atomised, directionless, with few points of connection between society and the individual, or even between individuals.

Public displays of grief for people who were at least known, recognisable, have become a way for individuals and societies to share a common experience, however fleetingly. Of course, it doesn’t say much that we seem able to bond and emote only around the tragic deaths of strangers or faraway quirky celebs.

In many ways, even the popularity of Irwin while he was alive spoke to today’s sense of atomisation. Since his death, many have suggested that Irwin didn’t do ‘proper’ wildlife programmes – unlike David Attenborough or Bill Oddie he was just too reckless and hands-on. In fact, Irwin worshipped wildlife as much as anyone. The central conceit of his show was that he would fly around the world to rescue crocodiles from weird and wonderful situations and take them back to his zoo. He bought up large chunks of land as conservation areas and apparently had his eye on an island which he planned to turn into an ‘ark’ to protect animals.

While kids liked the danger factor of the show, many adults probably liked Irwin for pretty much the same reason they like wildlife programmes in general – that they feel alienated from other human beings. Today, in an era of risk-obsession and claims that we all have ‘neighbours from hell’, our feelings to our fellow man range from general distrust to outright contempt. Animals, on the other hand, are passive vessels for any idea that humans want to project on to them. How else could anyone describe a crocodile as ‘lovable’? This kind of anthropomorphism is central to the narrative of all wildlife documentaries these days, where we tend to see animals as more innocent and even more interesting than our apparently messed-up human societies. Irwin pushed that kind of message as much as Oddie and the others tend to.

Irwin’s death was tragic. It is also tragic that ours is an increasingly mawkish and morbid culture, where individuals can often only feel united in response to someone’s untimely passing.

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Topics Politics


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