November rolls around again and Melbourne Cup appears on the horizon, a great big horse-racing-themed sign that spring is officially here, summer’s not to far away. Time to get out the fancy clothes and go have a good time!
For those outside our temperamental, pointy little state, the Melbourne Cup is a horse-racing festival that likely holds the title as the only one in the world to get its own public holiday. It’s one of our much-loved national days out, where a surprising portion of the country trip in to one of many racing tracks around the state, get into their Sunday best, hold small (and now that I think about it, probably illegal?) betting pools and generally speaking, gets completely wasted.
After the end of the Australian Rules Football grand final at the start of November it’s the next big event on our calendar and the first one where we have a pretty good (but definitely not certain) chance at summery weather and we make the most of it.
So why am I writing an ethical analysis of such a lovely event? Because the whole thing doesn’t make a lick of sense.
I enjoy Cup Day, which never fails to confuse me in a vague sort of way, because I don’t really enjoy any of the things that make it up.
Animal-based sports? Nope.
High fashion? Hell nope (jotting that one down for an extra-scathing future article…).
Standing around in a field all day, either slowly melting or quickly going blue in clothes that are completely useless for either? Unless there’s a mountain involved, nope (shorts in snow).
So why then am I apparently happy to pay the equivalent of a concert ticket to go and participate in a combination of all these fairly awful things?
Well there’s no denying it’s the closest thing to a mass mating display we get these days. Men and women of every age absolutely pimp themselves out for this thing. Hundred of thousands of dollars in suits, dresses, hair cuts, bling and tiny, ludicrous hats is spent every year by thousands of people.
Both sexes strut their stuff in outfits that would get you arrested in certain country towns, throw cash around on bets, high-priced mid-quality champagne, cars and pavilions, with the flashiest of the flash shelling out the big bucks for the privilege of hanging out in The Birdcage, with other people with poor spending priorities.
Yeah you can claim you’re dressing up for yourself all you want, but it’s funny how no one ever does that when there’s no one around to see them. Also kinda funny that what everyone just ‘enjoys’ wearing seems to be exactly the bloody same.
But that explanation does kinda fly in the face of the way we treat that fanciness. This is also going to be fairly hard to explain to those not familiar with the event, but there is an extremely noticeable difference between the people arriving at the event and when they leave a few hours later. Thanks to the facts that they’re not all wearing some variation of a suit, this tends to be a bit more noticeable with the ladies though the men are in no way immune).
All credit to Pat Grant Art. He’s very good.
Maybe that good old Australian contempt for authority is what we love about the day? Not just a chance to dress up all fancy, but a chance to mock the kind of culture we’re imitating. You must admit, running around like a drunken fool can be quite funny, but running around like a drunken fool in a tuxedo? That’s gold right there, son.
The intellectual cynic in me, that enjoys things like details critiques of Capitalism, is inclined to say the whole thing is just a massive victory of marketing.
“Nothing says ‘Australia’ like paying for the privilege of having the chance to pay $14 for a glass of water and losing your money to an industry based on the concept of idiots thinking they can beat the odds! Now grovel in patriotic thanks peons, or we’ll call you un-Australian and not let you in.”
On a similar, less obnoxious angle, maybe it’s just one of those things we sort of dragged along for the ride which became part of our culture by default? How much thought do we actually put into our national celebrations? Sure events like Australia Day might be based on the date we stole the country from it’s owners, but for the vast majority of Australians, it’s mainly a day we happen to have off and everyone has vaguely-patriotic BBQs (and a race-riot that one time).
These theories all have an element of truth to them, but fall short of a good explanation for why we love Cup Day so much. In my opinion at least, the truth is a lot simpler;
Cup Day and other events like it are the few ceremonies we have left these days. Big ceremonies that unite us as a culture, as a people are important to us in a society where we are more and more just individuals left to find our own way through life, stripped of the communities that used to be everything when it came to knowing who we are and what we’re about.
Days like Melbourne Cup Day aren’t just about flirting, or getting smashed in a silly hat, or marketing or just going with the herd, they’re a rare chance to feel like a part of Australia as a whole, to be part of a huge community and to feel like you’re part of it. A day where you can strike up a conversation with a complete stranger without it feeling weird or sketchy.
So when you’re all desperately seeking shade and/or shelter this Tuesday, trying to decide whether your sudden desire to climb on a roof is the $10 champagne (which you bought for $25) talking, take a moment to look up at the sea of humanity around you and feel good. Because this is what it’s all about. Right now, at this moment, you’re part of something big, something profoundly human, one of the major narratives of life. Enjoy it!