HAPPY FAMILES

Windscreen stickers of family groups propagate an image of modern Australia that takes no account of our national diversity.

Anyone in a car can’t help noticing the collections of stick figures labelled "My Family" on other cars’ rear windscreens. Though of dubious artistic merit such illustrations are surely an inoffensive change from the trivia, smut and politics that drivers who like the world to know their opinions usually plaster on their car back windows – announcements of the presence of infant passengers, lewd boastings of tradies’ sexual potency, lies about the ABC belonging to “us” etc.

Inoffensive? Not for anyone who doesn’t fit into the cosy traditional family scenario. Such people have every right to feel affronted, excluded and should seriously consider invoking Section 18C. To the millions – perhaps a majority – of our fellow citizens who do not share it, the world of “My Family” amounts to what has just been defined on American campuses as “microaggression”. Dad has a golf club or barbecue fork, Mum has nothing but an air of being dependent on Dad – a cypher in fact, just the way patriarchal oppressors like their women. There’s a range of goody-goody-looking kids in descending order of size and a dog and/or cat and perhaps a fishbowl or tortoise. It’s an old-fashioned family – the kids don’t even have wires coming out of their ears. The stock small girl has cutesy plaits. This family could be straight out of the 1950s and Father Knows Best. As an image it is hopelessly, as we now say, heteronormative.

The stick-figure industry needs to get with the programme. Its products should reflect the reality of family life in the present day. To start with, dump the cisgender mould. Costume modifications ought to be made to accommodate a spectrum of LGBTIQ etc. preferences – Dad in fishnet stockings or tastefully arrayed in the guise of Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess in some masque at Versailles, Mum – or should we say Parent 2? – suitably non-gender stereotypical in a boiler suit, her cephalic orifices adorned with rings and bolts .

Multiculturalism is an area in which "My Family" is in particular need of rethinking. None of the current figures reflects the rich complexity of the contemporary Australian community. This is partly on account of an illustrational limitation: stick figures can’t convey skin colour as an indication of racial identity (which in certain cases is just as well, since pigmentation is no longer a sine qua non for those who declare themselves descended from our first peoples). Probably the only means of indicating cultural or ethnic distinctions in stick figures is by dress or hairstyles. Figures should be available in this category showing Dad with a turban or, to reach out to our more – how should one put it? – marginalised newcomers, Dad with what looks like an upturned pudding basin on top to represent the tagiya. Mum, beside him, would be a shroud-like figure with a slit for the eyes as on Ned Kelly’s helmet. The kids might be shown playing with a hacksaw if male, or if female awaiting the professional attention of a bearded scalpel-clutching figure hinted at in the background by a few deft strokes of the stick-figurer’s art.

But why all this talk about Mum and Dad as the only parental combination? Let’s have some forward thinking in the “My Family” industry. Two Dads and two Mums should be available as sets, and they should go on sale now, well before the event, like hot cross buns arriving in the shops the day after Christmas, so that everyone can be ready for the Great Day when the Referendum sweeps away millennia of prejudice in marital practice. And while planning future production schedules, stick-figure execs would do well to keep their eye on the next big battle against nuptial injustice, and plan for a line of Dad and multiple Mums or vice versa.

And why should the “My Family” kids you see be pre-adolescent? One of them could be shown as a newly licensed driver, P-plated and dorf-dorfing, rocketing past every other car on the road. An exiguously clad daughter unconscious in the gutter outside a club at five in the morning could be another emblem of the children of a modern family enjoying their freedom. But let us not leave the pleasures of alcoholic and other stimulants to the young. Why not portray either parent plus latest "partner" at home settling down in front of the Plasma with crisps and beer as the evening meal and a touch of ice for dessert? The scene could be captured either before or after Dad, displeased by the results of the cook-off in My Kitchen Rules, decides to kick in the television and, when the partner protests, take a smack at her too. She gives as good as she gets, and so the evening wears on in a domestic spectacular enough to keep Victoria’s new royal commission going for weeks, until both parties pass out, to be discovered by the police who have called to announce that the son of one of them has been nicked for dealing.

The extension of the notion of family into the area of non-speciesism, as periodically advocated by progressive expatriate philosophers, might be depicted by Dad or Mum kissing the canary or locked in passionate embrace with the cat. But not everyone likes animals. Children can be cruel to them – a stick-figure child drowning the cat or canary in the fishbowl would make that point – and rednecks kill them in the name of sport. This unavoidable reality of Australian venatical life could be indicated by an image of Dad with a shotgun blasting away at a duck (and perhaps hitting Mum instead, in which case the latter could be depicted post factum in a wheelchair, if not as an urnful of ashes).

The activities of the modern family seem limitless. For example, whatever the liberal media would have you believe about the Roman Catholic Church, statistics show the family is the worst arena of child abuse. Could the cast of stick figures not include a leering uncle for whom the most nubile of the daughters is lifting her skirt? And what about Grandad and Grandma, unrepresented in the families I have seen on cars? Justice would be done to contemporary reality if we showed them being hustled on their zimmer frames into a twilight home, there to sink into terminal inanition, or, if we may peep into a future in which progressive hopes are realised, pressing the "yes" button on one of Dr Nitschke's machines.

The human material for a more accurate repertoire of stick figures is all around us. All that is needed now is for art to imitate life.

27 October 2015
Published in The Spectator Australia