Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Zealand, You So Crazy

As a prescript, I have been informed by a reliable local that in the argot of New Zealand, "lolly" apparently means "candy." Crazy, no?

I've been made aware, via Stuff.co.nz, of a potential controversy brewing in a kettle - which may yet end up on the front cover of the Globe and Mail - regarding an iconic brand of New Zealand lolly, Pascall Eskimos. The lack of a Wikipedia entry devoted to them indicates, to me, that they are very culturally specific to Godzone, and thus it makes perfect sense that the average Canadian would never have heard of them even in the wired world of tomorrow, today! Nevertheless.

The problem with these lollies, it seems, is that they're derogatory emblems against Inuits. They're shaped like, well, the sort of "stereotypical Eskimo" you'd expect to find in a Looney Tunes short from the 40s or 50s, bundled up in a thick parka with only the face showing any kind of detail. Apparently they taste rather like Peeps and are made mostly of sugar and food coloring. This may not have been a problem so long as no actual Inuits discovered these lollies. As the linked article makes clear that's no longer the case, and the Canadian tourist who's apparently at the center of this, Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, is planning to send some to Prime Minister Harper. This may yet lead to some more epic shouting on the floor of the House during Question Period.

The manufacturer, as manufacturers are wont to do, are standing by their product - apparently it is "an iconic New Zealand lolly." That may be so, but icons don't appear overnight. They have in fact been around for fifty-four years, which incidentally explains why anyone might have thought basing a candy around a caricature of people of the Arctic fringes was a neat idea.

Still, being around for more than half a century does build loyalty, and I can understand why New Zealanders would rally around a marshmallowy plank of their culture. That doesn't mean the Inuit aren't in the wrong to be offended by it. This sort of thing has happened in the past, with products based on out-and-out racist depictions of black people, and the products in question changed themselves in recognition of the world having changed around them.

I wouldn't be surprised if the reason that this is seen more as a "damn foreigners getting in our business" story in New Zealand is because of the general low profile of the Inuit people. Even in Canada, they are rarely in the news unless there's occasion to talk about how Ottawa is screwing the North. Could it be that since that cultures in both New Zealand and Canada tend not to think of Inuits as objects of ridicule - further to the point, tend not to think of Inuits at all - it's affecting how people look at the situation?

"While this is all blown out of proportion, it's also a stick in the eye," said the aforementioned reliable local New Zealander. "Jane Foreigner sticking her big mouth into our childhood memories and dessert treats."

I can understand but I don't know if I can agree. Cultural wars tend to cut deeper than most other conflicts because the scars are purely spiritual. People can, and will, fight tooth-and-nail for an idea when purely temporal concerns don't faze them. In the end, they tend to produce the kind of solution you'd get from Thunderdome.

I'd be interested to know what you readers (I know there are at least *some* of you) think.

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