Something’s been disturbing me about the new car sticker fad that’s been catching on recently. These are the stickers depicting stick figures of people, and, in some cases, animals, under the cheery banner of ‘My Family’. The stickers, usually displayed on the rear windows of Tarago vans and jumbo-sized 4WD vehicles, depict mums, dads, kids, babies and pets happily engaged in a variety of common activities, usually of the recreational variety. Innocuous enough, sometimes vaguely amusing, but there was still something about them that was unsettling me: I just couldn’t put a finger on it. Until the other day.
Sitting at an outside table at a favourite coffee haunt waiting for a friend to show up, I was engaged in my favourite hobby of people-watching. At the table next to me three students, young Muslim women in western dress but with stylish hijabs, giggled together over softdrinks and cake. A few tables down a young Asian couple, also students, sat together intently discussing whatever was on the screen of the notebook computer in front of them. An elderly woman on a mobility scooter with a well-behaved labrador beside her came past, and in the park over the road two elderly Chinese men sat on a bench talking quietly together. A small group of baggy-panted, baseball-capped teenaged boys was hanging around in the park with skateboards and cigarettes, ignored by the men and various passers-by. A Muslim woman, dressed in long gown and headscarf and pushing a pram walked by and glanced briefly at the kids. An overweight, male Commonwealth public servant, with his Australian Government ID card lanyard tucked into his shirt pocket, accompanied by a younger, slim, hair-gelled colleague with his ID card in the back pocket of his trousers and the lanyard hanging out, came out of the cafe and went into a nearby supermarket, emerging a few minutes later with the younger man taking the cellophane wrapper off a cigarette packet.
It was while I was watching him put the wrapper in a bin that my eyes fell on the ‘My Family’ sticker display in the adjacent newagent’s window and the reason for my unease about them suddenly dawned. ‘My Family’ is not everyone’s family. It is an exclusive club. It’s no accident that these stickers are proliferating on Taragos and Pajeros – the vehicles of choice in middle class suburbia. That’s the market. I looked more closely at the range of sticker figures from which one can construct their ‘perfect’ family. None of the ‘mother’ figures wear hijabs, push shopping trolleys or catch buses, none of the ‘father’ figures wear turbans, are overweight or smoke. The dads in these families surf or ski, carry laptop computers or play golf. The mums garden or play tennis, they wear gym gear or carry shopping bags with flower motifs. The kids play football or do ballet or gymnastics or go fishing. There are dogs and cats and horses, too, in ‘My Family’. There appears to be no place there for cultural diversity of any kind, nor unemployment, poverty or ill-health. ‘My Family’ is bland, smiling, affluent and smug.
Yes, smug. ‘My Family’ can afford a Pajero and can take an annual ski holiday with the three kids and wants you to know about it. Perhaps this is not the direct intention of the people who are putting these stickers on their cars, but it is the indirect message. This is the ‘perfect’ family of the suburbs – the family that represents the political battleground for the hearts and minds of middle Australia, and they’re happy to advertise it.
There’s an interesting irony here. I think families are using these stickers to show, not how bland and homogenous they are, but how unique they are. They want you to look at the little row of stickers on the back of the Tarago and know that this family, with golfing dad, shopping mum, mobile-phone-toting teen, footy-playing son, dummy-sucking baby and frisbee-catching dog is different from the family over the road. ‘My Family’ is happy, and wants you to know that it is happy in totally different ways from every other happy mainstream family with a Tarago and a dog. This is part status anxiety and part happiness obsession.
It was Tolstoy who wrote that “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not sure what Tolstoy would make of ‘My Family’, but I certainly find watching people on buses and park benches, at markets and public libraries and walking down streets a lot more interesting than happy families in Taragos at traffic lights.