Obsession with Schapelle Corby and Cassie Sainsbury plays to mythic archetypes

Article by Imre Salusinszky  /
The Sydney Morning Herald  /
June 04, 2017  /
Click here to view original  /

I have paid only passing attention to the Cassie Sainsbury saga, and perhaps even less to the return of Schapelle Corby to our shores.

Yet Sainsbury’s trials and Corby’s triumphs have been impossible to ignore. Our national fascination with these two young women has quickly, and predictably, progressed to a fascination with our fascination with them.

That’s even aroused international attention. An article during the week in the New York Times, quoting University of Melbourne Lecturer Lauren Rosewarne, suggested we’re all obsessed with Corby because half of us identified with her while the other half “looked down at her, saw her as the equivalent of white trash”.

I doubt the proportions are actually 50/50, but the point is well made. We’re all either bogans or bogan-mockers.

Along with class, gender and race have been suggested as triggers for the extraordinary attention accorded to Corby and Sainsbury.

Some commentators have argued Corby and Sainsbury are either reaping the rewards, or paying the price, of being good-looking young women; or that our interest in Corby’s sufferings, specifically, reflects long-standing, race-based distrust of our Asian neighbours.

There might be something to all of this, but it’s important to remember exactly what the thousands of recent stories about these two women are ‒ they’re stories. Like all the stories we tell, they are a mixture of realistic elements (race, class, gender) and of elements that belong only to story-telling.

Those latter elements are usually called “myths”, and have preoccupied literary critics for a couple of hundred years. In literary criticism the word has no pejorative inflection, and simply means that element in any work of literature that the author cannot borrow from life: a structure with a beginning, middle and end.

Those structures have a limited set of shapes. These shapes have been around for millennia and get passed on to modern literature from ancient Greek and Roman religion, drama and epic. They are also everywhere in the Old and New Testaments, which the English poet William Blake called the “Great Code of Art”.

Sometimes, but rarely, news events in their details closely resemble existing literary narratives. In the 1970s much was made of the astonishing parallels between the final days of former US president Richard Nixon and Shakespeare’s Richard III.

The principal myth that is evoked by the stories of Corby and Sainsbury is clearly that of the damsel in distress, or kidnapped princess, who finds herself the prisoner of a monster in his lair, or of an evil knight in his dungeon. Within these myths, Corby and Sainsbury ‒ I’m not talking about the flesh-and-blood scallywags here, but the figures in our national dreaming ‒ function as archetypes.

This myth takes many historical forms, but its most resilient form is romance, the stories of questing knights and captive princesses in the Arthurian legends. Romance never really disappears and provides the structure of the Star Wars movies, which begin with the capture of Princess Leia by Darth Vader.

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man but the head of a bull, lived at the centre of a labyrinth and demanded the people of Athens deliver him seven beautiful young women every seventh year, whom he dragged down into his labyrinth and devoured.

Apart from a boogie-board bag and a few other details, it’s the story of Corby and Sainsbury in a mythic nutshell.

The mythic imagination is extraordinarily nimble, which it’s fairly easy to be when you are prepared to play fast and loose with the facts.

In the early treatment of Sainsbury, we saw clear elements of romance. These started to strain a bit, as we struggled with her story of bringing 15 boxes of headphones home for her wedding, and as details surfaced of her alleged history as a sex-worker.

No problem. A quick mythic switcheroo was effected, and her archetype became that of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, the bewitching bombshell who threatens danger to any questing knight or Greek hero, with her siren’s song and “headphone box” full of potions.

Sorry about the English 101 lecture, young people. I know you’re keen to get back to YouTube. But here’s one last tip ‒ when travelling abroad, obey the laws of the countries you are visiting. The last thing you want is to end up as an archetype.