Recently, Bindi Irwin sat next to her mother across from talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. She spent much of the interview engaged with a blue tongue lizard, sort of distant and sad. Watching you felt the weight of expectation on her shoulders. While her mother talked of sadness and the challenges of being a widow, Bindi talked about animals and her father: "I want to try and be him. I want him to be proud of me," she said.
I wanted to write about Bindi Irwin in my book, Idolising Children. I wanted to use her as an example of how children can be exploited by media and marketing; how as a baby she appeared on The Rosie O’Donnell Show; and how children at a young age are exploited because they are unable to give their consent. But, I didn’t write that. I didn’t write a word about her.
I didn’t write anything because initally I wasn’t sure whether a family whose wealth was made from being in the public eye was exploitative of children. Perhaps the Irwins, the Bushes, the Murdochs are like the British Royal family in our modern times. You are born into the situation and you handle it the best you can, that is just how it is.
Now, if I was still writing my book, I would write about the exploitation of Bindi Irwin and I would ask that we reflect on her life after her father died. Is it appropriate to place adult-like expectations on a girl of eight years who has just lost her father? And, what impact does that have on her ability to grieve.
I, like we all do, feel for Bindi Irwin. Losing a father when you are a child is so difficult. Doing it in the gaze of the public eye is even more difficult. Doing it while still fulfilling commitments your father made for you, appearing on the cover of magazines and addressing the National Press Club in Washington, as she will this week, seems impossibly difficult.
But, Bindi will do it. She is somehow operating on eight-year-old autopilot. I think she can do this because children have a certain level of ignorance. It isn’t innocence; we confuse innocence in children with ignorance all the time. Children are not innocent, but because they are young and unable to understand the world with a fully developed adult mind and education we assume children like Bindi have an innocence and that the complexities of the modern world like video games or experiencing things like death can corrupt that innocence. But, it doesn’t.
Bindi Irwin understands what happened to her, as any eight-year-old would understand it. She understands her father is dead, and what that means to her mother and herself. But, as she grows up and becomes emotionally and intellectually more mature there is every possibility she will look back and ask why she was asked to play such a significant public role so soon after her father’s death.
Irwin family manager, John Stainton, has been quoted in the Australian media as saying, "[m]y criteria is if Bindi doesn't want to do it that day, if she wants to go to the zoo or the beach, then that's what we're doing". It is a clear way of saying we are respecting this child and her wishes, but is it really respectful? This type of attitude assumes that Bindi is able to clearly articulate her needs and it assumes she doesn’t feel pressure and obligation from the adult world to continue to fill the shoes her father has left. As she said to Ellen DeGeneres, "I want to try and be him”.
Adults may think it is respectful to let children make their own decisions, but it isn’t. Especially at a young age children don’t have enough experience or knowledge to make a wide range of decisions. Respect is supporting children’s development, guiding their decision-making and giving them the capacity to understand that you can’t do everything.
But, with a National Press Club in Washington, an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and David Letterman's The Late Show and the announcement by the Australian Government that Bindi with be a “tourism ambassador” for Australia we have an eight-year-old girl whose father has recently died, whose mother is still grieving, keeping the schedule of an A-grade celebrity. And, not one person is standing up and saying, “Is this appropriate?”
Certainly, Bindi Irwin may simply continue on with the family animal empire, but child stars grow up and, no matter how poised and articulate, child stars don’t have the best track record as they head into adulthood.
The experiences we have as young children shape who we become as adults and these experiences are shaping Bindi Irwin right now. We should wish her luck.