This is not America

After episodes of the X Factor screen, I like to go to their Facebook page to see what everyone is complaining about. And there are complaints. After the first bootcamp episode, there were two very New Zealand-specific moans, both involving Stan Walker.

Complaint 1: That Stan says “youse”, which is not proper English

Youse might not be formal English, but there’s nothing improper or incorrect about it. Millions of people around the world use youse, particularly in Ireland, parts of England, New York, Philadelphia, Australia and New Zealand.

English is an imperfect mongrel language and sometimes the “you as singular and plural” thing doesn’t work. If I walk in a room with five people in it and say “I want you to come with me,” do I mean everyone or just one person? If I said “I want y’all/yiz/you lot/yous/you guys/[your local variant goes here],” it would be clear what I meant.

Even though “youse” is in common use in New Zealand, we’re not used to hearing people say it on the telly. It sounds weird, so people think there must be something wrong with it. But it’s just another boring old way of expressing an unambiguous plural of you.

Complaint 2: That a judge sat on a table

Near the end of the second Boot Camp show, the judges were huddled around their table, choosing their favourites. Judge Mel could be seen sitting perched on the table. Oh no! Why didn’t Stan tell her off?

In any other X Factor production, this would not be an issue. But in New Zealand, many people – both Maori and non-Maori – consider sitting on a table to be tapu. It’s considered very bad form to put your bottom on a surface where you could also eat.

In this modern world of Spray n’ Wipe, one could argue that the practical reason for this taboo isn’t an issue anymore. But traditions stick with people and seeing someone on the telly sitting on a table is very upsetting for people who’ve been brought up to believe such an act is wrong.

It’s not the first time a reality show has got in trouble for this. In 2011 MasterChef New Zealand seated some contestants on a table. Since then they’ve put the back row of the masterclass on bar stools.

Maybe both these complaints have more in common than at first glance. They both stem from Stan doing something that violates a strongly held belief of some viewers. It’s wrong to say “youse”. It’s wrong not tell off your fellow judge for sitting on a table. There’s some logic behind both, but it’s more about the discomfort of seeing or hearing a tradition disregarded.

But I feel encouraged by this drama. There’s a concern that TV3 is just using an overseas format to produce cookie-cutter TV that doesn’t capture New Zealand culture. But the uniquely New Zealand friction the X Factor is causing in some viewers is evidence that something very Aotearoan is happening in this TV programme.

3 thoughts on “This is not America”

  1. Hi there – haven’t seen the episode in question, but was interested in your comment:

    “But in New Zealand, many people – both Maori and non-Maori – consider sitting on a table to be tapu”

    I’m not trying to troll you, but are there really that many people in 2013 that have a problem with people sitting on tables on telly? (Of course you saw the Facebook comments and I haven’t). If you’ve encountered that trait in your own experience then fair enough, but I can’t say I’ve come across it before. Naturally it’s interesting in a sociological sense, but I’m surprised to hear that people might still be offended by it these days.

    Cheers, eT

    1. I wouldn’t say it’s a majority, but for a lot of people (especially Maori) sitting on a table just feels really really wrong. I know a few Pakeha who don’t do it out of courtesy for othes. I’m sure there are many people in New Zealand who have never even heard of this taboo, but for others it’s there and it’s very real.

  2. I spend more time than I would have expected in America reminding myself that *I* feel weird and disturbed when people sit on the table but that is my cultural quirk, not theirs. (Fortunately all the tables at my house are either way too covered with stuff or the wrong height to be sat on, because I *would* have to ask people not to in that circumstance.)

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