A Big Deal? Melbourne Cup memories, millennials and Michelle Payne

I first discovered that the Melbourne Cup was a Big Deal when my kindergarten class ran our own sweepstakes. There was no money involved, of course, and I don’t recall watching the race, but every 5 and 6 year old in the class drew a small piece of paper from a Danish cookie tin. Thus were we each assigned a horse.

Being a very rational child, I didn’t expect to win – and I was not to be disappointed. I can’t remember what name I pulled out of that tin (or was it a hat …?), but I have the vague notion that a boy named Sasha got the winning slip: Subzero.

It’s funny to think that Subbie (God bless Australia and our bogan nicknames) is still alive and kickin’, 25 years later. He’s got his own Twitter account and has raised more than $10 million for charity, not to mention the song penned in his honour.

Despite my early initiation into this Australian cultural institution, and though the Melbourne Cup may be the race that stops a nation, I rarely stopped with it.

It always seemed absurd that workers around the country should be encouraged to not work on a working day. When the ACT Government declared a public holiday for Melbourne Cup Day in 2009, I thought, Hey, that’s the logical thing to do.

When they moved the date after businesses complained about lost income from workers not being in bars because they were not working on a now non-working day, I rolled my eyes and laughed.

What I’ve found less amusing about the Melbourne Cup is how the event has devolved into a festival of dolled up inebriation for millennials. Somehow, beauty and booze are what makes the Cup a Big Deal for my generation.*

Not cool.

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It’s all about the fascinators, darling. Photo credit: jaguarmena, used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0.

Still, when Michelle Payne won the race in 2015, I got chills. Sport does that to me. I felt the significance of the moment, of what it meant for her to be the first woman to win in 155 years of the Melbourne Cup.

This, more than fascinators and flutes of bubbly, I thought, is a Big Deal.

But when Payne dismounted from Prince of Penzance, the first thing I noticed was that she was wearing make-up.

Michelle Payne (POP)_1477545685
I’m hesitant to link you to a betting site, but credit where credit’s due – I found this photo here.

(Yep, I went there.**)

Now, I’m not saying a woman wearing make-up automatically reinforces the patriarchy, but there was something jarring about seeing mascara and lipstick on the history-making jockey and, on the sidelines of the very same racecourse, seeing it on drunk girls in dresses and heels.

Women in sport – whether it’s equal pay, or if a trans woman should be allowed to play in the AFLW – is a can of worms. A huge can of squirming worms. As examined in this episode of The Minefield (one of my favourite podcasts), it opens up an array of questions and trains of thought around sex and gender.

These issues are a Big Deal, too big to tackle in this blog post. But these issues are too important, too wide-ranging in their impact, for our society to ignore. They’re too big for us not to tackle.

Happy Melbourne Cup Day, y’all.


Header image: Mathew Schwartz.

*Though now that I think of it, perhaps weddings serve the same purpose, for all generations?

**The alternative was to segue from Subzero winning the 1992 Melbourne Cup to Subzero killing people in Mortal Kombat, a video game I was somehow allowed to play as a child. I’m hesitant to link you to a YouTube clip of gory animated deaths inflicted by Subzero, but hey, I’ve already offered you a link to a betting site, so here’s a 5-minute sequence of icy paralysation, bloody uppercuts and pixelated violence, should you choose to view it.

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