This is what we talk about when we talk about bogans


There is something sick in the heart of Australian culture. A few years ago I was on a trip to Ballarat with some friends on the way to an auction. The week before, a mentally challenged girl had been raped in the western suburbs of Melbourne and the footage posted on Youtube. Obviously there had been outrage in the media and around the water coolers of Melbourne. An older woman (lets call her Irene) from the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, traveling with us, had recently read an article about this vicious assault and was particularly disturbed by what she’d read. She talked at length about the barbarity of rape and the iniquitous nature of teenagers.  After a twenty minute tirade she directed the conversation to me and said, ‘You lived out there, what’s wrong with those people?’ Two things immediately struck me about this question, the words ‘there’ and ‘those people’. The west has always been traditionally and for the most part, still is, a working class stronghold. Now, Irene didn’t isolate the culprits of the heinous act but cast the net of accusation across the entire demographic.

In the past, I’ve heard those three words used in sentences by ignorant bigots describing indigenous culture and Muslims but now I was hearing it used to describe a lower socio-economic demographic who represent a large percentage of Australian culture. Irene then went onto use one more word to describe ‘those people’, and that was, ‘bogans’.  And I thought bingo. The bogan debates have been raging across Australia for quite a few years now and everyone’s become an arm chair pundit. David Nichols wrote a book in 2011 called The Bogan Delusion, the central contention being that ‘bogans don’t exist’. He regards them as media constructs designed to isolate a particular kind of antisocial behaviour, a kind of ‘boogie man’ designed to scare us into becoming responsible citizens because, let’s face it, nobody really wants to be labelled a bogan. But this begs the question, why?

I’ve been teaching in Universities around Melbourne since 2007 and I’ve asked every tutorial I’ve every taught what they think a bogan is and the answers vary wildly but do tend to hover around one particular demographic; ‘those people’ in the outer suburbs. Areas such as Dandenong, Frankston, Sunshine and Werribee are cited as examples of Bogan Kingdoms, where ‘dodgy shit goes on’ and crime and unplanned pregnancies can be purchased from the local 7/11. Then you get the odd pundit who claims to embrace their boganality and shouts it loud and proud but still lives in the inner suburbs and gets around in a European hatchback with a RRR sticker on the boot. Nichols likes to call these people Fauxgans and rightly mocks them as championing a reverse pretentiousness, donning the jargon but not the lifestyle. These are also the people who claim to have ‘got out’ and ‘made something of their lives’. I frequently hear this from people who grew up in places like Moe, who ironically embrace the degradation while holding it at arm’s length.

So, based on my experiences with bogans, fauxgans and bogan deniers it is my contention that when we use the word bogan we need to be honest and just say we’re referring to uneducated working class culture, ‘those people’ who live in the suburbs because in Australia, we’re embarrassed by our working class culture and seek to brand it as either ‘thuggish’ or ‘unsophisticated’. In a time of cultural diversity and political correctness the working classes have become our new ‘other’ and bogan bating has become a national sport.

Before I elaborate on the many representations of working class culture and it’s moniker boganality, I need to address the role the mainstream media plays in this circus. It goes without saying that mainstream media are responsible for shaping the majority of people’s perceptions of society. Take for example the anti-binge drinking campaign that ran from June to September back in 2008, spearheaded by the then Victorian Premier, John Brumby, triggered of, perhaps by the Corey Worthington Delaney scandal on A Current Affair.[1] Countless media reports had us all believing that the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD) was inundated with drunken youths seemingly out of control, causing chaos and bashing each other senseless. From the mainstream media’s perspective this was relatively new behaviour, which prompted Brumby to take a drive around inner Melbourne visiting all the violent ‘hot spots’, like the notorious King Street and other pockets of the CBD and St. Kilda. After one night’s research Brumby was convinced Melbourne youths were out of control and needed reigning in. His learned solution was the 2 am lockdown, which ended up making matters worse and threw Victoria deeper into the mires of  ‘the nanny state’.[2]

After Brumby had made his Orphean trip into the violent underworld of Melbourne, accompanied by armed guards, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle took up the mantle declaring that ‘bogans’ should not come to the CBD to celebrate New Year’s Eve and if they wanted to behave badly they should ‘bogan it up at home’.[3] This was the beginning of quite a few ‘anti-bogan’ comments from Doyle, one of the more famous ones referring to the CBD as a ‘bogan magnet’.[4] In a wonderful turn of events, members of the public railed against him, particularly those from the lower socio-economic outer suburbs and these weren’t just traditional Anglo-Bogans. Doyle was attacked on all fronts by people from diverse ethnicities all claiming to be bogans and offended by his ignorant comments. This alone has expanded our view on how boganality has evolved over the last 20 years but is the subject of my next article, Ethno-Bogue. Anyway, in the face of so much criticism, Doyle still didn’t define what he meant by the term, ‘bogan’. To this day he has not issued a statement clearly defining whom he’s talking about when he uses the word ‘bogan’. However, it is my contention that Doyle is clearly referring to the outer suburban lower socio-economic demographic aka working class culture, populated by a diverse range of ethnic groups.

On June 28th, 2010, The Age ran an article by Judith Ireland with the headline, I am bogan, hear me roar.[5] While the article provided a reasonable overview of boganality to date, it, like Doyle, skirted around the associations of boganality and working class culture in Australia. Whether we like it or not the derivation of the word is firmly rooted within Anglo working class culture and traditionally the bogan is a stubbie-swilling, mullet-wearing outer suburban who embraces the atavistic notions of Australian Identity, made popular in the 1890s as a backlash against the ‘English Gentlemen’.[6] This new identity construct was built upon notions of the ‘valiant bushman’ and was anti-intellectual, anti-authoritarian but hard-working, shrewd and resourceful. This ‘new Australian’ was developed by a group of writers, who included Henry Lawson and sought to finally unshackle the nation from British control. The bush became a celebrated icon and a new symbol of republican hope build upon the ordinary working man, looking for an ‘Australia for Australians’.[7]

Australian national identity was built upon hard masculine foundations, using the harsh nature of the bush to exemplify these character traits. For many, the ANZAC troops were the crystallization of this new identity, celebrated by Russell Ward in Australian Legend (1958), a text examining the predominantly masculine development of ‘Australian character’.[8] Even by the 1950s Ward still regarded Australian identity as anti-intellectual and anti-authoritarian, mirroring the 1890s conception of the ‘coming man’.[9] At this point in Australian history it was assumed that Australian identity was set in stone and carved from the traditional values of the shrewd and rangy Australian ‘bloke’ or, as they were known, ‘larrikins’, the grandfathers of boganality.

In 2012 Australian identity is a many-splintered thing and there are even University courses exploring national identity, searching for answers to the elusive question, ‘who are we?’ However, to the rest of the world, Australia is still viewed through a Steve Irwin/Crocodile Dundee lens because the international media held them up as Australian cultural icons and a symbol of all things Australian. This is so far from the truth of the matter. With cultural diversity, and levels of education and literacy at an all time high, Australia has become a cosmopolitan and highly literate society, with Melbourne now named the second city of literature after Edinburgh. However, that said, national identity has been transformed from a recognised and acknowledged social paradigm into an intangible web of possibilities and ‘maybes’.

Getting back to the bogan, the traditional bogan of the 70s and 80s had much in common with the conception of ‘the coming man’ or Ward’s Australian Legend;[10] an ordinary person, with simple pleasures but a hard working ‘battler’[11], who’ll take each blow on the chin and roll with the stubbie holders. Basically, unpretentious and a good ‘bloke’ or ‘Sheila’. However, nobody called them bogans until the mid 80s when the term first gained currency in the surfing magazine Track. Up until then they’d been Aussie battlers or larrikins,[12] just regular Joes ‘giving it a go’, people you wouldn’t think twice about. In the late eighties Kylie Mole, a character from The Comedy Company, picked up the term and began using it as a pejorative term. From there it became a way of defining ‘those people’ who live in our Bogan Kingdoms.

Fast forward to 2012 via Area 7’s 2002 track Nobody likes a Bogan[13] and you find that the word bogan has been refined by theorists and cultural commentators to define/isolate any form of antisocial behaviour and anything deemed to be unsophisticated. Bogan has changed from ‘loveable Aussie’ to a pejorative term used to oppress and ridicule the lifestyle choices of a lower socio-economic demographic, who live, for the most part in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, regional Australia and other cities around Australia. They have become the object of vilification and ridicule and any representations we see in the media regard them as either ‘simpletons’ or ‘thugs’. Tabloid current affairs programs like, A Current Affair and Today Tonight, air article after article on working class people rorting the system, depicting them as ruthless criminals making Australian streets unsafe and less, ‘liveable’,[14] while on a glorious quest to defraud social welfare departments like Centrelink.[15]

However, boganality has also made that bold leap onto the catwalk over the last decade, with Bogan Chic gracing our pavements with retro-UGG boots, skinny jeans and the now erstwhile trendy mullet, sported, predominately by private school boys playing out their bogan fantasies. It’s a retro, ironic, Australian attempt at replicating the American conception of ‘white trash’ with homegrown boganality. You wouldn’t find the same fashions replicating middle class culture; Hawthorn mums: expensive sneakers, designer tracksuit, 4WD and a full face of Lancôme make-up, topped with a $300 hairdo for a charity event to help the faceless poor. And you don’t find many comedies lampooning middle class culture. Kath and Kim tried it with their Brighton ladies but it seemed like a token gesture and far too hyperbolic, like they felt slightly guilty and thought they’d make up for it by having a pop at the upper middle classes. Would we laugh at two Hawthorn dads sitting in the backyard talking about slumps in the stock market? What is so interesting about the working class ‘other’? What are they packing that we desire? I can even imagine remodeled holidays where you can be a bogan for a week and hang out in the Werribee Plaza with some trained actors fresh from RADA.

Australian cinema loves a good bogan yarn, be it The Castle, Animal Kingdom, Snowtown or Kenny. Those four examples, which experienced critical and box office success, address two major character traits that apply to popular conceptions of boganality; the ‘thug’ and the ‘simpleton’. Where is the middle ground? In the UK there exists a bountiful selection of films by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach that analyse and record working class culture through a sympathetic lens. Characters like Joe from Loach’s They Call Me Joe are afforded an inner light, an intelligent sense of street philosophy. They may not have university educations but they’re portrayed as deep, compassionate thinkers. Frank Gallagher from Tony Abbot’s Shameless, is, for the most part a drunken, irresponsible oaf but there’s a twisted intelligence about the character, he could be Hamlet if Hamlet was born in a Manchester council estate in the 21stCentury. These three dimensional characters do not exist, to the same degree, in Australian cinema or TV. Our sense of shame won’t allow it. We don’t so much deny the existence of the bogan but we do denigrate our working classes and have cast them out into the farthest reaches of the ‘Cultural Cringe’. So, when I read the new Oxford English Dictionary definition of a bogan I wasn’t surprised to see yet another middle class institution scapegoat and demonize working class culture in Australia.

[1] A Current Affair. Channel Nine Productions, 18th Jan.  2008

[2] Matthew Schultz. John Brumby angry at Mark Webber ‘nanny state’ jibe, Andrew Bogut wants ‘hoon track’. The Herlad Sun, 30th March, 2010

[3] Chip Le Grand. Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle declares bogan no go zone. The Australian, 30 Dec. 2008

[4] Britt Smith. Badly talented buskers on Doyle’s hit list. The Age, 1 Dec. 2008

[5] Judith Ireland. I am bogan, hear me roar. The Age, 28 June, 2010

[6] Justin Healey, Australian National Identity, pg. 87

[7] Justin Healey, pg. 77

[8] Russell Ward, Australian Legend, pg. 55

[9] Russell Ward, pg. 45

[10] Justin Healey, Australian National Identity, pg. 56

[11] A Battler is a person who resides in a predominantly low socio-economic suburb or rural area and struggles on a low income but fights financial adversity with good humour and a pioneering spirit.

[12] Larrikin is a moniker bestowed upon a person (usually male) who embraces antiauthoritarian principles and who prefers to deviate from the so-called norms of society. He/she also enjoys mockery and irreverence whenever a situation presents itself. The term gained currency between 1898 and 1905.

[13] Area 7, Nobody likes a Bogan, Mushroom Records, 2002

[14] Depending on which survey or periodical you read, Melbourne, has, for many years now ranked in the top ten most liveable cities in the world and this has become an important factor in constructing tourism marketing strategies and PR campaigns. If this reputation is damaged in any way it could seriously impact on how Tourism Australia targets overseas visitors and impact on annual revenues.

[15] Centrelink, a private business, manages social welfare payments in Australia.

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About callumrscott

I’m a Writer, Literary Agent, and Social Handyman, who oscillates between being elated and very angry and sometimes both at the same time. Through my research as a writer, I’ve studied many forms of masculinity, in particular, hyper and protest masculinity. My other main field of research is transgression or the rituals of transgression and the performative nature of this behaviour. Apart from researching, writing, directing and fixing, I enjoy a good pint of stout and I live in a flat, close to my favourite place, the mall from Dawn of the Dead (2004). My greatest disappointment in life is that my first memory turned out to be a lie. I didn’t lose a red wellie on a beach in Orkney and now I have no first memory, just a lot of stories about alcohol and bad decisions.

4 responses to “This is what we talk about when we talk about bogans”

  1. Graham St John says :

    Great piece and nice splash. Just on UK films of recent times, I thought Fish Tank was very good given what I think is a satisfying treatment of a complex human subject and its less popular focus on mother-daughter relations.

  2. callumrscott says :

    Thanks mate; it’s a section from my PhD that I’ve rewritten into a more feature article style of writing. Been meaning to watch Fish Tank. Have you seen Tyrannosaur and Dead Man’s Shoes – well worth a watch. Hoon Capital has been picked up by Fairfax Media. If you’re in Australia or New Zealand I can send you a link to the full feature length version on their site.

    • Graham St John says :

      Not seen either of those films, but will take note. Not currently in southern hem, but send me the link in any case. I look forward to the day I finally get Hooned. That will be Capital.

  3. Christine King says :

    You’ve written a very readable piece about something many Australians can relate to. The whole issue of mockery and disdain, (from people who think they know society inside-out because they watch the news every night) is something that concerns me greatly. Good one mate, bloody bonza!

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