Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

The US has its ‘white trash,’ the UK its ‘chavs,’ and Australia has the ‘bogan’ — a white Anglo-Celtic man or a woman from the working class. Characterized as uncouth, uneducated, unsophisticated, mainly interested in drinking cheap beer, swearing, smoking, listening to loud rock music (such as AC/DC), the bogan favours ‘low brow’ fashion such as mullet haircuts, thongs (flip flops), and tracky dacks (tracksuit pants). I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with this clothing or music taste, but the bogan stereotype reinforces negative perceptions and is generally used to ‘other’ working class people.

The bogan is almost universally a figure of ridicule, and to call someone a bogan is generally seen as an insult (despite the fact that some people define themselves as bogans). In Australia there appears to be free reign to call people bogans and to evoke the stereotype without criticism. This casual classism generally goes unchecked, and while there have been some criticisms of the stereotype, they are still thin on the ground. Chris Gibson suggests that bogans are ‘a soft base, a soft punching bag’ and this is why the mocking of white working-class culture through the bogan generally goes unchecked. The bogan stereotype flourishes in Australian comedy television. While it could be reclaimed and used by working-class people in subversive ways, I don’t think this has occurred as yet in Australia. Instead, the bogan figure remains the comedic device of mainly middle-class creators. The TV bogan also confirms middle-class prejudices about working-class people and allows the middle class to retain superiority.

Bogans are usually depicted as ‘uneducated’ and ‘unsophisticated’ by choice and this arguably makes it easier to dismiss the role of class structures. The impact of class is reduced to an aesthetic, with no acknowledgement of the structural and political sources of class, such as how the accumulation of cultural capital may be affected by limited education opportunities.

Current Australian television offers two main types of bogan representation: the aspirational bogan and the ‘bludger’ bogan (lazy and scrounging). The first is portrayed as someone who has accumulated wealth through trades, small business, or (more recently) working in the mines. Aspiration and attempts to be ‘classy’ are mocked. The aspirational bogan is also depicted as ‘cashed up’ and spending money on showy ‘toys’ such as hotted up utility trucks, large household appliances, expensive jewellery, jet skis, and so on.

A very successful Australian TV show Kath and Kim (2002 – 2007), mocks aspirational working-class characters. The characters were created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley who also play the mother and daughter roles. The humor is parody. The speech, mannerisms, clothes, and behaviours are intended to be read as working-class and are ridiculed. Both Kath and Kim use words out of context and mispronounce words. For example, Kim famously states that she wants to be ‘effluent’ rather than ‘affluent.’ Turner and Riley claim the parody is affectionate, but for me, as someone from a working-class background who still mispronounces words, I find the mockery offensive. This is not to say all working-class people find the show unfunny, but I’d argue that it reinforces class stereotypes. Kath in particular is a stereotypical non-threatening, simple (but kind hearted) working-class woman.

The opposite representation of the ‘bogan’ is the poor, welfare dependant, and vulgar type. In this stereotype, individuals con the system by claiming unemployment benefits or disability benefits fraudulently. They are depicted as petty criminals and as unkempt, uncouth, sexually promiscuous and negligent parents.

Comedy writer Paul Fenech represents extreme versions of the ‘bludger’ bogan in his series Housos. This show is set on a housing commission estate – ‘housos’ (pronounced ‘house-ohs’), is a derogatory term for people living in public housing. The characters are all unlikable. They are violent, constantly drunk or drug affected, unable to care for their children, lazy, and dirty. Viewers are invited to laugh at their ‘antics’ which involve attempts to cheat the welfare authorities or evade the police (and often end up in a neighbourhood brawl).

At risk of being labelled a ‘wowser’ (having no sense of humour), I can’t watch this show without getting angry. I grew up in public housing and the negative stereotypes depicted in the show reinforce the audience’s limited understanding of life in public housing. While I’m not suggesting that there is a more deserving, ‘respectable’ working class, the constant references in Housos to welfare cheating, laziness, and dysfunction masks the real effects of poverty and disadvantage. In this show, characters seem to choose to be unemployed and to depend on government benefits, allowing the audience to dismiss the real concerns of those living in poverty in run-down public housing. This show doesn’t depict the financial and psychological struggle and hardship of unemployment, lone parenting, or life on low wages, and it ignores the strong sense of community that exists in many public housing estates.

Fenech has gone one step further with his reality comedy TV show Bogan Hunters, a show searching for Australia’s ‘best’ bogan. Deeply exploitative Fenech presents the show in character (as Franky from Housos, alongside two other characters from Housos, Kev the Maori and Shazzer the single mum). They meet so-called bogans (who are not actors) and encourage them to behave in stereotypical ways for the camera. The problem here is that many of the subjects are vulnerable. Some state on camera that they are unfit for work due to psychological conditions. Fenech and his team make them objects for ridicule (while adopting an anthropological tone) and always maintain the upper hand.

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for satire based on working-class experience, but I’d like to see comedy that is written from a working-class perspective (there have been examples elsewhere, such as The Royle Family from the UK). Working-class people’s experiences are not homogenous, and stereotypes are dangerous. We can be critical of our own communities, but surely it is possible to be critical while also creating comedy that offers nuanced representations and serves as a critique of class systems? This is where satire comes in. Not to mock the vulnerable and marginalized, but to reveal the effects of the system on people’s lives.

Sarah Attfield

Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

  1. Karl says:

    I would say that the stereotype of a bogan isn’t characterised as white working class, I would say that it is a person who is less than couth. Someone who aims to be uncultured, is more than proud of the fact that they swear unchecked, are abusive, sexist and misogynistic, drink cheap alcohol to excess, smoke, wear dirty tradesman clothes and deride anything cultural.

    My father is white, working class, a lot of my friends’ fathers are also white working class, and yet even though they earned their income by fixing phone exchanges, or bulldozers, they were always dressed in a neat and tidy fashion. Not once did my father call someone a cunt, let alone someone he liked. Not once did my friend’s fathers plaster their cars with VB stickers. Let alone naked women. They drove 10 year old Fords and Holdens, and were fine with that. They did not boast about V8 utes.

    My grandfather who fought in WWII, who worked in an aluminium window factory never, not once in his life said “ya farken cunts! ghed it intya, fuck I need some durries” He would say that he did not go to war to have people falling drunk over each other wearing the flag as a cape.

    The problem with rednecks, bogans, chavs and the like is that a socioeconomic demographic has chosen to be chauvinistic, abusive, misogynistic and derisive. They aim to deride people who think, they aim to exploit their white privilege, and offer no apologies to those who they abuse. They get offended when you call them out on it. They are reductionist when it comes to the impact of their actions on others while feigning genuine pain when someone points it out. This all comes down to a lack of respect. I do not see any bogans acting with respect, in any aspect of their lives.

    Don’t tell me that my dislike of Australian bogan culture is because I am against the working man. I hold a truck driver’s license, a forklift license, a pilot’s license and work in a shipyard. I know plenty of white, working class men who can treat people with respect, who can turn up to a social occasion in clean, neat and tidy clothes, who drive cars that aren’t festooned in white privilege-branded stickers. I do not need people in my life that yell things like “ya farken faggots!!” at me. I do not need people in my life that deride women, who pride themselves on taking a dump on life.

    I have always, and always will call people out who act without respect. I will now, and always will call people out who are abusive to other people.

    Don’t conflate bogans with working class.

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  2. Pingback: Upper Middle Bogan (2013) - TV Review

  3. Good post Sarah. I have for many years felt this way about portrayals of the working class; they tend to be the horror stories of dysfunction and criminality, or fairy tales of people trying to escape their class. Two comedies I do enjoy however, are The Middle in the US and Gavin and Stacey in the UK. I also edit a blog on working class poems to plug a gap in that genre (www.proletarianpoetry.com) Peter

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  4. Alan H says:

    The male lead in The Royle Family, Ricky Tomlinson, was one of the Shrewsbury pickets back in the seventies, still fighting to clear his name, and currentlyencountering refusal to provide information for reasons of “national security” – a fairly strong indicator that he and his mates were framed.

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  5. Last night I watched Good Will Hunting on DVD with my family, and noted that some of the same stereotypes you point out regarding Australian working class folks are played out in this drama about tensions between white working class young men and academics in Boston (with Robin Williams being a cross-over working class academic). Both the working class friends of genius Will Hunting, as well as the Harvard professors who discover him, want to push him into the middle class and out of South Boston, on the strength of his incredible intelligence. Will has read absolutely everything, including A People’s History of the United States and Manufacturing Consent. (One wonders if he’s read Kapital, but this isn’t mentioned. And we aren’t told how he could have had the money or the time for all this reading since he works mopping floors.)

    This movie is not so much about mocking working class folk as it is about tired assumptions and stereotypes about workers and class relations, which remain unquestioned even though they are more explicitly portrayed than in many U.S. films. The young workers, including genius Will Hunting, are all about drinking, brawling and foul language, resigned to a dead-end work life of manual labor, with no thought of any kind of organizing or struggling for change. Although Will is very quick to defend himself personally, when he is fired for mouthing off to a professor he does not seem to know anything about rights, grievance procedures or unions.

    Intelligence and knowledge are seen as individual attributes and that if you have them you are set apart from the working class. Obviously there is a lot of room to find ways to portray working class people in all their richness, intelligence and humor, including satire, while challenging these stereotypes.

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  6. Roy Wilson says:

    Sarah,

    You say: “The impact of class is reduced to an aesthetic, with no acknowledgement of the structural and political sources of class, such as how the accumulation of cultural capital may be affected by limited education opportunities.”

    Such aestheticizing (sic?) of class is part and parcel of the hyper-individualism that reduces difference to atomistic, psychological, choice. At the same time, I wonder how you theorize the conditions underlying your own accumulation of the cultural capital that has allowed you to occupy the academic position you hold. I do not mean this as a negative remark. It is an issue that I have grappled with for some time.

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    • I wonder if we’re ever going to get beyond this: someone writes on a working-class-related issue and is immediately scrutinized for the extent to which working-class “purity” has been sullied by the “accumulation of the cultural capital that has allowed [him/her] to occupy [an] academic position.”

      The conflation of “academic position” with “cultural capital” is never, in itself, interrogated, though something on the order of 75% of the people now occupying low-paid, low-status, no-power “academic positions” is such that they’d probably kill to have a little cultural capital. Or, put it another way: If I had any cultural capital, Fred, I wouldn’t be in this mess.

      Roy says his isn’t meant as a negative comment, and I’m willing to take that assertion at face value. But it is a superficial one. Are we still asking whether “academics” (whatever that omnibus cliché is meant to mean) can be from the working class, in the working class, affiliated with the working class? Is there any useful strategy in maintaining the implied distinction between the “real” working class and “academics” (meaning not just the professoriate but, by extension, anyone who does intellectual or cultural work)?

      Questions such as this, however obliquely they may be posed, reify stereotypes and continue to impose fifty-year-old categories on contemporary realities. The ruling-class academic, that hoarder of cultural knowledge and enforcer of middle-class norms, is largely either extinct or, if not extinct, is competing with her students for the kind of dead-end, can’t-support-my-family jobs that today’s economies make available.

      And even where a tenured professor’s salary might tempt us to put her into the “middle-class,” I wonder how much “cultural capital” actually accumulates from a position in the degraded world of the 21st-century university, where intellectual is a bad word, students are customers, and profit is the only motive.

      People who have economic or class privilege should own it. A lot of us engaged in academic and intellectual/creative work, meanwhile, don’t have time to theorize our conditions. We’re too busy theorizing where the rent is going to come from.

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      • Roy Wilson says:

        Roy:

        In general, I accept what you say below, but am obliged to note that I did not intend to scrutinize Sarah’s piece for WC purity. In fact, my comment further on was intended to highlight the fuzziness of class and culture in academia. But, then, I didn’t say this, did I? Bad me.🙂

        Wendell:

        I wonder if we’re ever going to get beyond this: someone writes on a working-class-related issue and is immediately scrutinized for the extent to which working-class “purity” has been sullied by the “accumulation of the cultural capital that has allowed [him/her] to occupy [an] academic position.”

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