Maliciousness in memes: #boganmovies and #tightsarenotpants

by · August 19, 2011

BOGAN (Wikipedia): The term bogan is Australian slang, usually pejorative or self-deprecating, for an individual who is recognised to be from a lower class background or someone whose limited education, speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour exemplifies such a background.

As the UK riots unfolded, commentary in both the mainstream media and on the Left highlighted how many “otherwise progressive” people lacked a basic understanding of the lives of working class people. Moreover, how little insight they had in to their own ability to access other modes of political voice and dissent. Given the abject failure on the part of the traditional party of social democracy to represent the interests of the working class in Britain, and how desperately excluded and outside the political system many working class people feel, how can we be surprised at an outcome like the UK riots.

A long time progressive activist, now living in London, exclaimed: “The Middle East and North Africa riot for democracy, while London riots for…new sneakers and an upgraded TV screen. Shame.” And she was not alone in such a thought. Many called on a quote from Martin Luther King Jr to contextualise the riots: “When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard”. But this did little to persuade those, in England or Australia, who were angrily attacking the rioters. Their ferocity was also directed at anyone publicly defending the rioters, despite the onslaught of the British political class and state “othering”, humiliating and jailing a large number of poor and disenfranchised people.

While this is not a new phenomenon, it was simply a sharp insight into the lack of understanding and appreciation of large sections of the progressive community as to the daily experience of working class people.

Old class snobbery in new bottles

In a less dramatic way, I have become increasingly aggravated over the last year by social media activity around various memes that demonise the working class — in particular the Twitter hashtags #boganmovies and #tightsarenotpants.

“Bogans” in particular are in the firing line, which we will get to in a moment, but it has increasingly also been women who do not dress in what is seen as an acceptable manner. Women who wear leggings or tights as pants, in particular if they are not thin, have been fair game for ridicule by the (so called) politically correct Left. Some feminists, among them mainstream journalists, social movement activists, and Left wing political staffers, regularly incite scorn of women who dress in this way. And all the fairer game if the clothing is thought to display that woman’s “unflattering” figure. These are the same feminists who attend SlutWalk, arguing women should be able to dress as they like, yet mock those who do not fit in to their middle class or alternative notions about fashion. Although in the #tightsarenotpants meme, it is not just feminist women policing what other women wear and one male tweeter stated: “At what point as a nation do we stop and ask, are we too tolerant? #tightsarentpants”. Hilarious don’t you think?

As sensibly voiced @Kissability pointed out, “People who proclaim #tightsarenotpants come across as hateful” and she linked to this article on The Punch. She is right. There is little distance between the ongoing joke about what is, mostly, fashion of the “less well to do”, and the article, which concludes: “Tights as pants are truly eye pollution and possibly a form of public indecency”.

In the #boganmovies meme we saw “jokes” like these:

  • TarGet Shorty
  • The Re-producers
  • XXXXorcist
  • Dude where’s my baby bonus

These examples are generally representative of the ridicule-as-humour nature of the meme, save some of the more racist-classist “jokes” that took my breath away (such as “Indigenous Basterds”). This was a meme a large number of Left and progressive people in the Twittersphere took part in.

The #boganmovies tweet about Target clothes in particular, was an echo of the joke that begins Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class about Britain: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?”. As Lynsey Hanley notes in her review in The Guardian, the dinner party at which the joke was made was “attended by the author in ‘a gentrified part of east London’, at which liberal views are taken as a given and, though everyone present has a professional job, not everyone is white, male or straight”. As the promo of the book says: “the working class has gone from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth”.

A local book, raising the issue of stereotyping of the working class, is David Nichols’ The Bogan Delusion. He notes that “there’s nothing subtle or delightful about the various meanings of the label ‘bogan’: its always a crass put down, and even the ‘bogan and proud’ brigade know they are wrangling a slur”.

The website Things Bogans Like argues that bogans are not exclusively part of the working class, seeking to set the authors’ demonization of them outside “old class” lines and thereby make it more acceptable:

The word bogan has had a bad rap of late — still associated with wife beaters, flannelette, VB, utes and mullets. But this conceals the new, modern bogan. The bogan with money. The bogan with aspirations. The bogan with Ed Hardy t-shirts. … The bogan today defies income, class, race, creed, gender and logic. The bogan is defined by what it does, what it says and, most importantly, what it buys. Those who choose to deny the bogan on the basis of their North Shore home, their stockbroking career or their massive trust fund choose not to see the bogan. They merely see old class battles revisited.

So it is no longer about class bigotry, but cultural objection it appears? To me this sounds suspiciously similar to the hair splitting between “biological” racism and “cultural” objections regarding Islam.

It seems only a short distance from such derision to views mirrored by the following in the Courier Mail:

These are the sort of yobbos who bring their tribes of feral children and tawdry beach towels up from the ’burbs and think a fine lunchtime repast can be had from a picnic hamper or a paper parcel of fish and chips. You can see them on weekends, loitering under the trees in our public spaces passing the thermos around like a bunch of indigent homeless people. They drive up for the day and have the hide to use our beautiful beaches and yet contribute next to nothing to the economy in return, barring a couple of icy poles for their urchins.

While Paul Syvret is complaining satirically about the swamping of Noosa by Bogans, his column isn’t that far from what I hear in my local area where people deride those “from the suburbs” wanting to come to cafes in the East or “westie boys” wanting to visit bars and nightclubs in Kings Cross on a weekend.

Not so funny

Humour at the expense of working class people in Australia is well established. Even in something like the movie The Castle, seen by many as an archetypal example of good-natured Australian humour and our ultimately egalitarian natures, working class life is ridiculed and romanticised. Only in Australia can a barrister and a larrikin working class man live happily ever after fishing away their holidays together, we are told. The Castle mixes acute observations about working class people (stereotypes of course do often have some basis in reality), with the notion that we should laugh at what working class people wear, how they speak, their pastimes, their houses, their pool room, their holiday locations, their jailed son, and, in particular, how stupidly naive they are.

I admit I laugh at the dialogue about rissoles for dinner every time I hear it, as my father used to love it when my mum would make them. That part of the script could have been spoken aloud one night in our kitchen. But my parents, like many, were not fools nor blissfully happy in their working class castle. The 1980s saw real wages fall and interest rates soar. My mother worked, at times, more than one part time job, and my father did unimaginable overtime in an already taxing shift work job, to ensure we did not have to sell our house. For over a year my parents also ran a video store, twelve hours a day seven days a week, for a family friend who had a kidney transplant (as well as my father working his full time shift work job). And when I studied Year 12 I was working three part time jobs. We did not live close to RAAF bases so we could watch magnificent planes take off, we lived there because the land was cheap, and nor did we longingly stare at high voltage powerlines and imagine what is possible.

The realities of working class lives, despite the acute observations of naiveté in The Castle, were, and remain, obscured from television screens and most movies. The Castle does present the idea of working people being the salt of the earth, in some ways, but its lack of “real” life only serves to present a view that some are the deserving poor and others — this week the UK rioters — are not.

Myths of classlessness

Last year when the #boganmovies meme kicked off, Shiny commented on her blog that:

Australians pride themselves on the idea of a classless society. An idea that only makes sense if you’ve lived your entire life with your head up your arse. Of course we don’t live in a classless society [and] … like any other society in which class plays a role, the more powerful classes work to keep the less powerful down. …Of course, we sound all noble when we talk about asylum seekers and same-sex marriage, but we can’t walk the walk.

… While #boganmovies is hilarious and all, let’s stop and consider what it actually is? It’s a joke about class. Nothing more, nothing less. I suppose how comfortable you are with that depends on who you are. … I might chuckle when I see a tweet that says “The Devil Wears Ed Hardy” but are we really willing to accept “Don’t Bother Educating Rita” or “Baby (bonus) Boom” is harmless fun? …“Single White Female Mother of Eight”? Because policing reproductive choices is totally cool when you’re talking about bogans.

… To presume that everyone participating in our conversations has the same ideas as us, and that everyone who is not participating is so “hopelessly foreign” as to not understand it, is arrogant. … to tastelessly warp an Orwellian phrase, some people are more other than others. And jokes like #boganmovies are intended keep them that way. If you recoil from the request that you don’t participate in those jokes, perhaps you should consider why you need to other a group of people that bad.

In one of the comments on that post, Meggy notes how for her, such jokes feel:

It made me feel uncomfortable because coming from a lower social economic background and having most of my friends as “bogans” (perhaps not so much now) it is bizarre that there is so much hate for bogans, their vehicles, their clothing attire. Sure there are those with racist slurs on stickers (a different breed of bogan) however I know just as many snobs and yuppies with such racist, sexist and homophobic views… The whole mocking of Ed Hardy really bewildered me, why insult someone for a t-shirt that they buy? Why is that less respected than the same money spent on a bottle of Moet? Or a handbag of some sort?

I’m with her. I grew up in Hoppers Crossing and Werribee, in the outer Western suburbs of Melbourne. My father worked in an oil refinery and my mother as a bank teller. I don’t have straight teeth and I was careful to modify my “westie” accent to fit in at University (after one Left activist told me it was “like [I had] working class tattooed on my forehead”).

I used to be ashamed of these things, or I was made to feel that way, in Left and student activist circles. Though, as I’ve become older, I’ve returned to being that person who was not embarrassed to say where I grew up, what school I went to, or what my parents did for a living. I’m so very proud of all those things, as I damn well should be. And I feel much less alone when I see others react to the #boganmovies meme in the manner @Kimski_Impro did:

I find it amazing how often I hear the word “bogan” from people who would never use “wog” or “fag” in such a derogatory way

With thanks to @daiskmeliadorn, @djackmanson and @kissability for the shared anger. Also cross posted at Overland Journal blog.

Filed under: class