On bogans

There’s a figure that has long permeated Australian culture. We fear it. We reject it. We try to deny that it’s a part of us. And when it keeps coming back, we laugh at it.

The bogan is at once terrifying and hilarious. But it is not ‘us’. Most Australians would deny being a bogan. Or they would only admit to being one in order to justify not knowing something – one of the bogan’s greatest traits is anti-intellectualism. As Area-7 put it, nobody likes a bogan.

ABC television series Upper Middle Bogan is ranked the seventh most-watched show on air in Australia. In ratings, it even beat two reality shows – gaining 645,000 viewers.

I love Upper Middle Bogan. It’s clever and gives us just the right amount of discomfort.

But it’s also problematic. Like Kath & Kim, Full Frontal and Bogan Pride before it, Upper Middle Bogan positions us to laugh at bogans. We’re supposed to identify with Bess – well-to-do, happily married and outside of the bogansphere. The show gives the bogan – or what we perceive as ‘the bogan’ – another beating. Its success infers that 645,000 people enjoy laughing at bogans on a regular basis.

The actual act of laughing at these TV shows is fine. Comedy is often made up of perceived stereotypes because, well, ‘it’s funny because it’s true’. But we have to wonder to what extent the bogans presented in Upper Middle Bogan, et al are true.

The definition of ‘the bogan’ differs depending on who you talk to. Website-turned-book and regulation bogan-definer Things Bogans Like says:

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.

Both these evolutionary stages of the bogan are accurate. Additionally, they’re often thought to be working class, sexist, racist and/or homophobic.I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you’re most likely Australian, educated and have encountered a bogan at least once in your life. Perhaps you are one.

I’m kind of a bogan too.

I’m doing my Masters degree but I’m still obsessed with getting more piercings. I wrote an Honours thesis but it involved references to sex scenes and several uses of the word ‘fuck’ – and I thought that was pretty funny. I’m Asian, so if you looked at me you might think I would have an Asian accent. But I guess you might be shocked to hear me swear, say ‘orright’ and pronounce ‘couch’ (and ‘pronounce’, for that matter) like it has a W in it. And I have, up until recently, used the non-existent adjective ‘bogany’ to describe anything related to bogans; am I such a bogan that I didn’t know any better way to describe bogans?

Many bogans adopt their manner from their familial upbringing; this is certainly true for fictional representations of bogans (The Castle, in addition to the abovementioned television series). But I got mine by attending a delightfully rundown high school.

Elizabeth Humphrys points out in this Overland article that the figure of the bogan comes from a need to laugh at the working class. Like me, she faced a clash of social standards when she compromised her working class upbringing to assimilate at university. Is this not what we think bogans want migrants and immigrants to do?

Similarly, in his book, The Bogan Delusion, David Nichols says the bogan was constructed as a way for inner-city dwellers to avoid going to the outer suburbs. He says suburbs such as Broadmeadows don’t necessarily live up to their bogan reputations. He considers why we buy into this reputation, this delusion, and what that does to Australian people.

Boganism isn’t restricted to the working class or to the suburbs. It has now evolved to include people with lots of money who spend it stupidly (cashed-up bogans).

In my mind, the only reason we employ the word ‘bogan’ is to marginalise people who don’t live up to our expectations of Australian behaviour.

Society tells us that being a bogan will reduce our chances of getting a job and generally of being respected in public. Society tells us a nasally ocker accent will make everyone cringe. Society tells us Ed Hardy and tattoos (or, worse, Ed Hardy tattoos) equate to low intelligence. Society tells us to withdraw in fear when bogans board a train with us because they’ll attack us or take our money. We discriminate against them the way we imagine they discriminate against women, LGBTI people and people of ethnic background – by othering: ‘them’, ‘they’, ‘those people’.

As Nichols says, the figure of the bogan ‘is just ‘other’ – someone not worth thinking about beyond funny put-downs, much less talking to or engaging with’.

It’s easy to insult bogans. But by doing so we only feed into the same kind of prejudice they exert. For progressives, being sexist, racist or homophobic (implicit or explicit) is aberrant. Yet many progressives also believe the best way to address this is to similarly exclude bogans from everyone else.

We want the Cate Blanchetts of the country to shine, while we deride the Shane Warnes. We can’t stand that Crocodile Dundee is still a symbol for us overseas.

All of this is no doubt problematic. When I lived in the US, I was constantly fending off questions about kangaroos in my backyard – although when I was growing up we did have a field very close by that the ‘roos would often hop through (I told my American friends as such).

I can never really tell if I’ve detoxed myself of my boganism. Nichols says the word bogan is ‘always a crass put-down, and even the “bogan and proud” brigade know they’re wrangling a slur’. But I’m okay with being proud of having a bogan influence on my life. I would rather laugh at myself for being a bogan than laugh at others.

So maybe we should all just lay off the bogan-hate. Orright?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Michelle See-Tho is editor of Farrago and a freelance writer. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Crikey and Junkee. Find her at michelleseetho.com.

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  1. While I agree that the figure of the bogan (as a theoretical construct) is inherently problematic, I don’t see Upper Middle Bogan‘s representation of it as necessarily contemptuous—in fact, the show seems to challenge, if not subvert, this prevailing conception.

    As Mel Campbell has written in issue 181 of Metro, Upper Middle Bogan focuses on mobility—Bess regularly traverses the ostensible divide between ‘bogan’ outer suburbia and the upper-middle-class inner city. As the show progresses, pretty much all of the Denyar-Brights and the Wheelers do, too. We’re also made to grow fond of the Wheelers’ earnestness, and laugh at Margaret’s and Danny’s snobbery.

    The show certainly makes us identify with Bess. But, as she comes to terms with (and, later, becomes strongly attached to) her ‘bogan’ identity, I’d argue that we in the audience are being exhorted to do the same.

  2. Oh man. Bogans. I wish we never had to talk about them too. But still the media articles come. (Thanks Adolfo for mentioning my Metro essay on Upper Middle Bogan!)

    But Australians are never going to stop hating on bogans. Its one of our basic ideological techniques for quarantining Australian national identity from aspects of Australian life we find embarrassing or unsophisticated.

    In Australia, the figure of the bogan personifies a spatialised cultural division based diffusely on perceptions of low class, limited education and poor taste. The bogan can’t be fully understood through academic theories of class or subculture, the nerdy, teleological etymology that prevails in linguistics, or the jokey pseudo-anthropology that dominates popular media discussions of bogans (such as Things Bogans Like, mentioned above).

    This is, first, because ‘bogan’ is a discourse rather than an empirical reality, and, second, because ‘bogan’ is relational: its meaning shifts depending on the ideological purposes of different people in different circumstances. But it always tends to quarantine bogans to a marginal location: a place where ‘they’ live and can never escape, but which ‘we’ can temporarily visit to laugh at or get morally panicked about ‘them’.

    What I find heartening about Upper Middle Bogan, and what I feel makes it a more complex and sympathetic comedy than, say, Kath and Kim or Housos, is that much of its comedy is targeted at middle-class snobbery rather than stereotypically bogan behaviour. It makes jokes about how freaked out ‘we’ get when ‘we’re’ forced into proximity with ‘them’.

    It also confronts the material realities of class – like having to juggle credit cards to pay for things versus selling your unwanted consumer goods to raise money for charity. And the series uses differences in tastes not as punchlines in their own right, but as conduits for characters to display their affection and help each other solve problems.

    Anyway. Bogans. Oh man.

  3. Nice article, but what is a bogan anyway, I still ask? Apparently it’s a “discourse rather than a material reality”, or so I’ve just learnt. Did the Ocker precede the Bogan? Guess I just don’t understand class distinctions either. What, for instance, has happened to the working classes? Does social class now mean being upper, middle or generationally poor? Certainly the early bogan that I recall differs from its current incarnation, the cashed-up bogan, a class on the rise, who seem to be the new middle classes, the universally loathed bourgeoisie of our society, with old money having more in common with the generationally poor in terms of kinship relations. ‘Bogan’, to me, appears to be one of those anomalous terms no one can explain, because what a bogan represents deviates from standard, normal or expected behaviour, and we can’t have that, that’s just not on.

    • **Further point: I have substituted ‘material reality’ for ’empirical reality’ in Mel Campbell’s quotation because, to my understanding, a discourse is an empirical reality, where realities are constituted through discourse rather than material conditions, which means the absolute conditions of and for being a bogan (if they exist at all) remains moot, in the sense that what bogans are and do in material reality differs from discursive representations of how they are constituted and perceived symbolically through discourse, so leaving those real conditions unexposed or unrevealed.

  4. Surely being a Bogan, is what we were whenever we failed in our self observance of the worst of being Australian. The fact of the failure, typifying the definition, means that Bogan is an ever shifting definition. I thought about this yesterday after reading the Island article about Bogan Aesthetics, and thinking through what it failed to mention. Surely the female Bogan heroine, for example, is the ‘slut’ who assumes her own success at causing her husband to fail in his criminality. Then, thinking it all through further, I thought of Bogan as the “in vogue” Larrikin, and then of the fact that as soon as we are all making heros of Bogans, on TV and in literature, the term Bogan loses its value to us. Then suddenly, the “Vogan” got born in my brain. I applied the term immediately to the Bondi Hipsters youtube video about Ayahuasca, and thought a Vogan must be a Bogan who wanted to be less like Arthur Dent and more like Zaphod Beeblebrox, so took too many psychedelics to prove it. I even have the example in mind, of Penthouse Journalist Rak Razam, who tours talks and films about psychedelic science these days, promoting his book on the subject. Surely he will deny being Vogan, thus proving the definition, of lack of self reflection, being essential. After all, who’d be a Bogan!

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