Bogans – Not a Social Group, An Attitude – A Response to Dr. David Nichols

I have received a little bit of criticism from some quarters for my references to “bogans” on Twitter and in my blog.  It is being said that to identify certain people in society as “bogans” is both elitist and judgmental.  Another argument thrown in the mix is the one that has come from architecture academic, David Nichols – that bogans, in fact, don’t exist – they are, instead, a fabrication from inner city trendy elitists, finding more excuses to kick the poor.  I argue that this is a misreading of the continuing defining process.  The bogan is more an attitude, rather than a specified socio-economic group.

The central tenet of Dr. Nicols’ idea of what “bogan” is has its roots more in Australian suburban theory than it does in cultural classification.  This becomes clear from the way the article continues.  First, we have Nicols’ reason for hating the expression in the first place:

Nichols thinks this widespread way of thinking exposes the elites’ and traditional middle classes’ fears, prejudices and ignorance. ”I want people to stop believing that a sector of the population is beyond consideration for part of society. It sucks,” he says. ”It really does.” He argues the notion of a ”bogan” has become a bogyman for those who think they are better than others.

This leaves out any consideration of the “bogan” as a politically important character, one that is seeking material aspirations, whilst being unhappy that poorer people receive public sector services.  The “bogan” actually is in the middle class and is affluent and aspires to have more, if not to be more.  These same “bogans”, according to the constantly evolving definition, want asylum seekers and their “different ways” to be kept out of the Australian “way of life”.   But we see in the next line exactly why Nicols loathes the definition.

Nichols, 46, has lived in Broadmeadows with Schoen for eight years. While he teaches and writes about suburbia she draws, paints and photographs it. Neither romanticise it but both celebrate it quietly and without irony.

He lives in a suburb that has been called “bogan” in years past and really likes living there.  This is a problem with the label.  The “bogan” of the Things Bogans Like blog don’t live in Broadmeadows or Mt. Druitt.  They have either moved out, or their parents did. Problem here is that “bogan” was a Melbourne word for many decades before it headed up north to Sydney.  To us, the bogans of old were in fact “westies”.  To us, the “bogans” are the ones who live in suburbs still in the west or south west, but are more expensive and “flash”.  Harrington Park, Glenmore Park and Rouse Hill are three such suburbs.  Dr. Nichols is working with the old definition at this point.

Dr. Nicols is also showing a positive view of life in Broadmeadows, which is a good thing, considering the prejudice and jibes he would have received over the years from fellow staff members and students.  I know – I got them whilst at Sydney Uni for living in the Blue Mountains, then for Penrith and Campbelltown from people I know from the inner city.  There is a lot of inner city misunderstanding and judgements going on about living “out there”.  Dr. Nichols would see the current “bogan” definition as an extension of that. The chip on his shoulder (one I have about the inner city at times) can be seen in this comment about Fitzroy, where critics of “bogans” come from –

”Sameness” is thus rendered something of a joke: whole inner-city suburbs (such as Fitzroy) where all the houses look the same and where working-class people once lived were once considered bad places to live. But somehow the sameness became a wonderful attribute. And the people who now live there think – and complain – that suburbia ”all looks the same”.

This reveals also that Dr. Nichols is also battling against another traditionally Melbourne idea – that all suburbs are ugly and the same, as outlined by Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness.  Nichols firmly aligns himself with Prof. Hugh Stretton, who is firmly in the camp that celebrates suburbs.  The suburb v inner city argument is an old battleground for architecture academics, as well as cultural history academics, especially those from the outer suburbs.  It was certainly alive for my tutor at Sydney, Prof. Richard Waterhouse, who lived in Denistone and regularly scoffed at the “Balmain Dinner Parties” that would be attended in the future by his students and, no doubt, by fellow teachers in the faculty.

However, the “bogan” argument is not about necessarily just about urban design, and the Australian Ugliness of every suburb in outer Sydney – well, it shouldn’t be.  I have long held the belief that most outer suburban houses designed up until the 1990s were marvels of design and were clever in their use of space – just look at the older parts of Greystanes, Ingleburn and Northmead in Sydney to see what I mean.  The article mentions Altona, Rowville and Sunshine in Melbourne as examples of good suburbs – I would agree.  Where housing design just got stupid was in the 1990s, where massive, energy chomping houses – the famed McMansions – were built with ducted air conditioning units, massive rooms that don’t get used to maximum effect and tiny backyards that restrict children’s play – forcing them, in effect, to get back on the Playstation.  Inefficient and costly in terms of energy usage.

Dr. Nicols says in the article that where suburbs are better than the inner city is in the adoption of solar power in those suburbs (more of the inner city chip).  That is true – and came about largely as a cost-reduction activity when governments were handing out rebates and reduction in installation costs.  Therefore, I would not necessarily identify that as an example of nobility of the outer suburbanite.

One area in which I would agree with Dr. Nichols is with the vague quality of the definition of the “bogan” –

Similarly, the definition of a bogan to anti-bogans is vague. Who is a bogan? ”It’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Nichols. To some it’s Shane Warne, to some it’s Angry Anderson, to some it’s the people on Today Tonight or Biggest Loser being nightmare renters or going on fad diets. To some it’s MasterChef, to some it’s Corey Worthington or Kim Duthie. ”The more you seek to define the creature,” he says, ” the more you are defined against it.”

That is a problem.  However, I would define it, as I have said before, as an attitude – a selfishness, a desire to have instant gratification and being unhindered by any idea of an obligation to society, whether it is to be generous to asylum seekers, “housos” and other welfare recipients, or pay a carbon tax for the good of the environment.

Towards the end, though, there is a demonstration of a knowledge of the Things Bogans Like definition, which is encapsulated here:

They not only dare to name their children something other than Jack, Ruby, Thomas or Olivia but they steal the shiny bits of culture – Ed Hardy clothes, music festivals, reality TV – that apparently never belonged to them in the first place.

I would argue that he has misinterpreted how bogans have been judged in relation to these concepts.  It’s not the adoption of unusual names that is necessarily a problem with so called “bogan names”.  It is in the deliberate misspelling of names – Alexander becoming “Alixzander”, for example, is a proud display of deliberate ignorance.  Again, the bogan attitude of being proud to fly in the face of society.  The same goes for the cultural products the bogan embraces – there is nothing wrong with people liking things. The problem arises when people with the bogan attitude declare that it’s “the best” and “better than all that artsy fartsy stuff they like in the inner city” like classical music and other publicly funded artistic traditions.  This is an attitude I have experienced for many years.   Proud, deliberate ignorance of a variety of art forms.

It is great that we have people like Dr. Nicols fighting the good fight for maligned suburbs like Broadmeadows – I dare say I’d be doing the same thing if I commuted from Penrith every day to Sydney Uni.  The defining of the bogan, though, is away from this old, pitched battle of Boyd v Stretton that would be alive in the minds of academics like Dr. Nichols. This is a cultural battleground for political strategists, identifying bogan attitudes and seeing just how much damage those attitudes can do to our political landscape by a selfish approach to public policy, in terms of constructing social, cultural, environmental and economic infrastructure into the future.

2 thoughts on “Bogans – Not a Social Group, An Attitude – A Response to Dr. David Nichols

  1. del_detriment says:

    This suburban vs inner city thing seems to come up a lot in the ‘bogan’ discussion. I feel I should point out that that’s very much a Melbourne/Sydney thing. Other cities don’t recognise those issues to the same extent because they are, or have traditionally been, constructed differently – and the bush doesn’t recognise those issues at all. It’s no coincidence that the people most active against anti-bogan sentiment on Twitter have been from WA, SA, Qld and/or regional areas.

    Interestingly, all those places are often judged as more ‘bogan’ than NSW or Victoria. The recent WA-bashing is a case in point, with West Aussies frequently described as inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, greedy and selfish. Why? Because it’s the home of the cashed up bogan? Again, I don’t think it’s coincidence that Australia’s primary mining and agricultural states, Qld and WA, are commonly stereotyped as insular bogan bigots.

    You said in your post that “bogan was a Melbourne word for many decades …to [Sydney] the bogans of old were westies”.

    Firstly, you guys (apparently) defined a bogan by the suburb they lived in. We didn’t. We have ‘bogan suburbs’, known as such because that’s where all the bogans live, ie. the ‘bogan’ is a pre-defined type of person that happens to congregate in that suburb. Those suburbs are almost exclusively welfare and state housing-dependent areas, so for many people, ‘bogan’ is intrinsically linked to low income.

    Secondly, Melbourne isn’t the only place where the word ‘bogan’ existed. I was identifying as a bogan in highschool, 25 years ago. I also have friends from Adelaide who claim ‘boganhood’ in their teens and their definition is compatible with mine – someone in black jeans and a flanno who drives a ute, drinks beer and listens to Oz rock. It had nothing to do with bigotry, or ostentatious clothing and houses (the latter being the complete opposite of the traditional bogan).

    Which brings us to the crux of my argument – I don’t appreciate my personal lifestyle or history (or state) being re-appropriated to mean something hideous and hated. And it’s really not appropriate for people who don’t inhabit that community or identify with the label to say it’s simply part of the “continuing defining process” and dismiss the concerns of people that do.

    This cruel stereotype will cause actual harm to people. It’s already started. For example, Centrelink is trialling income management in select ‘bogan suburbs’ in Perth, because their inhabitants are automatically deemed to be irresponsible and lazy. Actually they’re just poor, but society supports these measures because they firmly believe that ‘bogans’ are a certain breed of people who don’t give a f*ck about their kids or their health or the taxpayer. Hey, that sounds familiar…NT intervention, anyone?

    You are creating a new underclass that it’s totally PC to vilify. And it’s all very well to claim that the meaning of the word is changing, but the ORIGINAL meaning of the word is still firmly entrenched in our psyche. What this means is that, today, any person fitting the OLD definition of bogan (black jeans, wifebeater, feral ute, goatee) is immediately grouped together with the NEW definition of bogan (violent, racist, sexist, homophobe). I should add that this is particularly upsetting for country people, like me, who tend to present as the city idea of ‘bogan’, even if we don’t identify as such. Just last week I had an argument with someone about “arrogant country bogans in their 4WDs, who don’t give a f*ck about the environment”.

    Apologies for the lengthy rant, but I don’t think people realise just how much this stereotyping is hurting people. I’m actually getting to the point where I’m scared to talk about certain things on Twitter, lest I be deemed bogan and shouted down for it. On the weekend, I tweeted a ‘bogan’ joke and a friend retweeted it – he suffered a full day of insults and accusations of bigotry because of it. (Both of us are left-leaning and known in the activist community AND also identify as bogans). In short, if someone is a bigot, call them a bigot. The word ‘bogan’ is already taken.

  2. austriaal says:

    Reblogged this on austriaal and commented:
    Interesting read, especially in regards to typecasting of certain socioeconomic demographics as automatically ‘bogan’.

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