One Sunday afternoon, a friend and I were in my living room, indulging in an all-singing, all-dancing, mainly-shrieking viewing of Big Brother.
Big Brother has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, to the extent that I’m still recovering from the fact that it’s splitsville for the gruesome twosome of former host and early housemate (and both current has-beens) Gretel Killeen and Saxon. I had even been dead set on auditioning to be a housemate this year, before a vague hangover on the crucial day caused me to chicken out.
Mid-shriek, my housemate poked his head in the lounge room and said with palpable disgust, ‘You guys, this so NORMAL SUCCESS.’
His remark had me worried. Maybe I wasn’t just appreciating a guilty pleasure. Maybe he was right.
NORMAL SUCCESS is a group that has recently gained popularity on Facebook, and currently boasts over three thousand members. Participants share and mock popular notions of success as voiced through the buzzwords, slogans and products favoured by a certain class of people (i.e. a class that is not theirs). Targets include fad diets and their associated lingo (‘gluten free’, ‘paleo’, ‘cheat day – naughty!’), enthusiastic physical exertion (Crossfit! Bikram yoga! Pilates!), the passive-aggressive minutiae of office life (‘The magic dish fairy is on indefinite leave’); and even pop philosophies (‘If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best’). And so my housemate was saying that what we were doing was much the same. Watching Big Brother, and snorting at some of the idiotic Neanderthal antics on-screen, was an act of cultural snobbery of the same degree.
Groups like NORMAL SUCCESS crop up periodically on Facebook (Names for Women, Number Plate Appreciation Society, Generic Office Roleplay). While their spoofs of banal Australian culture are often lighthearted, they also arguably hinge on a well-worn paradigm: the parodying of an abstract persona inflected through a series of gestures, ideological resonances, and utterances, which we frequently describe as ‘bogan’.
When I use the word bogan, you instantly know what I mean. The bogan stereotype has been played out extensively in popular culture on TV and in film (see Kath and Kim, Housos, The Castle, Bogan Hunters and their ilk). However, even if we are able to identify these as examples of bogan culture, we are still unable to definitively pin down what exactly constitutes a bogan. In The Castle, the bogan is defined as having low aspirations and familial bonds based in fierce loyalty. Kath and Kim’s bogan status is inflected through incongruently lofty class aspirations, and a mother-daughter relationship predicated on passive-aggression. In the 1980s and earlier, bogans were defined as individuals who belonged to a low socioeconomic group, but this has been all but displaced by the rise of the CUB (Cashed Up Bogan), itself caused (at a guess) by the rising bank balances of footballers and their WAGS. Various markers supposedly denote the bogan (flannies, tinnies of VB, ugg boots) but these interests are easily transposable to any number of Australian subcultures.
Therefore, we can understand the bogan less as a definitive stereotype, and more as a label used by individuals to distance themselves from facets of their own culture which they perceive as undesirable. This process of Othering the bogan has been effectively hypothesised by both David Nichols, an academic and the author of The Bogan Delusion, and cultural critic Mel Campbell.
Campbell suggests that the bogan doesn’t truly exist, but is instead a ‘strategic term or idea to quarantine aspects of Australian cultural life or identity that we’re embarrassed about’, a deliberate strategy employed to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, which privileges our own tastes while denigrating those of others. In much the same way, David Nichols argues that ‘a bogan is whatever you think it is’ – that is, its meaning is predicated on its prevalence, and that the term is ‘bandied about with abandon but no validity.’ The stereotype of the bogan then, has less to do with who it is directed at, and more to do with the opinions, and tastes, of the person levelling it.
The term and its usage have a fundamental relationship to those other afflictions of the collective Australian psyche: Tall Poppy Syndrome and cultural cringe.
Since its inception, the term cultural cringe has established itself as an affliction particular to the Australian identity. First coined by A.A. Phillips in his 1950 essay for Meanjin, cultural cringe refers to the devaluation and denigration of Australia and its citizens’ achievements on the international stage, for some perceived weakness intrinsic to our cultural identity.
The ways in which cultural cringe and the bogan are invoked have decided parallels. Cultural cringe occurs when a creative work is perceived to contain an essential quality that betrays some shortcoming innate to the Australian identity. The figure of the bogan is similarly constructed out of the ether to cast disdain on the elements, behaviours, and qualities we see within Australian culture that we cannot reconcile or value as our own. Both concepts are rooted in a compulsion to mythologise essential, defining facets of the Australian identity and culture. This compulsion is frustrated by the fact that we have no concrete definition for what an Australian is, which leads us into an identity crisis.
One response to this is to try to define what we are by what we are not: I am Australian, as long as the definition discounts elements: x, y or z. I am Australian, as long as it’s not that kind of Australian. Or, even to define oneself in anti-nationalist terms: I don’t want to identify as any kind of Australian – but especially not that one.
In essence, bogan is an empty term, and cultural cringe is a phantom affliction. There is nothing essential to the Australian identity in either, because nothing about being Australian is essential. The Australian archetype could more aptly be envisioned as an assemblage of contradictory gestures, allegiances, and identities – an inconsistent scatterplot of everything, and everyone, we are.
The apprehension we feel about being identified as a bogan, or becoming the object of cultural cringe, is probably a more telling facet of our national character than these definitions are. Rather than hinging on the ‘no worries’ attitude that we take great pains to affect, our cultural condition is chockers with worries. We are afraid of being Othered for our inadequacies, that leads us to preemptively Other those around us who dare to display certain cultural tropes.
So, no, I don’t agree with my housemate. My watching Big Brother is not exactly the same as writing a NORMAL SUCCESS post that ridicules bogans. Okay, the way the housemates speak is sometimes heinous, oftentimes ocker and consistently crass. And sure, some of them wear uggs and sink tinnies.
But, you know, sometimes, so do I.