From Griffith REVIEW Edition 31: Ways of Seeing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Janine Little
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I AM finding a way to share an offhand observation made in a chat where I saw shared recognition in a half smile. The talk was about American writing on rednecks and how people get called ‘white trash’ in the US, for book shop cachet or a syndicated Jerry Springer stage brawl. Australians do something parallel but not identical, and I know this since I have lived in both stories without ever believing either one of them.
In America, the working poor, or just poor, once came to believe that they could own a home with no savings and a grand mortgage debt. Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, the government’s own breadwinning security providers, went guarantor for them and still it fell apart. When they awoke from that all-consuming dream of doing better than their folks, of being somehow free of the fiction of zero sum value judgement, it was the poor who found themselves at fault again. That is always an observation I make offhandedly but this might be worth sharing because, so often in the places I go these days, no one believes it.
Australia has always been fairly discouraging of its underclass, despite that other fiction about living in a classless society where everyone gets a ‘fair go’. Just watch ‘go’ trump ‘fair’ every time there is a public appearance by a ‘bogan’, ‘westie’ or ‘bevan’ straying across a border lined with shady trees instead of coat hanger aerials and home panel beatings or rust bogging. When journalists report on places like Frankston, south of Melbourne, Mount Druitt in Sydney, Balga in Perth, or Woodridge, south of Brisbane, their gaze is cast mostly downward and narrow.
This, too, was mentioned in that chat about American and Australian class snobbery during a weekend drive back to my home town. I come from a place where Sudanese refugees followed a Vietnamese community, and the largest urban gathering of Aboriginal families shifted from Cherbourg or other stopping off points after sovereign Bundjalung, Gungabulla and other countries. Add as many white working poor as the Queensland Housing Commission could dump, in the early 1960s, into what is nicknamed Dodge City or the Bronx of Brisbane, and a reductive American or Australian pejorative or media stereotype seems mostly misapplied, and sometimes merely cruel.
Reading Jean Baudrillard’s writing about capitalism’s subtler transcontinental cruelties helps cut through this aspect of media representation with a sharper critical blade. Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society (1970) observes an American fondness for illusory lifestyles that is grounded in simpler aspirations towards safety and respectability. Its main view, however, is of the role of the news media in exercising, for the mainstream and relatively privileged, a fantasy of conflict, loss or lack, without apparent personal risk. Watching, for example, the televised images of aspiring American homeowners kicked onto the street when mortgage foreclosures reached record numbers in 2010, few of the socioeconomically privileged would find pause for thought. How much of the coverage encouraged questions about why it likely took much longer for these individuals to dream of owning their home than it did for them to lose it? And who wants to wake up to see that, after all?
Like an addict, someone trapped in a spiral of material debt and externally imposed cultural and social values needs denial. Denial enables not just a lifestyle but often any life at all to keep going without the sight or sensation of long-term pain. Baudrillard writes about this, too, as do a few others. Sometimes, when I recognise the patterns and connections woven around the addict and the aspirant in competitive, consumer capitalism, I wonder whether that is what keeps social class a secret and a shame. A shame, maybe, for so many who dream of better things, and a secret for the few who – far removed – believe that they are naturally entitled. I got hooked on American stories in long form journalism when I read how those who were telling them were reaching out to touch both sides of this divide. I grew up with vivid dreams and became a journalist, but I never learned shame and could not keep that secret.
‘BOGANS’ SEEM TO make some people in Australia nervous, for similar reasons. They seem to get a run in the news for that, too. But the stories are either piss-takes or sneers and are rarely told, as in America, by someone not in denial: either of their first-hand experience, their detached and privileged position of interpretation, or their assumption that because they have played on a level field, so has everyone else.
Australian journalists have spent a bit of time trying to catalogue and draw ‘bogan culture’ but I have not read any prominent public journalism or cultural analysis written by ‘bogans’ themselves. The only doctoral study completed on bogan culture in Australia was undertaken in 2002 by Melissa Campbell, who ‘did not grow up as a bogan chick. She had a quiet, middle-class upbringing in Box Hill, attending a private girls’ school.’ As she told The Age’s Michelle Griffin in 2002, ‘My past is surprisingly bogan free. I’m a very middle-class girl. But I always loved the bogan comedy characters I saw on television.’
Such fascination for the exotic reminds me of stories told by Aboriginal family and friends back home, about artefacts and selected parts of the Dreaming that delight and entertain, as their appropriation remains unchallenged. In her article of the same year, Campbell observes that colonial era Indigenous circus performers and contemporary ‘bogans’, too, were found to be entertaining ‘precisely because they were inexplicable and decontextualised’. ‘Predominantly urban bourgeois readers,’ she says, ‘could consume bogan culture as trashy entertainment, encountering a different morality, without having to confront it.’
My thinking about why Australia’s white working poor had not yet followed American writing on social class came after I saw that both my past and present homes were included in an online blog commentary about Australia’s ‘bogan’ capitals . The sixty-page exchange was sparked by Melbourne journalist David Penberthy’s story about Frankston dropping down that carefully considered list. Contributors postcoded people they perceived to be buying the wrong stuff, driving the wrong cars, and watching the wrong TV shows. Even one or two ‘Call me a snob’ or ‘I’m not classist, but...’ comments might have been heartening enough for someone wishing that Australian journalism would recognise, even if it does not always challenge too vigorously, the value judgements and unconscious assumptions about race and culture that do not include white Australians, and so tend to make class difference invisible and its accoutrements too finely fashioned.
I SOMETIMES ADORN myself with the term ‘bogan’ to see if carrying it will help me to prise open this seamier side of what might otherwise appear to be Australia’s seamless social and linguistic framework of ‘white’ privilege and entitlement. As American stories tell so well, class does affect – and often shapes – what individuals, families and whole communities go through after dreams end, people lose their homes, catastrophes happen or tragedy strikes by accident or criminal act.
Melissa Campbell’s ‘Little Bogan Lost’ looks at how the news media’s moralising downward gaze denies parents from places that make it onto that list of ‘bogan capitals’ a private grief. Instead, their crudely drawn and misread cultural group cannot purchase any real dignity or social agency in their media representation. Journalists covering the 1997 case of murdered Moe toddler Jaiydn Leskie portrayed his mother, Bilynda Murphy, and her boyfriend, Greg Domaszewicz, as members of a morally transgressive ‘lost tribe’ who were ‘dismissed to a stereotyped category beyond real analysis’. Jaidyn Leskie’s kin were denied even the ascribed agency in which ‘living without regular work, a full education and a stable family life could be a choice, indeed a preference’ apart from an existence of life under surveillance, harassment and domination. For news and current affairs, it is a telling contradiction. As Graeme Turner notes in relation to a tabloid TV show’s infamous ‘young dole bludger’ story, ‘The Paxtons’, journalists have encouraged that stereotype of apathy and failure as a lifestyle choice, only to profit from their story sources’ powerlessness and lack of choice at other times.
Australian journalists cast their framing gaze similarly downward when six-yearold Kiesha Abrahams disappeared from her Mount Druitt home last August. The Australian ran a story within a couple of weeks of Kiesha’s disappearance about six bank deposits (of $500 to $600) made to her mother, Kristi. The story (re) reports elements of a police investigation of Kiesha’s stepfather, Robert Smith where: ‘Mr Smith was interviewed by police within the first days of Kiesha’s disappearance and told media he had been questioned over his financial history. ‘They had my bank statements there and they were saying to me, “What’s this for, and what’s that for?”’ Mr Smith told the Daily Telegraph.’
Read together, the representations of the content of the police and media interviews are enough to frame the parents as if they were motivated by financial interests. Kristi Abrahams’ and Robert Smith’s bank statements lead and angle the story, rather than the anguish and fear that most parents in that situation would experience. Both Smith and Abrahams were classed as suspects almost as soon as their daughter went missing, and were expected to explain their financial position without the news stories making clear why police were linking what was in the bank accounts to Kiesha’s disappearance. The Australian picked up and ran with the Daily Telegraph’s story, even attributing key parts of its quoted content to that other story. Because of this, Kiesha’s parents were compelled to articulate their distress and fear through a media that defines them, in ways not as intensely invasive for middle class or bourgeois families impacted by crime. They become, as did Bilynda Murphy and Greg Domaszewicz (and Lindy and Michael Chamberlain thirty years ago) not deserving of either natural justice or privacy: ‘Ms Abrahams and Mr Smith remain suspects in the case, and said they were ‘living like hermits’ to avoid the public gaze. ‘I can’t even take my kids to the park or go to a shop to buy bread,’ Kiesha’s mother said.’
CRIMINAL OR TRAGIC events, especially those involving intimate family or home lives, have always made headline news. Their hard news story formula is simple, and the apparently non-verifiable factual detail its own advocate for established narrative convention and commercially precious publishing space. News and current affairs have not performed as well in Australia, however, with giving public space to shifting cultural prejudice or stereotyping before actual harm is done to real people, as the Cronulla Riots showed so spectacularly in 2004. The difference in America could be, as Joe Bageant says in American Pie (Scribe, 2010), the ‘in your face exposure of America’s vast and unacknowledged permanent white working underclass’ in mainstream media representation and also longer narrative journalism. Journalists like Bageant (a friend of the gonzo journalist, the late Hunter S. Thompson) have put the form to service in experiential reportage of the head injuries caused by being able to see and reach two social worlds, but to live in only one.
Bageant, along with Michael Moore in his 2009 documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed (2001) or Bright-sided (2009), and Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character (1998) and his earlier book (with Jonathan Cobb) The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), write about a violent system driven by an all-pervading market aided lately by a denial or projection of responsibility for organisational malfunction or social harm onto individual people and characters. Their evidence is not presented in data tables, specimen responses to set questions or evaluative conclusions about ‘these people’ or ‘the marginalised’, but in the voices of working poor talking about their dreams or, as is often the case in Sennett and Cobb, the dreams they relinquish for themselves so their children could (maybe back in 1960s or 1970s America, and Australia after Whitlam and pre-Howard) access a traditional university or professional education. They are not, as stereotypical news media representations in Australia often suggest, relinquishing dreams out of a lack of intelligence, determination or resourcefulness, but because they possess enough of all three to recognise, as Sennett and Cobb say, that: ‘Failures and static people...are seen as having undeveloped personalities; the uncomfortable feelings about those who do not ‘make something of themselves’ when they have a chance, come out of an assumption that [people] can be respected only as they become in some way distinctive, as they stand out from the mass.’
Likewise, Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided traces this way of seeing – that is in many ways peculiar to the privileged – through to contemporary American society before the current recession, but she might as well be describing Australia right now. A grinning imposition of ‘positive thinking’ through a range of media portals (talk shows, self-help books, promotions for everything from water to mortgages, and the now ubiquitous social networking) and management culture (flexible workforce, team-building, performance self-appraisals) serve the interests of consumer capitalism by compelling as many people as possible to aspire not just to attaining a self but, as Renata Salecl notes in Choice (2010), to investing in a better self. This is so, even to the extent of becoming emotionally, as well as economically, indebted to class interests that are not, either historically or potentially, about their long-term dignity or well-being.
BARBARA EHRENREICH AND Joe Bageant write about their own communities through the profiles and case studies of people off screen, and with whom they have worked, talked or identified as part of a shared culture of the working class. As journalists writing down what they have heard, seen and experienced, their view is at eye level and recognises familiar patterns without the smug unconsciousness of privilege that is mostly normalised, and often constitutive of, mainstream metropolitan newsrooms in Australia and, according to Peter Wilby, in England. This might be why their work reads as a markedly different set of stories to the Australian news media representations of ‘bogans’ that are sometimes hostile and dismissive, but most often disdainful. Even if the aim is to be satirical or humorous, it is somewhat lost in a journalistic mission that is said to pursue the ideals of fairness and truth.
A bogan on the run in comedy sketches or parody, such as the Comedy Company’s Kylie Mole, ABC TV’s Kath and Kim, or Michelle and Ferret (the Winnie Blue smoking, scrag-fighting 1990s Fast Forward comedy character and her boyfriend) does not licence journalists to draw parallels with sources and subjects in their news and feature stories. In comedy, the tendency of Australian society to normalise privilege becomes part of its humorous subversion. There is an implicit agreement in mass media production and reception of comedy that this particular way of seeing trumps any truth claim about social groups or cultural authenticity. However much journalists might imagine there is such an agreement with their audiences, this is more a fantasy than a situational reality, as Jean Baudrillard observes in relation to news coverage on television. News subjects, especially those without a self-generated or commercially traded public identity, are unequal to the journalist in the exchange of information. Bogans run, then, in what Julianne Schultz (1999) calls the ‘permanent present’ of most journalists at work in Australia who, paradoxically, rely (out of pragmatism or commercial pressure) on historical patterns of cultural recognition.
Overdressed and repetitive media myths, of the kind described by journalist and academic Jack Lule at work in constructing American news stories, lead to the representation of ‘bogans’ in Australian media as a judgement that tends to be more about the value of human distinctiveness rather than about news values alone. These judgements, or just plain snobbery, as QUT’s Professor Alan McKee calls it, are externalised onto personalised targets that do not often get the benefit of long-form storytelling or commanding quotes. It is as if embodying a self-determined dignity in the ‘bright-sided’ project of aspiring depended on denying it to others, not just on getting the right services, consuming the right commodities, and attending, as David Grazan says in Mix It Up (Norton, 2010), to the right sort of mass culture. The flow-on effect of this value judgement system into a journalists’ ‘interpretive community’ is that news media representations of complex cultures and issues rely on stories told previously by journalists about people and events seen as being similar, even if they are not. Those who do well out of these stories have mostly little cause for concern and can, evidently, afford to cop a satirical turn as the story projects fantasies of winning and losing, as Baudrillard describes them, onto a group that is patronised as culturally and socially disempowered. Sociologist and activist Bob Pease talks about these dominant perceptions of ‘the marginalised’ as groups requiring special study by an unmarked, normalised centre, who did those others a favour, somehow, by ‘including them’ in an also unnamed space or thing or activity that is controlled and policed by those already there.
Class in Australia does not get much critical or media attention, especially since boat people, terrorists, and Twitter mean that almost everyone finds common ground, somewhere, without actually having to go there. While that might seem like too glib or slick a styling of significant issues that deserve more attention in other stories, it is meant to put those symbols of anxiety and competitive social space in the same neighbourhood as the way people and areas are devalued and often compelled to shoulder blame for broader social problems they did not cause. Compared with running stories about ‘bogans’ and other demonised groups who are still supposed to ‘do better’ or act ‘normally’ while they bog up the rust or board up the windows, the underlying causes of collective uninterest remain largely invisible from outside.
Campbell, Melissa. ‘Little Bogan Lost: Examining Media Treatment of the Jaidyn Leskie Murder Case.’ Media International Australia incorporating Culture & Policy 104 (August, 2002): 116-126.
Delaney, Brigid. ‘Bogan benefits lost on smug intellectuals.’ National Times 28 December, 2010. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/bogan-benefits-lostonsmug-intellectuals-20101227-198g0.html
Don, Sallie. ‘Twist in Kiesha Abrahams investigation.’ The Australian (Online: 24 August, 2010).
Grazan, David. ‘The Rules of the Game: Cultural Consumption and Social Class in America.’ Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media and Society. New York: Norton, 2010: 132-151.
Griffin, Michelle. ‘Bogansville: Meet the New In-Crowd.’ The Age (Online: 12 July, 2002)
Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin-Allen Lane, 2007.
Lule, Jack. Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.