Bogans run - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 31: Ways of Seeing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Janine Little
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.