“Eres tú mismo, precisamente cuando no sabes quién eres y ni te importa saberlo.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky
“You are yourself, exactly when you don’t know who you are and you don’t care to find out.” (translation by me)
Have you thought about your identity lately? I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking about it. I never really thought of myself as ‘gay’ until I had to ‘come out’ and explain why I wasn’t going to date a girl soon. I never really thought of myself as inherently ‘Australian’ until I lived overseas and people continually asked me where I was from. I never really thought of myself as a ‘hipster’ until…
A few years ago, I became a part of an arts collective whose main goal it was to organise events throughout the year that were (to us) fun and would draw a crowd outside of our established friendship circles. We hoped to create critical mass in a city so disparate and fundamentally cliquey. We started out small and, like some sort of awkward more-dirt-than-snow snowball, gathered more and more followers, volunteers, general well-wishes, and even a few antagonists along the way. We won a bunch of awards and remembered to congratulate ourselves when we weren’t stressed with finding new ways of getting funding.
I’m about to move cities and the legacy of the arts collective is quite impressive for a bunch of angular, outspoken, nerdy types doing it all voluntarily. If I were on a reality TV show, I’d insert a ‘journey’ story, but the only way I’ve really changed through the experience is in my own confidence: I know now that I can achieve things, that I’m not nihilistically lazy, and that hard work pays off (with failure being the necessary and universal stumbling block). But even before I was surrounded by dynamic groups of emerging artists, writers and musicians, I was what would be referred to now as a ‘hipster’, though for some reason the term wasn’t as pervasive in the mid-00s as it is today. I only know that I must have been one because the term ‘hipster’ has been levelled at the arts collective numerous times since.
What I can deduce from connotations associated with the derogative use of the word ‘hipster’ is that it’s someone who tries to gain status through taste: what they wear (were you the ‘first’ to discover an amazing Scandinavian denim range? Did you ‘source’ a locally designed shirt?); what they do (never working full time or somewhere mainstream, or if you do it’s for the inner-city rent and to subsidise the clothing); what they listen to (anything before it’s too popular, anything else ‘ironically’); and even what they eat (there are a few subcategories here: vegetarians, vegans, and post-colonial ‘discoverers’ – ie “I found this amazing Iranian restaurant the other night…”). These are people who relish the word “bespoke” and loved dragonfruit that one time they bought it at the farmers’ market.
I classify myself as ‘hipster’ only because I could write the above list knowingly and I definitely exhibit a few too-cool-for-school tendencies (What, you’ve never seen a Jodorowsky film?, I have Twitter and Tumblr accounts, etc). But this is the point. Stereotypes are not indicative of a person’s entire identity. I don’t ride fixies nor have I bought an Olympus Trip 35, but I’ll claim ‘hipster’ if I have to. I know the struggle with labels intimately (remember I’m ‘gay’), which is why the trend to buck the trend-setters is what interests me, because I think it ties in with Australian cultural cringe and the identity of the ‘anti-bogan’.
In the article “Maliciousness in Memes” by Elizabeth Humphrys recently published in Overland, the author raises awareness about ‘othering’ groups of people – in this case ‘bogans’ – and critiques self-righteousness and classism. While I found it interesting, I didn’t think it took into account the breadth of semiotics involved with Australia’s favourite label.
What exactly constitutes a ‘bogan’? That depends on who you ask. (Ask @theantibogan. Or trawl through thingsboganslike.com.) When I’ve used the term as an insult I imagine a bigoted (mostly homophobic – coz, you know, they’re the ones mainly out to get me), loud, nationalistic, probably racist Anglo-Australian. When I say ‘cashed-up bogan’, I’m referring to European and Anglo-Australians who are materialistic, politically-apathetic, and are probably the people driving this country’s economy. Both the ‘bogan’ and ‘cashed-up bogan’ in my mind don’t value education. I’ve asked my friends what connotations the word ‘bogan’ carries for them, and every one said something different. What resulted was that they ‘othered’ people they assumed judge their own identity: based on socio-economics, dress-sense, job-title, education, gender, cultural heritage, or sexuality. [Others said they have embraced the ‘bogan’ within, and see it as a part of the self-deprecating Australian identity. These people might revel in their boganry until one night they too receive shouted profanities from a passing VK Commodore with Ned Kelly decals.]
On the other hand, people tend to be more critical of characteristics in others that they recognise in themselves. There’s an adage that the people who are the most overtly homophobic probably fall closer on the spectrum to homosexuality than not. Another, newer, adage claims that the only people who are anti-hipster are hipsters themselves. The logic comes from the fact that only someone who keeps abreast of trends will recognise others who are following them. Does this mean that those of us staunchly anti-bogan are really Jim Beam swilling, fast-car fanatics (or however else you define a ‘bogan’) deep, deep down?
Are we just gaining status by making fun of those we deem less cultured than us?
Maybe; but there’s more to cultural cringe than that. First, let’s look at Australian national identity theory with a reductive history lesson:
Non-Indigenous Australians have a deep-rooted sense of what they are not; but not a very clear idea of what they are. This stems from the colonial ‘us’ (the wardens) versus ‘them’ (the convicts): “we are not convicts”; or ‘us’ (the convicts) versus ‘them’ (the wardens): “we are not the oppressors”; or ‘us’ (the first Europeans) versus ‘them’ (the indigenous people and the ‘terra nullius’ landscape): “we are not of this land”. Subsequent migration to the country has continued in this fashion: new migrants identify neither with the Anglo-Australian or Indigenous cultures (the latter being a dicey discourse for most non-Indigenous Australians to find positionality in, unless you’re Andrew Bolt) and choose instead to identify with the culture they came from, which becomes an idealised version of that nationality.
Historically, the Anglo-Australian identity is adverse to accountability: non-convict British (wardens) didn’t identify with the convicts, nor as being new-Australians, and so chose to identify as British, thereby distancing themselves further from their new surroundings. A deeply entrenched ‘othering’ of the landscape is a profound part of non-Indigenous Australian identity. It has led to destruction, not only of Aboriginal cultures, but destruction of flora and fauna, introduction of flora and fauna to counter the original destruction, the Stolen Generations (whereby the wardens tried to ‘save’ the natives from themselves), and the new mindset of the ‘anti-bogan’.
Writing about Australian national identity is tough. Australians are generally hyper-critical by nature, and as I’ve already outlined, we’re quick to say what we’re not (ergo not being accountable for what we are). Even though we may frequently position ourselves against them, believe it or not, the majority of us are neither bogan nor hipster. We’re just – well what? This isn’t necessarily an Australia specific quandary, either. Daniel Lampien says: “The constant renewing and the self-hate is why there a fewer things that actually are Swedish. Except the things that are so Swedish that we don’t even recognise it. Like using the word ‘unSwedish’.” So how do we identify as ‘Australian’? Are we ‘Australian’ because we all like a cold beer and a barbie on a Summer’s day? Well, what’s more likely is that we are ‘Australian’ because together we live our lives in this dichotomy of ‘wardens’ (berating ‘bogans’; lamenting what to do about the plight of Indigenous Australians; and revelling in OH&S policy) and whoever we’re ‘othering’ at any given time (‘bogans’, ‘hipsters’, ‘the gays’, boat people, Muslims, Americans, etc.). We’re egalitarian and champion the underdog only until it becomes a (real or imaginary) threat to our identity.
I can hear some of you snorting in derision already. So I ask you: how do you define your ‘Australianness’? Keep in mind your identity is based more on what you do than what you say you are. I know I’m Australian because when travelling I ‘other’ other Australians who make a point of loudly announcing that they’re Australian. Why? I guess it’s cultural cringe: I feel like I’m being represented by the ‘bogans’ that found their way out of the country. I call this inappropriate and misinformed feeling of shame the ‘Changi Giant Toblerone Syndrome’: that moment in the Asian airport hub – on your way back from Europe or wherever – when you hear your first unadulterated Aussie accent for a long time, sounding out banalities about duty free purchases. All of I sudden I forget any notion of individual identity and fear I’m being judged on the actions of others.
On the contrary, the insecurity that marks the anti-bogan sentiment makes me think that Australians are much less individualistic than we claim to be (as opposed to group mentalities in some Asian cultures). There’s an inherent yearning for a strong, unifying national identity, untarnished by classism, colonialism and contempt for the landscape. There’s a longing for validation from the rest of the world, while we self-consciously worry whether we’re representing ourselves ‘properly’ to ourselves in the media mirror.
There’s no better example of this than the recent QANTAS misstep. And no, not the union strikes. For a while on QANTAS flights, John Travolta – well-known for owning an old QANTAS Boeing 707 – introduced the recorded safety demonstration. This American actor addressing Australians on their national airline sent audible groans of discontent throughout the passenger cabin. It was changed a couple of months ago to Australian pilots, but this trajectory is common: Australians will seek out a foreigner (or self-appointed warden, like government-funded arts policies) to validate the national brand, then will pander to dissent on account of perceived condescension. It’s like we’re teenagers hungry for approval but wanting to develop independence at the same time: we’ll get stroppy if anyone else tells us who we are, though feel unrepresented if ignored.
Having this youthful (though precocious) attitude means we worry more about our future identity, rather than being hung up on losing a proud history. The upside to a shameful past and an elusive identity is that we’re free to adapt and change; we’re not bogged down with a subscription to nationalistic nostalgia or boxed in by dogma.
The downside is that we critique culture(s) to make up for the lack of cultural identity we perceive we possess: we try to grasp at what is ‘Australian’ by what is ‘unAustralian’. We define ourselves as cosmopolitan, intelligent, open-minded, tasteful, global citizens by othering ‘bogans’ – but we’re not smug about being those things because that would be considered ‘tall poppy’; and a lack of self-deprecation is definitely ‘unAustralian’. Maybe ‘hipster’ qualities in a person are anathema to the Australian identity because they exemplify the tall poppy syndrome? But perversely, being a tall poppy now and then might actually make us more accountable. God knows we need a tall poppy (read: ‘leader’) in Australian politics, rather than two parties that self-consciously base policies on the anti-.
I’ve had enough experience being anti- (self-hating gay, anti-hometown, anti-Australia) to know one can’t find solace in ones identity like that. However, the wrong interpretation of not being anti- is to adopt and wear the imposed label with pride. Oh no. Identity should come from pride in what you do, not pride in your byline. In fact, those labels like ‘bogan’ and ‘hipster’ and ‘gay’ are just adjectives, and should be treated as such. Nobody is the personification of a label. I’m not ‘proud’ to be a hipster (noun), I just accept that some parts of my lifestyle could be deemed as hipster (adjective). I’m proud of what I’ve achieved with that arts collective, which has had a greater impact on my identity than what wearing an oversized jumper ever could.
Similarly, during bouts of ‘Changi Giant Toblerone Syndrome’ I worry that my Australian identity is being co-opted by culturally insensitive boors, but what I should do is acknowledge how similar we are as ‘Australians’: I’m critiquing their culture and they’re critiquing the culture they’ve just visited. Both of us are determining our identity as Australians by what we deem as not suitably Australian. We both exercise our Australianness by becoming ‘wardens’ – I impose on them the label of ‘bogan’, while they amp up the ocker voices and deride the cleanliness of the restaurant that gave them Bali belly.
So being anti-bogan is just our way of exhibiting the unaccountable nature of our national identity. Anyone can exhibit bogan – or hipster, or gay, or liberal, or feminist, or Australian – traits, however it takes much more confidence to transcend these acquired or imposed labels and just be yourself.
And that’s what I was thinking about identity lately.
Well, at least I think I was… I’m not sure.
*finds way of being unaccountable* :S