Tag Archives: larrikin

Bogan vs Larrikin

8 Jun

The term ‘bogan’ is one we often hear bandied about in Australia these days, not least by websites such as Things Bogans Like, Bogan Bingo and bogan.com.au. For those not familiar with the term, it used to mean something between redneck and suburban hillbilly, referring to uneducated persons of low income and crude opinions dressed in ugg boots and flannelette shirts. Now it used in a looser sense, used as a label for any person deemed to possess vulgar tastes. Among its enumeration of bogan enthusiasms, for example, the Things Bogans Like site includes reality TV, Palazzo Versace Australia, Buddhist statues as home furnishings and Louis Vuitton bags bought in Thailand. The official website for the Kath and Kim TV series adds to this list Gucci Envy Me clutch sprays and tan-in-a-can.

The fact that so many people are being called bogans these days seems to reflect an anxiety about the expansion of credit-fuelled consumption in Australian society. It also springs from people’s desire to prove the superiority of their own tastes by ridiculing other people’s tastes as bogan.

Since the bogan phenomenon is concerned with recent developments, it obviously differs from the idea of the larrikin during the period I discuss in Larrikins: A History, the book I finally finished writing earlier this year – that is, the years between 1870 and 1930. When the word larrikin first came into common Australian parlance in the late 1860s, at any rate, it meant ‘hoodlum’ or ‘street tough’. It was used by journalists and police to refer to young rowdies or street-gang members, or as a defiant way for those young people to refer to themselves. Rather than tapping into anxieties about credit-fuelled consumption or attention-seeking antics among newly cashed-up boors, the term larrikin was thus more concerned with fears of youthful street disorder.

Even though early usage of the word larrikin was initially different to the way that bogan is now used, it is interesting to note that a series of caricatures, theatrical skits and written pieces were published in the Australian press at the turn of the century that poked fun of larrikin youths’ style in a way not too different from bogan jokes today. These caricatures implied that rough larrikins were the epitome of vulgar tastes: whether because of what they wore, or how they talked, or the way they chose to amuse themselves.

Fascinatingly, too, the Australian colloquialism lair, which seems to have come into usage sometime later in the twentieth century, was essentially a combination of the two terms. It referred to someone of rowdy manners and loud dress sense: a hybrid of the word larrikin as it was once understood and bogan as it is understood today. In some ways, then, the bogan name-calling phenomenon isn’t wholly new. It would be interesting to know when exactly lair came into use, and when it  fell out of currency – because in many ways it described colourfully vulgar lifestyle choices not too different from those called bogan today.

The Larrikin’s Hop & blackface minstrelsy

15 Nov





Well, my article on larrikins’ use of popular theatre to fashion their identity on colonial streets is to be published in Australasian Drama Studies sometime soonish, called “The Larrikin’s Hop”. The title comes from a larrikin song sung in blackface in the late 1880s and early 1890s, by Australian minstrel-vaudeville comic, Will Whitburn.


I’m now writing a piece for an American journal about larrkins’ relationship to blackface performance. To this end, I’m neck-deep in four wonderful works: Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), Shane and Graham White’s Stylin’ (1998), W T Lhamon Jnr’s Raising Cain (1998), and William J. Mahar’s Behind the Burnt Cork Mask (1999). For sheer style, these books are treats. Each abounds with the literary equivalent of the black/face masculine dash it describes. ‘This passage, in all its woozy syntax and headlong rush’, writes Lott at one point, describing how it feels to be taken on some of his own more virtuoso prose-flights. White historians might not be able to jump, it seems, but they sure as hell can kick up a syntactical shindig if they choose.  

Reading this American scholarship is prompting me to think about the reasons that blackface minstrelsy appealed to Australian larrikins, and how this was different (if at all) to its appeal to the white working-class in America. That blackface  appealed to disaffected youths in Australia, many of them from an Irish background, obviously has a lot to do with the way blackness and blackface operated symbolically throughout English-speaking western society. (On this point, Robert Nowatzki has written an interesting article about the appeal of blackface to Irish immigrants to America).

Even with this transnational logic at work, however, it is not possible to make everything said about the American minstrel-show applicable to Australia. Each of the historians I’ve just mentioned see minstrelsy as a way for white Americans to come to terms with abolition, with the consequent troubling presence of free blacks in public places, and the competition for work between black Americans and the white working-class. Obviously, Australia had its own history of violent struggle between Aboriginal people and white colonists. But there was not a daily confrontation and inter-relation between white and black in Australian cities as there was, say, in New York. Australian working-class resentment was directed primarily at Chinese labourers – a fact no doubt influencing minstrel efforts to distinguish representations of blackface from Asianness there.

The combined effect of these things meant there was not the same intensity in Australia to the dynamic Lott identifies in white Americans’ relationship to blackface. He speaks of white Americans’ voyeuristic fascination for black bodies, which built up a kind of Freudian charge from frequent contact in urban places. He also speaks of a white longing to mock and plunder black culture, to steal from it and hobble its power. Neither of these related forms of desire existed with the same forceful immediacy in Australia. As a result, the minstrel-show was never as socially threatening there.

Australian minstrelsy attracted a more diverse audience than its American or English counterparts: it still appealed to workingpeople and the ‘disorderly classes’, but it wasn’t confined to this constituency. Blackface could also be used more freely to signify other things in addition to race: anti-authoritarianism, sexual licence, the pleasures of display and violent release. And in particular, its style was available to Australian larrikins, open for adoption and combination with other influences (that of Irish and Cockney characters from English music-halls, for example) to become part of their own distinctive identity.