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Bogan in the eye of the beholder: the curious case of Rebel Wilson

Rebel Wilson in Melbourne for her defamation trial against Bauer Media. AAP Image/Joe Castro

Bogan in the eye of the beholder: the curious case of Rebel Wilson

The current legal action between Bauer Media and actress Rebel Wilson has created yet another opportunity for the notion of the “bogan” to rear its head in popular media. Wilson has sued Bauer Media for defamation following the publication of a series of articles that included claims Wilson lied about her age, name, and several aspects of her upbringing.

In response to this, Wilson has detailed her “bogan” childhood in court. She was implored by her barrister to define the term, and responded by surmising that there are “many aspects to being a bogan.”

“I kind of use it very endearingly,” she said. “Right now I’d be a cashed-up bogan.”

This is the perennial problem with the word. Is it abuse? Is it benign descriptor? Or is it even, perhaps, praise?

There would certainly be people who would suggest that law graduate Wilson’s childhood in Sydney’s north-western suburbs – assisting her mother’s passion for beagle breeding, being a high achiever at an elite independent school, taking a gap year in South Africa, even contracting malaria – don’t really tally with the common conception of the bogan.

But there’s a really good reason for that. Bogan is entirely in the mind of the beholder: it is a standard term used to identify and demonise specific sectors of the population.

A slippery word

The word “bogan” may have Aboriginal origins (it appears in a range of central western NSW place names) but its meaning and origin is obscure. The word can describe an individual, choices relating to their consumption, activities, and the places they frequent.

It is the Australian equivalent of “redneck”, “white trash” or “chav”. It was popularised nationally by Mary-Anne Fahey in the guise of schoolgirl Kylie Mole in The Comedy Company starting in late 1988. Here, curiously, Mole – now known internationally as a bogan – used that word against her enemies and never to describe herself.

However minutely we scrutinise the origins of the term, however, it is more likely to be a word that just “works”. No wonder so many people think they know what it means – and apply it to a range of uncultured, poor, backward, uneducated social groups. The flipside to that is, of course, it can also be applied to millionaires (we won’t assume to know how much Rebel Wilson is worth – but bogan was certainly famously used to describe the currently bankrupt Nathan Tinkler).

Wilson made her first big splash co-writing and starring in the 2008 SBS series Bogan Pride. Her character, Jennie Cragg, was similarly a far more motivated, intelligent, creative person than most people’s conception of the bogan.

Rebel Wilson’s foray into boganity with Bogan Pride.

Far from the usual “white trash” stereotype, Cragg’s everyday hang-out is the school library; the third episode of the show revolves around the Maths Olympiad, the highlight of her academic year. Geography and – somehow – genes make Jennie Cragg a bogan in her own estimation, but her nerdiness surely negates it in the minds of many.

Bogan, or just suburban?

Bogans are often seen to live in particular areas, reflecting geographical class distinctions. Photographs of Wilson’s childhood tendered in court have been used to compare boganity with suburbia, and the two occupy a similar space in the imagination of many Australians. Far-flung suburbs of major Australian cities are almost synonymous with the bogan, although the term “suburban” lacks the sting of an acerbic, class-based insult.

To be suburban is to simply possess a certain character and way of life, with a visual motif of brick veneer, eucalypts, and culs-de-sac, the very same which Hugh Stretton countered in his seminal text, Ideas for Australian Cities.

Bogan is far more derisive, and bound up with common markers of taste and consumption: the humble moccasin, flannel shirt, and Ned Kelly’s final utterance of “such is life” (later adopted as the title of a televised series on the career of AFL star Ben Cousins).

The phenomenon of reappropriating a term of abuse as a badge of pride is common enough around the world; “gay” (or “fag”) is a great example. We may now be seeing this happening with the word “bogan”.

Wilson is an unusual talent: that she has been able to carve out a career in Hollywood without compromising her admittedly gentle and self-parodying approach to acting, much less her “Australianness”, is to be admired. There is little doubt that she has as much right to use the word bogan as anyone.