I’ll forgive you if you haven’t noticed, but people are afraid to go outside.
Marauding gangs of bumbag-wearing youths are running riot in Adelaide, painting over murals in Sydney, corrupting our sweet middle-class boys and even tempting our girls to swipe right on Tinder with their Pig Latin and their sexy little moustaches. Gasp.
At least that’s the impression you get from listening to certain radio programs, TV shows and newspapers, which in recent months have become obsessed with eshays.
Eshays, or lads, or adlays, are a youth subculture, originally from Western Sydney. They speak in Pig Latin. They listen to certain Australian hip-hop acts. They wear polo shirts, running shorts and Nike TN shoes. (I wish there was a way to describe the interests of people younger than yourself that didn’t make you sound like an old-timey newsreel, but there isn’t.)Video games have replaced music as the most important aspect of youth cultureSean MonahanRead more
The hilarious thing about this moral panic, a fact that even its proponents are forced to quietly acknowledge, is that lads are nothing new. I was scared of them when I was in primary school, which, for those keeping score, was around the time of the Sydney Olympics. It’s become so commonplace that elements of lad culture have been appropriated into hipsterdom. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the guy at the coffee shop is going to drop some sick latte art or ask if you’ve got a wallet, brah.
My nerdy 12-year-old self would probably be surprised to learn that he would one day write an article defending his rat-tailed tormentors, but he also had no idea how vapid, unimaginative and spiteful the commercial media of 2021 would be. They drove me to it, dude.Advertisement
The main reason the otherwise comical effort to stoke community concern about the “rise” of lad culture is interesting because it’s a microcosm of everything wrong with the Australian press.
For starters, they’re incredibly lazy. The commercial media could have become interested in the subculture and its celebration of petty crime at any point in the last three decades. But they didn’t, because it would have required actual work and maybe even a trip west of Surry Hills. Instead, in the way many commercial news stories are generated, they got on TikTok, noticed a new generation of 12-year-olds making videos and decided to run with it.
Bodgies, widgies, mods, rockers, skinheads, triads, Lebanese “gangs”, eshays. Even the format of the lad panic is a copy-paste job. These days you see something on social media, call a publicity-hungry academic and put in a request for comment to the police media unit. Boom, you’ve got a story. If I hadn’t exhausted my unlikely compassion on the lads themselves, I’d almost feel sorry for the police media people.
The Daily Mail even went so far as to run a stylised list of lad slang on its social media channels – a device so familiar it became a parody meme half a decade ago. At least the concerned parents of Australia have been able to sleep a little easier since the folks down at Bletchley Park/Mail HQ worked out that “illchay” means “chill”.
Of course, the facts themselves don’t matter. The eshay scourge is pure invention, a way to sell advertising, with no thought given to the context or consequences. The national youth crime rate is the lowest it’s been since the ABS started keeping track in 2008. It’s the vibe, though, and the vibe is a constant state of hysteria directed at the people least able to defend themselves.
The outlets behind the lad panic, much like the lads I knew at Drummoyne Public, always punch down. It’s much easier to demonise kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds than it is to hold the powerful to account, despite recent indications that the boys we should really be worried about wear high socks and boater hats, not polo shirts and trackies.
The Daily Telegraph story about the “rise of eshay culture on the Northern Beaches” and other fanciful references to eshays “overtaking the suburbs” tell you all you need to know. It only takes a moment to grasp the subtext: it was alright when it was just the kids in the housing commission flats, but our boys are better than that (not that that’s new either, North Shore lads existed 20 years ago).
As with everything in the Australian commercial media, there’s a powerful undercurrent of racism at play too. Despite the fact that eshays are a predominantly white working-class subculture – though a remarkably open one: there are plenty of Pasifika, Aboriginal, Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Asian lads out there – the prominent examples singled out by the media are almost exclusively non-white.
The Mail’s “inside” guide to eshay culture, for example, named the rapper and social media star Spanian, the Mount Druitt hip-hop group OneFour, UFC fighter Tai Tuivasa and NRL player Josh Addo-Carr. The only white face to be seen was the underground rapper Kerser, who’s only been around since Kevin Rudd was PM – the first time.
The lone element of media dysfunction that’s missing – and only because lads are a male culture – is the commercial press’s reflexive sexism. I’m sure they’ll work out an angle soon.
But what depresses me most about the whole thing is the utter lack of compassion and perspective. There’s no attempt to understand that maybe for a bunch of marginalised children there’s something attractive about a uniform and a sense of belonging. Or that creating a self-consciously aggressive, unpleasant subculture is the one of the few ways you can assert some agency in a society that already treats you like scum.
And the perpetual present of the news can’t acknowledge that kids have always gotten themselves into trouble. It’s part of growing up. Take it from The Daily Telegraph: since its big splash on eshays, the paper has run dozens of articles celebrating “larrikins”, a term used in the 19th century to refer to … gangs of antisocial youths.
I wouldn’t go as far as Spanian, who, in response to Kyle and Jackie O’s mockery, said we should celebrate eshays as the first homegrown culture since white settlement. And I’m not coming out in favour of youth crime – I don’t think the Guardian would run that, for starters.
But a bunch of kids talking the same tough talk they’ve talked for years isn’t news. There are far more dangerous groups to worry about, like the far right. Or the rowing team.
I guess what I’m saying is, illchay, lads.
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