Ciggie butt brains indict Aussie middle class elitism


Damo and Darren in Train Station

Like many aspiring intellectuals, I spent a good deal of my 14th year smoking ciggies at Glenroy Station with my hair smoothed into the tightest bun ever with glitter hair gel.

The appeal of train stations to burnouts and bored teenagers is that they are the perfect suburban nightmare. Sitting inert at a passage of transit while others around you move challenges the logic of mobility. And isn't mobility the cornerstone of middle classness? Why would you go somewhere else that is crap, when this crap place is fine? Why would you displace your own boredom? Also, teenagers have no money, and no reason, really, to go anywhere. You got a ciggie?

So when last year Damo and Darren's 'Train Station', Michael Cusack’s animation of an obscene 'part derro, part yobbo, part bogan' duo fighting over a lighter — 'If you want a lighter, why don't you just go to the servo and get one?' 'Cause, you dopey c***, I just spent all my Centrelink on Samantha's child support, didn't I?' — was published on YouTube, it clocked 2 million views in its first month, and made people very happy.

When I showed the animation to a friend who had grown up in England's north under Margaret Thatcher, he was not hugely amused. 'Why are Australians laughing at poor people?' he asked. I tried to make a point about affection, recognition, and maybe even identification: 'Train stations are like an Australian rite of passage.' But then I realised I was basically justifying my own snobbery. Laughing at Damo and Darren is classist. Why do Australians laugh at poor people?

Cusack published a follow-up Damo and Darren animation this week called 'Skatepark', which is just as depressing as its forerunner. Damo and Darren, a 'couple of old blokes', spend their Sundays getting intoxicated in the skatepark. When the youth 'disrespect' them by skating in the skatepark, they must defend their turf.

In the artist's defence, he captures a particular Australian vernacular that a huge number of Australian speakers hear and use often, but never see represented in art or the media unless it is in the context of identifying a criminal. Cusack is a sharp observer, and some of the laughter he invokes comes from the recognition that the way we speak is kind of abject, kind of funny.

But I suspect that most of the laughter from most of the viewers comes from us distinctly not identifying with Damo and Darren. They are addicts, they pay their child support from their Centrelink cheques, they suffer from 'ciggie butt brain'. We may have hung out at train stations, we may use the language they do while in impolite company, but we are definitely not them.

Because no one is really them. Not even the real derros/yobbos/bogans. If you could really identify with them, you'd have to admit that there's poverty in Australia (there is), that the effects of poverty are spiritually and physiologically crippling (they are), and that the socio-economic distribution of education is alarming (it is).

But then, identifying any act as classist in Australia provokes contempt. Because most Australians who believe they are middle class have working class or migrant (or both) roots, they believe they cannot be classist. They believe that since they or their forebears worked their way out of poverty (instead of benefiting from a bizarre, inequitable and unsustainable set of historical conditions), they are entitled to laugh at people who suffer from 'ciggie butt brain'. (Okay, it is kind of funny. The phrase, at least.)

When Tim Elliot reckons that a benign dictatorship is necessary because democracy isn't working out, we can see how the concept of 'elitism' is misplaced onto middle class tastemakers, rather than actual economic elites. It would seem that, until recently (thanks, Queensland!), we have been voting against our own interest due to this belief that we are in fact all middle class, even if we are a hair's breadth away from contracting ciggie butt brain.

Inactivity is a terrifying thing to behold in a work-obsessed country like Australia. Get a job, mate, be middle class like the rest of us (think we) are.

But middle class or not — so what? Most of us cycle through the repetitions of the day as regular as a train schedule, kept afloat by the minutiae of gossip and conflict. Damo and Darren's inertia is suffocating, but they're the urban proletariat, and so even if they were to get work, their jobs'd be just as inane as sitting at a skatepark.

And to what end? To be getting on a train rather than sitting there, visible to middle-class people, making them feel uncomfortable about poverty? Or is it just to displace boredom?

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing. 


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Damo and Darren, middle class



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Existing comments

Excellent social commentary. More please.

Peter Goers | 20 February 2015  

A sobering article! particularly if you re-read it after watching the two video clips! Unfortunately, this is a stark reality for many older teens and young adults that find themselves aimless, jobless, unemployable, and too quickly consigned to the scrapheap of life: "Damo and Darren's inertia is suffocating, but they're the urban proletariat, and so even if they were to get work, their jobs'd be just as inane as sitting at a skate park!" How true! A couple of weeks ago, I was confronted, on a walk to the local supermarket, by two males and a lass - probably no more than 20 years old - demanding money for food. As they were all smoking, and one of them had a half-finished stubbie in his hand, I refused. Well, the language that spewed forward from them was well akin to what "Damo & Darren" would have taken as their normal vernacular! Fortunately, I was in a public place and was able to walk away safely. Not all such "cultural encounters" end the same way! What possibly can be positively done for them in such a seemingly closed environment?

Yuri Koszarycz | 20 February 2015  

Thanks. You are so right. I cringe when I see people laughing at someone 'going off' in public. They are not us. Like a,side show freak.

Pat | 20 February 2015  

Yes, I agree with Peter. Thank you Ellena for highlighting some of our nation's dark truths: "Because no one is really them. Not even the real derros/yobbos/bogans. If you could really identify with them, you'd have to admit that there's poverty in Australia (there is), that the effects of poverty are spiritually and physiologically crippling (they are), and that the socio-economic distribution of education is alarming (it is)." We need these truths brought out into the light and onto our media's headlines.

Robert Van Zetten | 20 February 2015  

I am ashamed to say when I read the first para of this article I sent it (the whole article that is) to the 'rubbish bin' but later in the day when I was clearing out my 'rubbish bin' as is my wont on a Friday afternoon, my conscience was pricked as to why I had rejected Ellena's article so peremptorily. What had happened to my self-proclaimed 'open mind'? So I read the whole article, slowly, deliberately, but alas with an ever increasing irritability. You see I bristle at impossible to answer questions like "Why do Australians laugh at poor people?" Had the question been why do some Australians laugh at poor people I could see a good subject for sociological investigation. But the unencumbered plural noun 'Australians'? That was a step too far. I admire Ellena when she includes herself in the declaration 'Most of us cycle through the repetitions of the day etc.' because that gives me a chance of get on my high horse and gallop off in another direction. PS. I'm disappointed to see so few comments on quite an interesting question. What part does class identification play in our laughing at the mores of other classes?

Uncle Pat | 20 February 2015  

Ciggie Butt Brain is an Australian masterpiece. A flawless work of unripe tragedy beyond the dowdy musings, and genteel canopy of Ellena's lifted brow and grad-student brain. Damo and Darren are not urban proleteriats, they are wild sensations of Aussie comedy. Why? Comedy is crammed with hapless odd couples whose entwined stupidity has for generations entertained. That one persistantly goads and blames the other for their inability to make good, or get ahead of any situation has been bread and butter of comedy duos for God knows, and its incidence are everywhere - in all lives and across all classes. What is not everywhere in this country are animators whose expertise and imagination combine with such precise observation to make something so hilarious. I think what lots of Australians really get, and love about this animation, is that IT IS animation! And despite their situation, Damo and his belligerant friend are mates. The scrawny platform play of insults and finger pointing we recognise as bluster. Maybe even Illawarra junkie bluster? The ending is key, the voicing and timing perfect - as it is throughout 'Oi Damo, ya still comin 'roun this arvo ?' 'Yeaaap...' 'Orright, see ya then mate.' Mates.

Al Stewart | 20 February 2015  

Thanks for the sharp article; great to see I'm not alone in noting some jarring responses to this cartoon from viewers, mainstream press & the internet. Don't get me wrong- I laughed at this pair, partly with the shock of recognition & partly because Michael Cusack has a good comic brain. But I've also noticed locally a kind of bogan-shaming phenomenon that seems to have appeared since the rise of Howard's aspirationals. Just look at the clearing out of spaces for poor unemployed in city centres and malls, so that folks can enjoy overpriced cafes without the unpleasantness that comes with being reminded of their working class roots. It's a disturbing trend and I think your call of elitism is bang on. If Cusack manages to make his characters sympathetic it might go some way to providing more than cheap giggles.

Patrick Lyons | 23 February 2015  

I think, in his way, Michael Cusack is as much an astute and affectionate observer and chronicler of a certain segment of Australian working class life as C J Dennis and Barry Humphries were on other aspects of our unique cultural landscape. I think your North- of- England raised acquaintance is off target with his inappropriate class warfare analogy. As a Wollongong raised son of a former policeman Cusack could hardly be regarded as a sneering member of the new plutocracy. I think you are far more than an "aspiring intellectual" of the Parkville or Newtown variety, Ellena. From my experience in those environs, I think many of those "intellectuals" involve themselves with irrelevancies and are in love with their own braying voices. You are nothing like that but an astute observer of the current state of Australian social and cultural life. What is more, you actually make people sit up and think.

Edward Fido | 26 February 2015  

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