Who’s Afraid of the Rich and Entitled?

20 February 2017

As I got older and left high school, social class began to emerge in my life like a great beast shoving its way through a calm, fairy-tale forest. The more I read and the more I engaged with a larger and more diverse group of people, the more apparent this great invisible force controlled by affluence and appearance became, and it threatened to swallow me whole.

Broadly, our society can be expressed as split into three tiers: upper, middle and lower class. Each group is categorised by its relation to the other, conjunctively through wealth, education or cultural awareness. While at first this definition seems kind of simple, realising and understanding the boundaries and delineations it forces upon practically everyone is endlessly complex and often disregarded.

Growing up in a financially unstable but educated family, I developed a unique perspective into both working and middle class groups.

I would watch news reports of stabbings, robberies brawls and assaults in certain areas. I’d hear people laughing at the concept of “getting shanked at Broadie station”, or listening to fears of getting pickpocketed in Sunshine. The truth, I was soon to learn, was that there is no ‘good side’ or ‘bad side’ to the people I was once socially taught to fear.

As such, the further I immersed myself into this class struggle, a new reality became more and more present in my everyday world; one hidden by politeness and, ultimately, denial.

This realisation came in swarms: countless homeless people appeared on the streets I’d walk along everyday. Wealthy parents would push bulky and expensive prams past the same schools where some children could barely afford books and uniforms. Friends would tell me they didn’t want to walk down certain streets because they led alongside housing commission flats.

It culminated last October, when I asked a friend to come with me to Four Letter Word Theatre’s performance of Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? My friend and I are both intrigued by the representation of class – she draws about it, I write about it – so a text written from the perspective of the working class was one that fascinated us.

It was originally comprised of four different plays written by different Australian playwrights in 1998. One name in particular stood out for me: Christos Tsiolkas, author of class-centred texts like The Slap, Loaded or Barracuda.

Knowing Tsiolkas’ work, I envisaged a play that portrayed the working class as working class: a strong work ethic and a raw anger at oppressive forces.

The play trailed down from a livid monologue of a teenage boy’s sexual anger at Jeff Kennett, to familial rejection, theft, sex work and ultimately, death. It was at times as confronting as it was empowering, and it all kept compounding that notion that in the modern day, class was, in the words of Tom Marvolo Riddle, “very much alive”.

The entire play was loud and aggressive and succeeded in what I believe it set out to do: to give a voice to the marginalised and voiceless. The anger at domineering upper class political bodies, the exposure of quiet and polite shunning of everyday homelessness by the privileged, or the rejection and almost fear of people with mental illnesses. The play, as a play, was an achievement.

However, when asked how he went about researching his role in the play, actor James Martin, who played a racially-abusive white working-class man, responded, “I went to a private school… so most of my research was done through watching TV”.

This left me feeling unsettled. Largely shown as racist, sexist, self-hating, desperate, stupid and loud, why was it seen as okay for the Australian working-class to be portrayed as this, particularly by people who belong to a higher social status?

These thoughts culminated into one final event the night had still in waiting for me and my friend. As we climbed onto the 19 tram, we found ourselves confronted by a pack of partying Melbourne University college students on their way into the city.

We were pushed into the corner of the door and watched as the students drank openly, chanted obscenely, and yelled down the tram.

It was one man in particular who particularly revolted me and was the motivator for the writing of this piece. As we prepared to leave, he, dressed in expensively unmarked skinny jeans, a polo shirt and well-groomed hair, grinned at my friend and stuck his tongue between two outstretched fingers.

After what I’d just seen performed, what was intended as an empowering piece for the working class to be heard, became a disgusting exhibition of hypocrisy.

I agree with what I believe many of the original writer’s’ sentiments were in creating the play. We shouldn’t be afraid of the working class. Rather, we should be afraid of those who unashamedly characterise acts of indecency, and have the privilege and entitlement to escape any form of vitriol or deserving justice.

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