Wanky Classism: Behind VICE’s Thug-Bashing Narrative

Hipsters of the world, unite!

A spectre is haunting VICE – the spectre of the working class.

After thrashing England’s “Young Douchebags” and debunking the American Bro, the popular mag has recently expanded its reach into the international realm: “Essi Vivono!” (“They Live!”) titles the Italian leg of the thug-bashing tour.

As a former contributor to a publication with headlines including: “Emoji Death Treats and Instagram’s Codeine Kingpin”, “Seattle Has a Hunted Soda Machine” or “A Visit to a Mormon Temple on Acid”, famous for its “immersionist”, gonzo-style of reporting and a smart-alecky attitude when visiting war-torn countries, I obviously did not expect the rigour of an academic pamphlet.

And yet these articles went rapidly viral, with thousands of “likes” on Facebook and veteran reporters to the likes of Paul Mason declaring: “Every line of this is gonna be quoted for years to come,” as he shared Clive Martin’s take on young British men – an article in which the first paragraph boasts:

“Their heads are too small for their bodies, their shoulders are wider than a pub television and they have shit Robbie Williams tattoos. They look dreadful and bizarre; they are the modern British douchebag – pumped, primed, terrifyingly sexualised high-street gigolos.”

The Return of Moral Panic

Photo by Jake Lewis. Taken from VICE.

As a truffle-hunting dog, VICE has always displayed a talent for sniffing social oddities. Some may find its post-modern kind of smirking at things insufferable, but one must admit that very few mags put so much money into investigative journalism. Its apparently easy-going, detached outlook is scientifically planned; its editorial line never random, but attentively coordinated.

Within this frame, it comes as no surprise that the formula used in all these “Beware the Dudes” pieces is identical:

(Editor’s Note: I’ll be using acronyms: Young Douchebags = YD; American Bro = AB; Italian Bullies = IB)

  • A shallow, dehumanizing look on the subject, starting from the choice of the URL: “anatomy-of-a-new-modern-douchebag” (YD); “this-american-bro-an-ethological-study.” (AB)
  • A generous pinch of “moral panic”, with the suggestion that the reader is somehow encircled: the new Italian bullies“Are Stealing Your Show”; in Britain they “Took Over”. The American Bro “is on the Metro North train to Manhattan from some grassy, forgettable Westchester suburb,” John Saward wrote. “When he boarded the train he was carrying a case of light beer, but now it is on the floor, obstructing the aisle, in everyone’s wayhis entire existence is in everyone’s way.
  • A touch of Victorian nostalgia for the lads: “They were the strongest and most fearless, beacons of Northern European masculinity. The descendants of Lord Byron, Lawrence of Arabia and Geoff Hurst.”  (YD)
  • Some hints of homophobia: “[T]hose old ideals of male attractiveness – the ‘charmer’, ‘the bit of rough’, ‘the sullen thinker’ – are almost dead”. “We all know that a lot of young British men now look like Ken dolls dipped in tea and covered in biro.” (YD)

It would be impossible to go further without understanding who is “us” and who is “them”, according to VICE’s narrative; who’s the victim and who’s the offender. The latter is pretty easy to determine: it’s the “dreadful and bizarre” savage, a denizen gone out of control, invading your territory with his overly sexual manners and an exaggerated, “pumped” body. A tasteless, illiterate, yet tech-savvy individual whose primary instinct is to appear, to occupy spaces where he shouldn’t belong.

Photo by Alex Caroppi. Taken from VICE.

British author Owen Jones has written powerful pages on the demonization of the “chavs” – an English derogatory term referring, broadly, to the white, suburban, impoverished working class. A class now become the scapegoat for the collapse of Western society, and constantly under the attack of conservative media (Daily Star, The Sun, etc.) and depicted as a living hell by tv shows (Benefits Street, The only Way Is Essex, etc.) The feasting, chanting, sexually active unemployed are the worst of them all: they don’t even deserve to be included in the “working class” category – they’re sinners, “scroungers”, and entirely lacking in any cultural consideration.

VICE contributors seem to suggest, on the one hand, that these “monsters” are actually part of a more evolved, decently affluent crowd, able to spend hundreds of million of dollars of creatine, ripped clothes and alcohol. “Thanks to Berlusconi… they lived their own Millenarian Reich,” Matteo Gagliardi and Pietro Guiso wrote, thus classifying the Italian Chav as a sort of brainchild the society of the spectacle. “Raised in wealthy neighbourhoods, they are mostly sons of politicians, lawyers and dentists.”

On the other hand, what really matters to the authors is to establish which boundaries have been crossed so shamefully by these abominations: “Now The Cure, Joy Division e Boys Noize are within their range” (IB). Same story in England: “[E]very event I ever went to (bar a goths-only social club in north London) there seemed to be at least three or four of these gym bunny wankers,” Martin (YD) wrote. “Emo nights, indie nights, student nights, dubstep nights, nights out in Milton Keynes and Magaluf – the modern British douchebag was there at every one.” And in the US: “He is at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at Santacon, at happy hour on Cinco de Mayo, in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.” (AB).

Every country is inhabited by educated people decrying the vulgarity of “subcultures”. Southern Italian pop singers, with all their imagery made of bronzed muscles, Maori tattoos and expensive haircuts, are constantly targeted by the witty irony of post-grad students and intellectuals. This is what happens, also, in other Mediterranean countries or in South America, where the consumerist excesses of the marginal are continuously mocked by the well-off. It doesn’t matter if in those lyrics you can find teenage pregnancies, emigration, unrequited love – something  the working class can more easily relate to than, say, books romanticizing poverty and austerity. Also the relationship between masculinity and muscularity goes back thousands of years. Michelangelo’s David is a perfect example of a pumped up dude who pays excessive attention to his appearance. This phenomenon is neither uniform nor prevalent, as there are numerous other fashions and popular subcultures amongst young men.

But of course, if an article has to find a way to arouse its readership, classist stereotyping is the easiest shortcut to it. And while it’s hard to defend certain excesses of lower classes from a radical perspective, seen how pervasive and violent the consumerist culture has become, the ultimate goal of these post-modernist liturgies seems not really to explore diversity and offer a more appealing standpoint, but rather to set up fences, establishing which “popular culture” is authentic and which one is rotten.


Photo via Flickr user Rochelle, just rochelle. Taken from VICE.

But how can we describe the readership that VICE is so blatantly trying to protect?

For a media outlet that The Independent once described as the “New Teen Bible”, with skyrocketing profits and an IPO under consideration, that must be a very precious audience. We can picture it as a young, educated male in his twenties, intrigued by news that other publications will not carry, with a pretty high self-esteem. Read the assumption that: “[I]t’s the people who hate him [the douchebag] the most who birthed this weird social orphan,” as claimed in YD. A concept somewhat echoed in IB: “Thanks to you Breaking Bad is their latest obsession. Thanks to you they finally replaced the old Godfather poster with The Wolf of Wall Street.” Where the young educated middle class really failed, according to VICE, is in having become too tolerant, too inclusive, too weak with the thugs. And that’s why the good, old, humble working class has transformed itself into an embarrassing presence: likely lads no more, but racy metrosexuals disturbing the ambience of the Generation Y.

This is where the in-your-face attitude works as a smokescreen: VICE digs deep into the weirdness of reality, but stops before getting mudded by complexity; its method knows no ethics, and that could be liberating, but it’s full of mostly apolitical, self-congratulatory prose. Pretending to be intentionally provocative, purely controversial and even disturbing for the reader, VICE has firmly established itself as a defender of the status quo.

“Yes, it’s easy to mock the modern British douchebag, with all his bizarre and contradictory notions of masculinity and sexuality.” (YD) But even easier would be to list the desperate contradictions  of the young, educated middle class reader that VICE is so forcefully trying to pamper. First and foremost, perhaps, is the inability to determine who he really is.

With an average income and a standard of living below his parents and grandparents, sexually and physically repressed by identity politics he doesn’t know where to apply except to his limited social circles and his bedroom, incapable of belonging to any role whatsoever in society, he’s actually an indistinct shadow of our age. Unable to buy a house, drowned in college loan debt even after ten years of work, but still with the privilege of spreading his opinions all over the Web for 100$ a piece if he’s lucky, he represents a blurred spot in history, a mirror of the self-aggrandizing shallowness of his favourite reporters.

“We are bored and disenchanted by what is served up to our generation,” The magazine’s UK editor Andy Capper said. Even radical left, rather than concentrating on the problems concerning its own community and inadequate ideas, sometimes embraces this cooler-than-you literature, descending into masturbatory snobbery. Perhaps hoping to push back the void, as it draws nearer.

If we want to believe that the Young English Douchebag, the American Bro and the Italian Bully have clearly defined the boundaries of their existence, and found in compulsive consumption, physical promiscuity and perpetuation of the species the meaning of their existence, tragic is the position of the reader who doesn’t know what to do with his best years. His nothingness doesn’t have any romantic aura. He knows he is in a worst, more ambiguous and dangerous place than the animal-machines he so cruelly loves to hate.

I feel obliged  to quote, one last time, the tirade against English douchebags: “When people feel anxious, unloved and bored, they start to test the boundaries of decency.”

I couldn’t agree more.



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