in Frieze | 06 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 29

A Boy's Own Story

The laddification of British Media

in Frieze | 06 SEP 96

Not since the early 80s, when a succession of essays in Harpers & Queen by Anne Barr and Peter York gave rise to the Sloane Ranger, has there been such a pervasive influence on British media as the Lad. The snob has been usurped by the yob, thus suggesting - as Thatcher's vision of imperial Britain was replaced by John Major's notion of a classless society - that popular media does reflect social change. All of the arrogance and wad-waving that typified media notions of maleness of the 80s has been replaced by a new infantilism. It is as though, as the yuppies died off, a mass return to conformity could be facilitated by an exercise in collective nostalgia - a return to the world of 1973 (or thereabouts) when the generation born in the late 50s and early 60s were in their early teens.

The tenets of laddism are drawn from a celebration of male self-indulgence, driven by an aspiration to adolescence - an ultimate admission that football, sex and beer are the Trinity of credible and socially orthodox masculinity. The creed can be found most prominently in Loaded magazine and the sitcom, Men Behaving Badly. For women, female laddism ('girliedom') has been proposed in the guise of The Girlie Show and the re-launch of Elle - an ironic distancing from the launch of Cosmopolitan in the early 70s, which first used sex and sexuality to advance the cause of popular feminism. As men and women in 90s media become lads and girlies and return to the gender roles of the 60s, so the rise of laddism can be seen as the product of a deeply conservative generation who vilify liberalism, reject the avant-garde as a political force, and subcontract their frustrated need for hedonistic tribalism to the role models churned out by the laddist media. Laddism, in short, is the triumph of cultural materialism.

In terms of media history, the Lad was born precisely ten years after the Sloane Ranger, reversing everything that his well-heeled precursor was seen to embody. The Lad's first victim was irony - an attitude which had no place in the world of puked curries and the history of Third Division football. Unlike the Slacker, whose political apathy was the product of technological consumerism and whose despair was heavily tinged with fashionability, the Lad is self-consciously old-fashioned in his notion of bachelordom as a lifestyle - more post-war than postmodern.

A piece of dialogue in Men Behaving Badly sums it up: a lad says to his long-suffering (but ultimately complicit) girlfriend: 'Tonight we're going to stay in and do something together. We'll have a romantic supper and then you can do the washing up while I get pissed.' Laddism gets away with its reactionary despotism by pretending to be endearingly naughty, hence the Loaded strapline, 'For People Who Should Know Better'. Women, faced with lads, are supposed to raise their eyes to heaven in mock despair, thus becoming matriarchal figures who grant their grudgingly but secretly amused blessing ('boys will be boys!') to the sealed male world of laddism. As a heterosexual construct, in which men become little boys with adult desires, and women become their passive but sexually available mothers, laddism is straight from the darker chapters of a psychoanalyst's hand-book. It's a return to sexual stereotyping on a national scale, as though the advances in our understanding of society and gender had never happened. More than this, it is a massive celebration of the rejection of those advances.

Officially heralded by Sean O'Hagan's 'New Lad' essay published in Arena in 1993, the first stirrings of laddism could be seen in the collapse of the style press, towards the end of the 80s, as a focused and confident department of British media. By the early 90s, Blitz magazine had gone into receivership, The Face had become an annexe of Fleet Street supplement writing, and the launch of Esquire in the UK was floundering in its ambition to revive the literary gravitas that had distinguished the American Esquire of the 40s. The men's magazine market had become bogged down by its attempt to wed features on grooming products to profiles of film stars, and, despite its occasional sorties into Playboy-style features about 'ideal dates' and sexual behaviour it lacked the assurance to go the whole way into the soft pornography that would be later authorised by laddism. Just as the men's magazine was at its lowest ebb, Viz, a comic more or less home-produced by three young men in Newcastle, became the publishing sensation of the moment.

With its clever subversion of traditional comic characters and its determined rejection of any form of maturity, Viz had laid the foundations for a new traditionalism which anticipated both the infantilism and the irreverence of laddism proper - as had the situation comedy The Young Ones, which rehearsed an indiepop version of laddism throughout the early 80s. But Viz didn't even pretend to be politically correct or sophisticated, and in this lay its success. As its circulation rose to nearly 1,000,000 by the end of the 80s, it seemed to hit the newsstands like a national sigh of relief after nearly a decade of aspirational media and raised awareness. While gags about fat women and liberals abounded, Viz covered itself by also making jokes about beer-swilling lads who were sexually inept and social failures. In the cartoon world of Viz, the lad could usefully point out the idiocies of modern society and perform some much needed pricking of over-inflated social attitudes. Most importantly, Viz was about regression - a nudging encouragement to abandon the sophistry and sophistication of glossy or serious media in favour of pure adolescent hilarity.

To defend itself, laddism will maintain that it is merely sending up the essential weaknesses and laziness of most men, providing an honest and entertaining comedy of recognition which never claimed to be anything other than a good laugh. However, as a growing force within the media - which will continue as long as it makes large sums of money - laddism represents a reactionary celebration of mass conformity which is more dangerous as a widespread idea than as a localised reality. Adolescent to the last, laddism receives criticism with a snigger.