Are We Witnessing The Rise Of The Woke Lad?

From "the absolute boy" to Lad Bible longreads, lad culture looks like it's gaining a conscience.
July 11, 2017, 12:26pm
Credit: Chris Bethell

Wherever you've been this summer you'll have heard them. Boys and girls from Sheerness to South-Shields howling his name with the drunken fervour of a stadium-load of Hard-Fi fans. "Jeremy Corbyn is the absolute boy," they are crying, bags of cans in hand. The revolution is coming, and it sounds like a Hull City game.

In case you don't know what any of that means, a quick explainer: over the past six-months or so youth support for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been couched, by some on the internet, in the vocabulary of UK party culture. Attempting to pin-point the actual genesis of this is pretty futile, and would likely only serve to piss people off, but the basic start-point is the language of "the sesh", pioneered by meme-makers like Humans of the Sesh, among others. Photoshopped images of Corbyn providing "bags of cans", and constant references to him as "the absolute boy," have coalesced into a distinct strain of online humour among the left. Throw in the popularity of a football chant in his name, and you have a measure of what's going on.


Already, however, the backlash has started, with accusations being levelled that Corbynmania's distinctly laddish form is sexist. From thinly-veiled comments to outright attacks, many feel campaigns built on the language of male camaraderie only serve to signify male exclusionism, or Corbyn's perceived failure to engage with women's issues.

Guido Fawkes, ever nit-picking away to its small audience of rural-dwelling, dial-up Brexiteers, have in turn already deemed criticisms of "the absolute boy" an example of the "loony left eating itself," which is unfair. It's right to question why these expressions of adulation are comprised of football chants and compulsive references to his absolute boydom. After all aren't Lads Lads Lads totally at odds with the inclusive principles that have defined Jeremy Corbyn's political career? Can laddishness, or lad culture, and socially progressive values ever co-exist?

This isn't the first time a greying left-wing leader has enjoyed a collegiate, fratty-sounding following. During the Democrat leadership race, many of Bernie Sanders' over-zealous fans were labelled "Berniebros" – a term that was, depending on your perspective, either a fair condemnation of self-important, part-time politicos or a cynical centrist sideswipe at grassroots support, (truth be told, it was probably both). Yet while the parallels with Corbynmania are convenient, they are actually very different phenomena.


The Berniebro was a type of person: male, white, university educated, an NPR-listening Father John Misty fan – progressive on paper, but an archetypal mansplainer in practice. What we're experiencing at the moment is an altogether more complex iteration of lad culture – that is to say, it has basically nothing to do with lads at all. Unlike the Berniebro, which was an issue of real, fleshy people, the lads in this case are far less corporeal. This is about the arrival of the Abstract Boy.

It's obvious enough, but much of this is about farce. Of course, referring to Jeremy Corbyn as "the absolute boy" – making a mild-mannered 68-year-old jam-making socialist sound like a skunk-blazing sixth-former who just perfected a bottle-flip – is funny. It's funny in the same way that getting your dad nodding along to some Oneohtrix Point Never is pretty funny. A simple joy: the basic paradoxical delight in two distant worlds crashing head on into each-other.

Yet there is a genuine streak in all of this as well. Referring to Corbyn and his programme in terms of "the sesh" alludes to the genuine hero worship he has found in a support base of disenfranchised young voters. Articulating support via bags of cans is a way of explicitly sign-posting the hope he has brought a generation used to little more than under-employment and fuggy after-parties. On top of that, in keeping with Corbyn's success in general, adopting the lexicon of lad culture mystifies the political establishment, who either find it crude, or in the case of the centre-left, are unable to reconcile it with their more polite, conservative form of political correctness.

Photo taken by Chris Bethell.

What's different here, is that the "lad" in question doesn't actually exist. This is about playing a character – a figurative absolute boy who cares about little more than ice-cold cans and properly funded public services. As such, being imagined, this "lad" can be anyone; student, politician, trade-unionist, male, or female.

Online custodians of generational decay, Humans of the Sesh, summed this up when they tweeted, "A bag of cans with the lads is inclusive to all genders. Men, women and everything in between." This theory was furthered by VICE contributor Tom Whyman, who recently wrote about how "common usage of the word 'lads' moving away from that, even becoming gender-neutral." There is an iconoclastic pleasure in the whole exercise. Removed from the reality of "having a penis," anyone can be a lad. In fact, peruse Twitter for yourself and you will likely see far more self-identifying female lads than you do male ones.


Corbynmania represents a specific trend, but the imagined progressive lad isn't new. LADbible, on their wild journey from thigh gap meme-sharers to mental health advocates, have transposed the language of lad culture onto a number of big topics, from depression to Westminster politics. Of course, they should be lauded for this, but it's impossible to ignore the mildly-jarring quality of headlines like "LAD Opens Up About Father's Suicide". While they have done an admirable thing, moving their editorial focus away from misogyny and towards a more politically aware stance, in maintaining the laddish voice it has become performative. It's worth noting, that both LADBible and Humans of the Sesh regularly receive backlash from readers fed up with them posting "political bullshit".

For the first time it's not just the far right who have a monopoly on indecipherable banter and prolific meme production.

LADBible are by no means the only ones who have attempted to weaponise laddishness for higher causes. In the wake of Unilad and Dapper Laughs, the lad as a brand has been undergoing a drastic rehabilitation. Shows like the The Last Leg have long been discussing delicate and complex subjects – like the capture and execution of innocent Jordanian civilians for example – within the framework of blokey, post-pub banter. It's present in the collective joy that follows Danny Dyer dressing down homophobes on Twitter, and even in the buoyant tactics of testicular cancer awareness charities, who crack jokes about balls to make their very serious point. The lad culture that sings about Corbyn, or that launches campaigns against sexual harassment in clubs, is a character – authored by publications or commentators, not university rugby teams.

We need to be alert to the possibility that masculine language can be alienating, but in the case of Corbynmania, ironised lad culture is only exclusionary to people who aren't in on the joke. It's finally providing the left with a sense of humour – a voice beyond the hypersensitive "SJW" character that has been imposed upon it by the right. For the first time it's not just the far right who have monopoly on indecipherable banter and prolific meme production. It's proving that progressive values aren't joyless – shutting down every middle of the road, Live at the Apollo stand-up comedian who ever embarked on an "epic rant" about the misery of political correctness.

Socially progressive lad culture is a fantasy, but it's an extremely useful one. Calling Corbyn "the absolute boy" is ridiculous, so anyone taking the claim too seriously looks totally out of touch with what is obviously: a joke. Yet, that joke also provides a method for communicating left-wing ideas without the preachy baggage normally associated with progressive values. It's offered the left, and politics at large, its first stab at mass youth appeal in decades. Surely we can all crack open a cold one to that.