Boys on the Lash: A Feminist Insight into Lad Culture

When first coming upon the term ‘lash banter’ on a night out, as an international student I was baffled by its meaning. When I looked it up in the dictionary and saw it was associated with playful, inebriated conversation, I was yet further puzzled by this ridiculous expression. The website even adds:  ‘some would say that the lash banter flows at the same rate as the beer, as more beer is drunk lash banter improves’. Although bemused by the notion, it came as no surprise that a group of university-aged British men used the term and are often associated with ‘lad culture’. Upon further reflection, the sociological and anthropological impacts of a gendered culture are more seriously sexist and prone to more grave transgressions than simple tomfoolery.

Image courtesy of norbet1 © 2014, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of norbet1 © 2014, some rights reserved

The recent film, ‘The Riot Club’ (directed by Lone Scherfig), is a fictional work embodying ‘lad culture’ through an elite, exclusive, male-only, and unofficial university club. Originally inspired by the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, notorious for its extravagance, as well as its vandalisation of restaurants and college rooms. Importantly, part of the  ‘lad culture’ depicted in the film revolves around the promotion of hyper-masculinity and a stigmatisation of women as sexual objects.

The National Union of Students (NUS) in Great Britain has recently published research that reveals that 50 per cent of university student participants in the study have seen “prevailing sexism, ‘laddism’ and a culture of harassment” in Britain. The report, entitled “That’s What She Said: Women Students’ Experiences of Lad Culture in Higher Education” examines ‘lad culture’ behaviour and its sociological repercussions. ‘Lad culture’ is defined in the report as a masculine ‘group’ or ‘pack’  mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’, which was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic’. The key spaces where interactions between those groups exist were typically during ‘nights out’. ‘Catcalling’ and verbal harassment, as well as physical molestation, were seen as behavioural aspects of the ‘lad culture’.

When associating these findings to elite universities such as Oxford, it is concerning to see groups of well-educated men exhibiting sexist behaviour of this kind. One might argue that the group mentality is a process of over-masculinisation which forces men to adhere to the construct of hyper-masculinity which Sjoberg, a leading feminist in the field of international relations, describes as ‘an aggressive, violent sort of masculinity that prioritises dominance over all other values’ (2013: 62). This relates to Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity to highlight different types of masculinities. She argues that the ideal norm for masculinity, which he calls ‘hegemonic masculinity’, is constructed as a version of masculinity that is strong, dominant, competitive, rational and more importantly superior to other gendered constructs. She further advances that this sociologically constructed norm is structured in a way so that all men should aspire to this ideal of masculinity, despite the fact that not all men possess all of these characteristics (Steans 2013).

‘Lad culture’ therefore seems to be an enactment of this aspiration for hegemonic masculinity. The group mentality is constructed on the basis of masculine domination. How does that explain the sexism harboured by these groups of young men? Sjoberg further argues that feminine characteristics are associated to ‘disparaging traits’ such as ‘vulnerability, emotion and passivity’ (2013: 111). Therefore, women are often socially constructed as weaker beings. For example, the ideal soldier is not only a good fighter, but also a good husband and father (Sjoberg 2013). Drawing upon Elshtain’s gendered metaphors; there is no ‘Just Soldier’ without a ‘Beautiful Soul’ to protect. As such, women are viewed for their reproductive capacities which often leads to sexual objectification.

Verbal and sexual harassment could therefore be seen here as a type of domineering behaviour which gives life to hegemonic masculinity. Further, the group mentality creates a competitive setting where men have to prove themselves to each other. Short of chasing mammoths with a spear, they concentrate their efforts on sexual domination.

It is important, however, not to generalise ‘lad culture’. The Oxonian ‘lad’ will be different than the East-end London ‘lad’.  ‘Lad culture’ in a more elite and privileged setting usually also comes with an intersectionality discourse of class. Hegemonic dominance expands to a profuse show of wealth. ‘I am so sick of poor people’ is a line from ‘The Riot Club’ which summarises this importance of class in this context. Dominance is asserted through behavioural traits associated to a particularly privileged group.

Moreover, there are also the young men that aspire to this ‘lad culture’ but their general personalities conflict with the former. Why then, against their better judgement, do they still hold this aspiration? I would assert that this ‘lad culture’ is embedded deeply into cultures; particularly in Britain, but also in some sense in the United States of America. In the U.S., they might be called ‘frat boys’ but the group mentality remains the same. Being a ‘lad’ becomes a rite of passage to manhood which also explains its prevalence at university level, and among young men in their late teens and early twenties.

The bigger issue with ‘lad culture’ is that by promoting hegemonic masculinity, it is also advocating stereotypes that stigmatise gender, both feminine and masculine.  What happens to women who are molested in bars by inebriated young men? Furthermore, what about all those other men who do not wish to be part of this ‘lad culture’?

Though it might seem backward that well-educated men would engage in this domineering and sexist culture, it only seems to confirm the inevitability of hypermasculinity in a society where men are expected to dominate. How might ‘lad culture’ affect male opinions of women later in life?  How does this early socialogical stimatisation of women affect their representation in politics and the workplace?  Finally, how might the casualisation of sex have a negative impact upon instances of rape and sexual violence?  Further anthropological research on these topics may help the field of feminism to deconstruct this phenomenon in order to better understand the objectification of women in early male adulthoods.

Sjoberg, Laura. 2013. Gender, War, and Conflict. London: Polity Press.

Steans, Jill. 2013. Gender and International Relations (3rd Edition). London: Polity Press.