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New Zealand's mild rebels: The bodgie and the widgie

A scene from the 1953 movie The Wild One.

Bodgies and widgies’ mild delinquency.

Before there were punks or hippies or goths, there were bodgies (male) and widgies (female) – the prototypical youth subcultures that sent adults into waves of moral hysteria, but most of whose members were about as subversive as the national anthem. They wanted to be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause but were really John Travolta in Grease.

They were uniquely antipodean, in name at least. Although their tribes had international equivalents, the bodgie label was used only in Australia and New Zealand. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the name is derived from “bodger… when inferior cloth was passed off as American-made, it was called bodgie, extended to denote any young man who adopted an American accent and manner”.

Nzhistory.govt.nz is equally unimpressed, passive-aggressively defining the rebellious bodgie as “a male youth distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions and behaviours”.

Bodgies were not so much bad as “emotional disasters”.

Small in numbers and fleeting in prevalence, the bodgies secured their place in history when they came under the scrutiny of A.E. Manning, an Auckland psychologist whose 1958 book on the subculture, The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology, achieved surprising success, partly due to its many keenly observed illustrations by Denis Knight Turner.

A psychologist by training, Manning was also an adventurous anthropologist, venturing into the field where “he was threatened several times and insulted often”. “Insulted” – psychology sure isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Although Manning started out regarding the bodgies as alien creatures, his “sympathies were immediately aroused and what was to have been a clinical phenomenon… became a crusade”. He didn’t just analyse the bodgies, he recorded their life stories, took their complaints about society seriously and included their solutions, some of which were creative and radical, such as proposing that in children’s courts it “should be the parent not the child on trial”.

Manning’s subjects were different in many ways from the youth of subsequent generations. “Of the girls… six were sales girls in millinery stores.” In other respects, little has changed: “All except five in the arithmetic group and three in the mathematics group used the words ‘hated’, ‘detested’ and ‘loathed’ of these subjects.”

Corporal punishment crops up frequently as a trigger to rebellion. It was not just widespread in schools and the home; Manning notes that at the time he was writing the book, two men in Melbourne were sentenced to be flogged.

It’s clear throughout that the Cold War lay behind much youthful grievance. Manning notes his subjects grew up in the wake of two world wars and were aware of the possibility of a third. Eventually, he concludes, the young people of that day were not bad but “simply emotional disasters”, “active boils on the body of society” – a summary that undoubtedly boosted their self-esteem no end.

His solution was the one we still use today: more money, in his view to be used for (among other things) “funds for priests and ministers to extend their good works [and] for more playground attendants”.

Finally, and not that he’d want to blame anyone, “the most important single factor in the whole problem is the mother round whom the home should revolve and must be made to revolve”. Although in some ways Manning’s thinking was ahead of its time, in other ways, clearly, it was very much of the time. In that sentence alone, he would have turned his delinquent female subjects into rebels with a cause.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.