Language Analysis – Schoolies Week

How does the language and discourse of each piece in the Sunday debate advance a certain interpretation of the appellation “Schoolies Week”?

I really must question the Herald-Sun’s sincerity in their Sunday Debate publication on November the 25th December, for the premise is immediately untenable. The bias assumed in the question, achieved through the use of the absolute “any”, is intended to polarise attitudes on an issue that is hardly the black and white of newspaper print. Of course there are redeeming features to schoolies week: if it was as thoroughly deplorable as the topic suggests, debate on the issue would only be an exercise in rhetoric. In fact, I am inclined to believe that such was all this publication ever was: a template of tired arguments trotted out at this time every year as discourse by the paper. These are distributed to parents and children so they may practise self-serving justifications against each other under the show of reason, discussion and “debate”. The accidental death of a teenager this year allows the papers once again to draw their readers into the mire. In this issue, it’s as if Susie O’Brien is expected to assume the role of the concerned, responsible and authoritarian older generation, and Tianna Nadalin the eager to experiment younger generation, and never the mud-stained battle-worn twain shall meet. Readers might well enjoy this pseudo-intellectual conflict – I have half a brain, and do not.
Yet as well as pandering to the prejudices of the public, it is clear in this questionable exercise of debate that the understanding and conception of readers with respect to “Schoolies Week” is being deliberately positioned. Whilst the semantics of the event are clearly biased to favour a negative response to the issue and question, there is a contest through syntax, lexicon and register to redefine the appellation, and so we observe morphological qualities realised through persuasive techniques.
The semantic field of the debate is immediately and powerfully effected, as has already been discussed, by the perjorative phrasing of the framed question in the head-line. It is also biased in the presentation of the accompanying images with their strong negative connotations. To look for redeeming qualities of Schoolies Week in photographs of teenagers being arrested by police, or wildly celebrating amongst a crowd of equally sweat-soaked revellers, is to misrepresent the event, and to immediately invite criticism.
A difference in the lexicon of the two writers provides a preliminary point as to the morphology to be realised by the articles. Both writers engage interesting colloquialisms, to different persuasive ends. In describing the “homework hell” of school, and the attitude of a suggested minority of school-leavers of “YOLO (you only live once)” Tianna Nadalin is exercising the vocabulary and voicing the concerns of a young audience. By contrast, Susie O’Brien declaims youth and their activities when she describes: the “graphic how-to-guide of those having sex for the first time”; the “grog-free and snog-free zones” only “tinkering around the edges” of the main party; and when she punnily concludes “youth is wasted… totally wasted.” The euphemistic language exercised in this case is clearly that of disgusted parents, who misappropriate a youthful lexicon to describe the teenaged revellers only in harsh and critical terms.
The disparity in the disposition presented through the lexicon is furthered by both the register and the discourse itself. Susie O’Brien carefully and regularly uses inclusive pronouns to present her arguments, appealing to the audience that “We didn’t [do the right thing] when we were 17” and “We send them off to schoolies.” Tianna Nadalin is sparing in her use of inclusive pronouns, and instead presents anecdotal evidence using the first pronoun of “in my case”, or describes school-leavers and their actions using the third person to talk about “a chance for them”. The effect of the register of the first writer is to establish and claim authority, both over the audience and over teenaged children, whereas the second writer only claims responsibility for herself and recognises that school-leavers may claim their own authority. However the paper has deliberately chosen Susie to represent the older generation and Tianna to represent herself: the paper’s audience is not immediately inclined to identify with the latter on this issue, but easily identifies with the former writer in both identity and argument.
As the immoderate topic itself suggests, Susie O’Brien isn’t actually about to prove her position. Instead, she is simply to play upon the emotions of her adult readers to put forward a case about what it means to be a “grown-up”, and she does so easily through appealing to fear and parental accountability. Susie knows her audience well – she is the Herald Sun’s regular commentator on family values. When she writes, she takes careful aim between the eyes of the parents who, if they listened to her, would be so guilt-ridden about their failures and neurotic about the dangers of society they would demand constant prescriptions because of their newspaper subscription. From the first sentence of Susie’s unreasonable article, I realised she was going to pander to the extreme prejudices, and to the puerile, misshapen perceptions of past glories held by her reading public. Right from the start Susie’s rhetorical questions immediately annoyed me: I do expect schoolies “to do the right thing”, and I and my friends certainly did “when we were 17”, so her attempt to include me in her fearful fantasies about youth simply didn’t work. The conception of schoolies week depicted in the picture above her piece – that being arrested by the police for drunkenness is some sort of common schoolies event – is just another example of the paper fuelling false myths and exaggerating what the week is not about for the majority of participants. Unfortunately, I suspect Susie knows that her readers will enthusiastically buy into such a foolish debate and false imagery with mixed feelings of nostalgic delight and vicarious dread. It is deliberate that in this discourse Susie’s position is presented first in the debate on a topic that is perjoratively phrased: the consumer audience of the Herald-Sun immediately recognises her position.
The discourse on this topic is very familiar, as are the persuasive appeals and techniques that prove effective to an older audience. Schoolies week is shown every year in mainstream media to be a dangerous, substance-fuelled exercise in immoral behaviour by gangs of irresponsible delinquents running rampant away from home. These reports, including that by Susie O’Brien, always sensationalise the “daily program” of a “festival of babes, booze and bongs.” With such extraordinary alliterative publicity the event might attract a certain character, and equally repel others. In reality the event is not what the media presents – it is what the participants make of it. As the debate presents (Susie exploits, Tianna admonishes), schoolies week has become mythical in its infamy and an easy target for the sharks of the media frenzy. The media, Susie included, mercilessly feed on the fears parents have for their children, citing deaths, exaggerating vulnerabilities, and pressuring families to be more responsible in their efforts to ensure the safety of those “who do not have the maturity or judgement to make good decisions.” The common discourse presented by the media is that teenagers are ill-equipped to avoid the perils thier parents must protect them from. On the other hand, Tianna downplays the dangers of a “rite of passage” at the end of schooling that may not be as “extreme” as is often suggested. Instead, she calls it a “well-deserved break” and an “opportunity”, and suggests that “the majority of schoolies just want to relax and have a good time”. It is interesting to note that there is a strong tendency for those critical of “Schoolies” to identify with an event in Surfers Paradise, when “Schoolies” are rather a whole class of people who may have cpmpletely different plans.
Where the persuasive appeals used, the forms of evidence exercised, and the syntax of Tianna Nadalin’s piece allow for a conception of “Schoolies Week” to suggest a possessive inflection, and one that admits responsibility and authority of tenneagers, the register and audience of Susie’s O’Brien’s article promote a discourse in which the term achieves a negative morphology along sensationalist lines. Such hyperbole and catastrophism is deplorable, but its existing morphological effect and common discourse cannot be denied.

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