A few days ago, I linked to this discussion of the British slang term “chav” at the Guardian.
Now the Guardian has a follow-up article, in which Suzanne Moore says that it’s not the term “chav” itself that’s the problem but the derogatory attitude towards poor working class people it reflects. The BBC news site also has a round-up of the discussion here.
Now I find the word “chav” fascinating from a linguistic POV – a Romany word turned British insult. Besides, every culture has its own words for impoverished working class or outright underclass people with a crass, in your face attitude. In addition to “chav”, Britain also has such purely female variations as “WAG” or “Essex girl”. In the US, such people are called “trailer trash”, whether they actually live in trailers or not. “Welfare moms” or “welfare queens” would be purely female variations, which begets the question why underclass women are viewed worse as underclass men. In Germany, it’s “Proll”, “Prolet” or any derogatory compound of “Hartz IV”. My 7th or 8th grade students would probably use “totale Opfer”. The actual terms are less relevant than the attitude they display, namely that poor, often badly educated, unemployed people living on welfare in trailer parks or council estates are considered somehow subhuman and that they are still considered lesser when they come into money. It’s this attitude that’s a lot more problematic and a lot more difficult to fight than the actual words, of which “chav” isn’t even the worst.
Apparently, chavs are the topic of the week at the Guardian, apparently due to the publication of this sociological study of the phenomenon. At any rate, here is another article about the depiction of chavs in British popular culture, particular the reality show The Only Way is Essex. What’s most striking about this article is that none of the people polled, several of whom would probably qualify as chavs themselves, seems to be quite certain what a chav actually is. Even more striking is that the chavs presented in The Only Way is Essex are not actually poor. They have money to spend on tanning parlous, breast enhancements, nightclubs, gyms and the body modification called the vajazzle. So the problem is not money or a lack of it – it’s that the people presented on that show are perceived as crude and tasteless. It’s the ancient conflict of old versus new money, repackaged as a reality show that allows viewers to gawk at the hopelessly tacky nouveau riche of Essex.
Here is another article that is somewhat tangentially related: The cast of the noxious American reality show Jersey Shore, which seems to be the US version of The Only Way is Essex, visit Italy in search of their “roots” and find that a) most Italians have never heard of the show and b) those that have heard of the show are not keen on having their country in general and the city of Florence in particular identified with the sort of people exhibited in said show.
First of all, the article adds a new to me derogatory term for crass lower class people to the short list of such terms given above, namely “guido” or “guidette” for those of Italian-American descent (though the most infamous of the Jersey Shore people, Snooki of the huge book deal, is not of Italian origin at all). There’s also the disturbing implication that prejudice against Italian-Americans is still going strong in the US, even though the actual Italian-Americans in Jersey Shore have been in the US for three generations or more. Finally, there is also interesting commentary on class prejudice hidden in this story and the Guardian articles.
Because reality shows like Jersey Shore and the equivalents in other countries such as Britain’s The Only Way is Essex (I wonder what Essex has done to deserve that reputation) and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (the mind boggles at so much offensiveness) or Germany’s Familien im Brennpunkt and Raus aus den Schulden* thrive on class prejudice.
These programs have little to do with reality – the situations are staged. If the subjects of the show are actually real people, they are often bullied into providing the drama the producers want. However, many of those shows are “reenactments” of allegedly real situations filled with amateur actors. This article from the Spiegel offers a look behind the scenes of reality TV in Germany, including the case of a family where the staged drama turned real, when a family were mobbed out of their hometown, because people felt slighted by the way they had appeared in reality show. Some of these shows at least pretend to offer advice to the underprivileged, but the real appeal of those programs lies in gawking at the less fortunate, particularly gawking at the crassness and perceived lack of culture of lower class people perceived to be “getting above themselves”. This impulse is what drives Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex, as viewers gawk at and mock the spray tans and breast implants and over the top homes and fashions of Snooki and pals and their British equivalents.
In the Guardian article on The Only Way is Essex, several people such as screenwriter Phil Redmond, who created the soap operas Hollyoaks and Brookside among others, bemoan that there are no working class characters left on British TV. Instead, they have been replaced by grotesque portrayals of chavs in pseudo-reality shows such as The Only Way is Essex or comedies like Little Britain, the show which apparently created the prototypical chav character.
Upon first reading this, I thought: “No Way.” No working class characters on US TV – Okay, I buy that. Because the only blue collar people seen on US TV are The Simpsons and some extras in True Blood. No working class people on German TV – I’d buy that, too, because outside the working class girl turned lawyer Danni Lowinski and certain social issue dramas (and even those are usually set in middle and upper middle class milieus), you really don’t see a whole lot of working class characters on German TV. But no working class characters on British TV, where British film and television are all about class to an extent that would be unimaginable in either Germany or the US? No way, that has to be wrong.
So I started thinking about examples to refute what Phil Redmond and others say in the Guardian article. Initially, I came up with quite a lot of examples. Rose Tyler from Doctor Who lived on a council estate with her mother, who definitely was a chav, and yet she was a likable character and got to travel with the Doctor. Donna started out very chav-like, probably because Catherine Tate became famous playing such characters, but was toned down later on. However, Rose and Donna have long left the building, and while Amy Pond’s early pregnancy and marriage would suggest a lower class background, the character itself does not strike me that way. So scratch Doctor Who.
Then there are the soaps, obviously, which are populated by working and lower middle class characters. I suspect that’s the secret of their success, the fact that in spite of melodramatic storylines the British soaps still feature relateable characters, unlike the US soaps with their mafiosi and superrich tycoons. Alas, Eastenders is specifically named as a negative example full of grotesque caricatures in the article. Okay, so what about Shameless then, set among the dysfunctional inhabitants of a Manchester council estate? Alas, it’s also named as a negative example in the article and from what little I have seen of that show, I agree that the characters are exaggerated and grotesque.
So what about crime drama? Many British crime dramas are all about class. And if a character in a nice suit with a posh accent shows up, you can bet that he did it. If said character is played by Rupert Graves, you can switch off the TV and go to bed, because he always did it. The “nice suit and posh accent equals villain” dynamic was particularly pronounced in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, to the point that the rule even applied to police superintendents, lawyers and the father of one of the protagonists. Meanwhile, the good cops were all very working class (except for Alex who comes from a family of wealthy lawyers). Though I suspect the Guardian wouldn’t accept Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes as examples of a realistic portrayal of working class characters either, because Gene Hunt is a larger than life character (plus, he apparently voted Tory). Though Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes always had a lot of sympathy for the ordinary working class people that were caught up in the investigations, whether it was textile mill workers fighting to save a plant we know will be closed or a family about to be displaced by a building project. Nonetheless, whether Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes is a good example is a moot point, because the show ended last year.
As for current British crime drama, Inspector Barnaby from Midsummer Murders and Inspector Lewis are middle class detectives solving crimes in middle and upper class milieus. Inspector George Gently does solve crimes among the working class, but neither he nor his Beatle-wannabe sergeant actually seem to be working class themselves. Waking the Dead – they’re all rather middle class, too. There is a new show with a pleasantly middle-aged and overweight woman inspector that might fit the bill, but since I haven’t seen it yet, I can’t be sure. So there aren’t a lot of working class people in British crime drama either and they usually aren’t the protagonists.
What about Hustle then? Really cool con artists swindling the undeserving rich out of their illgotten money. And underneath the glossy surface, there is a lot of anger in Hustle. But while our heroes all come from a working to lower middle class background, the very point of the series is that they have transcended their humble origins and pretend to be upper class types in order to pull off their cons. They are also remarkably equal opportunity in selecting the targets of their cons – slimy aristocrats get it in the neck as much as crass nouveau riche types. Indeed, there have been quite a few Hustle episodes where the antagonists were quite similar to the crass, tasteless chavs portrayed in The Only Way is Essex.
So have the plucky working class characters of British television given way to chavs as a “semi-feral underclass”? And is the portrayal of such “chavs” in popular culture solely limited to parodies and exaggerations such as The Only Way is Essex, Shameless or the Vicky Pollard character from Little Britain, which I’ve never been able to watch more than five minutes of without feeling the burning need to wash out my eyeballs with bleach?
I think it’s not so much the term “chav” itself that is the problem, but that the way a certain segment of working class people is portrayed in the media and popular culture has dramatically changed in the past few years. Because the “chav” phenomenon itself isn’t exactly new and there have been chavs or characters who would be called chavs today in British popular culture long before Vicky Pollard.
Rose and Jackie Tyler from Doctor Who were very much chavs and displayed many of the trappings, even though the word “chav” was not yet as widespread as today. In fact, I may have first heard the term applied to Rose and/or Jackie. But even though they are chavs, Rose and Jackie are portrayed sympathetically. Indeed, I suspect that a lot of the often vehement dislike for Rose may have been due to class issues. Sticking with Doctor Who for a moment, but going back to the dying days of the original series, sixteen years before Rose Tyler there was Ace, a troubled teenager in a bomber jacket and combat boots from a dead end London suburb with a single Mom and a history of school failure and anti-social behaviour that usually involved blowing things up or burning them down. Ace was very much a chav, some twenty years before the term became common usage. And yet she was a heroic character.
Another example is one of my all-time favourite TV shows, Coasting, an obscure and largely forgotten British TV show from 1990. It’s a wonderful story about family loyalty set in Blackpool and many of the characters are what would be called “chavs” today. They’re not poor – it’s a show about a family of fairground operators – but the working class origins still shine through. There are a lot of subtle and not so subtle class markers in Coasting. Appearance and clothing of many characters are very much a late 1980s version of chav style – one character even wears a sovereign ring** which is considered the badge of chavdom today.
But what sets those older media representations off from today’s depiction of chavs in British popular culture is that the older shows had a lot of sympathy for their characters. Coasting may occasionally make fun of its more money-grubbing characters, but they are nonetheless likable and deeply loyal to each other. Ace and Rose may have been chavs, but they were also heroes and got to travel in the TARDIS. And while Jackie Tyler may have slapped the Doctor and usually served as comic relief, she too is a heroic character in spite of her obvious chaviness. So is Jackie’s late husband, for that matter. So while those characters may have been chavs, they were a far cry from the grotesque caricatures of Little Britain and The Only Way is Essex.
So can chavs still be heroes on British TV today? Oddly enough, the answer is yes, because there is one current British show which features chavs – and not just any chavs, but juvenile delinquents from a council estate – as heroes. This show is Misfits, which I’ve mentioned in these pages before and which is probably my current favourite TV show. Misfits takes the least likely people in the world – juvenile delinquents living in a particularly awful British council estate – and turns them into superheroes. It’s a riff on the old “mutants protecting a world that fears and hates them” from the X-Men comics, except that the Misfits kids didn’t need to gain supernatural powers in order to be feared and hated by society at large. They already are feared and hated for what they are: Lower class teenagers and criminal ones at that living on a council estate. The orange prisoner type jumpsuits the kids have to wear for their community service not just double as superhero uniforms – they’re also a very visible evidence of the way they are stigmatized for who they are.
Misfits does have a character who is very much a chav in the Vicky Pollard mode – violent, with a heavy Northern accent, thick make-up and a disastrous fashion sense. She even shops at Argos, the catalog retailer with the unfortunate chav connotation. Particularly in the early episodes, the other kids direct plenty of remarks at the poor girl and her unfortunately appearance and she gets called a chav with stunning regularity. That her power consists of reading other people’s minds doesn’t make things any easier, as the poor girl is also doomed to consistently listen in on other people judging her. However, unlike the Vicky Pollard character who never rises above an ugly stereotype, Misfits does show us the human being behind the stereotype. It’s also telling that those who initially judge the girl for being a chav are what I would consider chavs themselves. Indeed, the “chav” label could be applied to all of the Misfits kids (though two are black and “chav” seems more of a label for lower class whites) except for one who seems to come from more of a middle class background. And he gets tagged with plenty of other labels.
Indeed, one of the great strengths of Misfits – aside from the fact that it’s well-written, well-plotted, well-acted, incredibly funny and unexpectedly touching – is that it gives us a cast full of stereotypes and turns them human. Which is more than can be said for most other shows mentioned herein.
*And others. One TV-channel seems to show almost exclusively such fare, interspersed with the occasional SciFi/SyFy Channel series, which makes for a very odd viewing experience.
**I actually own a golden coin ring, dating from a time before it was a symbol of chavdom.