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Chavs and the meaning of the English working class

August 3, 2011

A few years ago I taught a course on British cinema and television where there was a protracted discussion about class and cultural representation. To be sure, there was a protracted discussion about class almost every week because I insisted upon it. It was my course: my rules. Nevertheless, I am aware that my preoccupation with questions of class can be tiresome for some people, especially anyone who signs up for the course hoping to be distracted by a few old Brit-flicks and the chance to glean some information about how they might get a foot in the door of the British film industry.

So it wasn’t a complete shock when one of the participants, having grown weary and frustrated by the debate, suddenly interjected in exasperated fashion saying that class was irrelevant to the study of film and television. And in any case there was no working class since we were all now comfortably middle class.

Let’s be clear: I brook no dissent in my seminars and I don’t encourage students to stray from the party line. That sort of thought-crime can lead to all sorts of trouble, so I fixed the culprit with a steely stare and asked him if there was indeed no such thing as the working class anymore, who was it that made and served him breakfast that morning in the university cafe? Who did he imagine had cleaned the campus before his arrival? And, given his extraordinary ignorance, how could he be sure that middle class-dom awaited him after graduation?

More particularly, I pointed out that any film or television viewer lacking, at the very least, a cursory understanding of the Anglo-British class system would find most British drama and comedy incomprehensible. From Jane Austen screen adaptations, to Richard Curtis rom-coms to Coronation Street, class is at least the background noise to every story told on British screens.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the naivety of young people, their heads full of counter-revolutionary ideas, but the student was doing nothing more than repeating today’s ‘official’ line, peddled by successive governments and their lickspittles, that we live in a meritocracy; a classless society, where all that is left of the working class is a residual and recidivist underclass whose fecklessness, stupidity and/or deviance render it helpless and hopeless. This is the subject of Owen Jones’ recent and insightful book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

Jones highlights how the decimation of British heavy industries under Margaret Thatcher and the selling off of council housing had a catastrophic effect upon working class communities. That process was never arrested under the last Labour government, which compounded the problems of the working class by all but abandoning its core constituency.

Without an effective political voice, coupled with the demoralisation and weakening of the trade unions, the power and influence of the working class has withered and with it has gone its reputation as the back-bone of the nation. As the journalist Michael Collins once put it, in a matter of decades the working class went from being ‘the salt of the earth’ to ‘the scum of the earth’.

And that’s why Chavs should be required reading for media studies students because the crisis of working class representation is not just political. It is also a cultural crisis; a crisis in how we think about and depict working class people, their lives and experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the media where the image of the chav has become easy shorthand for working class lack – apparent lack of morals and lack of aspiration.

In an article for The Sociological ReviewStephanie Lawlor (2005) has argued that middle class identities are forged to a large extent through the perception of working class lack and a sense of disgust for working class life. The media have in this case given the middle class plenty of grist for its mill, for there is no shortage of press and television news stories spun in ways that demonize the victims of contemporary capitalism and government policy. After all, the announcement of cuts to welfare will always go preceded by press reports of ‘benefit scroungers’ living off the backs of hard working tax payers. While no draconian legislation is ever proposed before the newspapers have made the case that the ‘evil poor’ are out of control in Britain’s ‘sink estates’ and a rising tide of crime threatens to engulf all decent, right-thinking people if something isn’t done about it.

So serendipitous is the creation of such moral panics that one could be forgiven for thinking that the relationship between the press and politicians has become unhealthily close, with media moguls being smuggled through the back door of No. 10. As if!

It isn’t just in the news that the working class are routinely demonized. Owen Jones points also to popular television characters such as Harry Enfield’s Wayne and Waynetta Slob and the raft of comic chavs that followed, such as Vicky Pollard (Little Britain).

Jones also indicts the hounding of Big Brother contestant Jade Goody, despised for lacking apparent middle class graces, and even after her diagnosis with cancer still the at the sharp-end of barbed comments about her class background. Spectator columnist Rod Liddle referred to her as a ‘coarse, thick, Bermondsey chav’, while Jan Moir at the Daily Mail summarised Goody’s celebrity thus: ‘First we have this godforsaken wedding, then the christening of her children, then an ungainly, lickety-split spring to death and the ultimate chav state funeral.’

Here gross double standards are applied to the world of celebrity culture. Imagine if Moir had written the same thing about the royals’ godforsaken marriages, christenings and state funerals, given that these occasions resemble nothing so much these days as Hello magazine features.

You can say what you like about Jade Goody (evidently), but she earned her celebrity, no matter how cheaply we might hold such fame. Wills and Kate derive their celebrity status by dint of birth or marriage. Where’s the fucking merit in that?

Meanwhile what Jones refers to as ‘chavtainment’, illustrated by shows like Wife Swap and Jeremy Kyle is indefensible and I share his reservations about British soap operas such as Coronation Street and EastEnders, which he describes as sensationalist and caricatural. However Jones’ argument about the lamentable media and cultural representation of the working class, while timely and substantially true might benefit from being a little more nuanced.

Take for example his analysis of Shameless, Channel 4’s long running comedy-drama about the riotious Gallaghers and their neighbours on the fictional Chatsworth estate. Jones points out that:

The problem with the series is that it fails to address how the characters ended up in their situation, or what impact the destruction of industry has had on working-class communities in Manchester. Class becomes a lifestyle choice, and poverty becomes a bit of a joke – not something that imprisons people and shatters their life chances.

A recent article (2009) in The Journal of British Cinema and Television concurs with Jones’ analysis but adds that Shameless might also be seen as an attempt to recuperate the image and reputation of the working class at a time when it has fallen into ignominy. Indeed, given the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, recovering the image of the English working class may be an important part of imagining a post-imperial English national identity.

The working class has been an integral part of that national culture before, particularly during World War II, which was surely a defining national moment. At that time the working class were represented at the heart and soul of the nation, an image that was crucial to garnering popular support for the war effort.

However the article in The Journal of British Cinema and Television, ends on a cautionary note:

Englishness may benefit from the revived reputation and image of the white working class; however, it remains to be seen whether such a revival will translate into progressive and lasting material changes in the lives and experience of that social group Shameless presents as the ‘heart and soul’ of England.

The centrality of the working class to the ideas of English national culture, and more specifically working class humour, is pursued in Andy Medhurst’s book, A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities (2007).

Medhurst considers what makes and has made the English laugh and identifies an type of laughter and humour that is unmistakably part of a working class vernacular. His study begins in the Victorian music halls and ending with The Royle Family, also taking in the politically problematic figure of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.

Medhurst is a comedy partisan (he admits as much). He is disinterested in English comic institutions such as the various alumni of Cambridge Footlights and gentle, middle class sit-coms such as Terry and June and My Family, all of which could make their own claims to being integral to the national culture.

By concentrating on comedy that is working class at its source, often defiantly so, Medhurst’s study shows that there is something durable and resilient about the meaning of the English working class in popular culture. It endures as a counter-punch to the lie of classlessness and while it is seldom entirely what we might call politically progressive or radical, it combats the negative meanings that have become attached to the working class and offers an attractive alternative to dominant and official forms of national identity. Take The Royle Family, for instance, the very title of which instantly engages questions of class.

Tom Nairn argues that the image of the monarchy features prominently in the enchanted glass into which the British look for a sense of national self. The royal family in this case offer some sort of ideal or model of national identity that privileges wealth and power.

On the other hand, the Royles – Jim, Barbara, Denise, Anthony, Nana and Dave – offer an arguably warmer, much more attractive image in an alternative enchanted class, and a stubborn and unheroic resistance to becoming bourgeois.

The Royles are descendents of a tradition of low-comedy, appealing to what George Orwell described in his analysis of Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards as our ‘unofficial self’. The tastes of this ‘unofficial self’ lie towards ‘safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with “voluptuous’’ figures. It is he that punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts’.

The above could be a description of the Shameless Frank Gallagher. Ignoble as he may be, might we not read Frank’s shiftlessness as a rational, almost admirable, response to the immiserating low-paid, low-skilled, flexible labour that is the most likely alternative to his idleness. Perhaps in some of the popular representations of the working class lies a refusal of the soulless, alienating culture of contemporary capitalism.

The working class have been demonized. Jones’ is spot on about that. But we should be open to some of the more nuanced meanings of class as they present themselves in popular culture. The image of the working class doesn’t only represent the absence of middle class ambition and mores; it doesn’t just conjure up notions of fecklessness, criminality and failure. The image of the working class also stands for fun, authenticity, community and solidarity; virtues that cannot easily be associated with the middle class.

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