You might have thought that the word chav died, gone were the days of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s popular phrase “Am I bovvered?” And who can forget the mess that was called The Jeremy Kyle Show? Now? There seems to be a resurgence of the classist word. Guess where? TikTok—obviously.
It’s not merely a resurgence of the word but an explosion of it—filled with videos of users replicating and mocking the ‘chav’ look in makeup and fashion—#chav currently has over 1.4 billion views on the app. Another interesting aspect to note is that it’s almost always making fun of ‘chav’ girls and women, this in part due to TikTok’s current association of ‘chavness’ with thick, block-like eyebrows, a blotchy tan, a messy bun, tracksuits and large hoop earrings. This is often paired alongside a stylised and magnified rendition of Estuary English—an accent that is typically affiliated with the UK working class. But, the history of this word and its effects on the working class goes further than just skin-deep.
Much like the caricature stereotypes of teenage Vicky Pollard and Tate’s Lauren Cooper, the ‘chav’ seen on TikTok is quite often used in school setting skits—like the one above. It makes a habit out of belittling and mocking teenage girls who are typically from working class backgrounds. Grown adults dressing up and making fun of teenage girls—you’re probably not even that funny. Go do some stand-up or something, stop being lazy. This 20-year-old, retired, unfunny, comedic trend seems to have unfortunately clawed itself back into the mainstream with everything else Y2K—guys, there’s some stuff from the 00s that we should just leave there. This being one of them. Trust me, I was there and I definitely don’t want to go back.
Beyond these typical skits, a new form of content has evolved—the ‘chav transformation.’ Rebecca Lockwood wrote for The Tab on this terrible skit, “The skits always involve harmful jokes about parental neglect, alcoholism and drug abuse just to really make sure that anyone who resembles the character they’re playing feels really good about themselves and the world they live in….Haha! I’m a chav! How stupid and funny am I!”
The actual word itself has people divided on its origins. Some argue it could have possibly arose from the Romani word ‘chavi’ meaning ‘child’. Others say it originated from “Chatham average”, a defamatory term used to refer to the Kent town residents. It wasn’t until 2004, when Oxford English Dictionary celebrated ‘chav’ as its first Word of the Year, that it exploded in mainstream usage. Given the specific faction of people the word essentially mocked, it has since been considered as the abbreviation for “council housed and violent.” This is perhaps its most common association in spite of it not having anything to do with the word’s actual origin.
The term is now widespread in its use to refer to this idea of the working-class delinquency—one with little education, rowdy behaviour, drug use and fake Pradas.
Renowned journalist Owen Jones wrote in his 2011 book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, that the word should be considered a slur. This slur, he points out, has been tactically used by British politicians to perpetuate social and class inequalities. Rather than changing the infrastructures in place that benefit the wealthy and detriment the working-class, Tory MPs have historically blamed poverty on the individual. You know that classic ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ bullshit.
Who can forget Tony Blair’s statement—towards the end of his time as Prime Minister (thank god that’s over)—at a New Labour think-tank “we’re all middle class.” Jason Okundaye incitefully pointed out in his article for the Tribune that, “Blairism’s regular attacks on ‘scroungers’, ‘chavs’, single mothers, asylum seekers, and hooded youths provided a sheen of respectability to TV executives who made a career out of mocking Britain’s most marginalised, allowing it to become a pursuit of popular culture.”
In a 2020 edition of his book with a new preface, Jones pointed out his accurate prediction that people would inevitably deny the mocking and stereotyping of working-class people—’it’s just a joke right?’ they’d say—has come to fruition. “The danger is of a savvy new populist right-emerging…it could denounce the demonisation of the working class and the trashing of its identity.” Rather than focusing on the real issues of class inequality, “Immigrants could be blamed for economic woes, multiculturalism could be blasted for undermining ‘white’ working-class identity,” Jones continued.
It’s hardly news to say that the Conservative party is becoming increasingly authoritarian and despotic, from the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which drastically restricts the legal right to protests, to recent proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act, which would mean journalists might face 14-year jail sentences for ‘embarrassing’ the government.
Now, the Tory party has rarely had a flourishing relationship with the arts: always deemed too left wing, too liberal. But several recent examples are—and this word has been used a lot of late, usually erroneously—practically Orwellian.
Accusations of censorship are thrown around far too readily nowadays, yet a recent example in Essex is a stark reminder of the realities of creative censorship. ‘An English Garden’, a work by Gabriella Hirst, was on display in Shoeburyness as part of the Estuary 2021 arts festival. “The project is centred on the propagation and redistribution of a nearly-extinct species of garden rose which was created and registered under the name Rosa floribunda ‘Atom Bomb’ in 1953.”
“An English Garden speculates upon possible links between the British Imperial programme of ‘gardening the world’, the enduring impact of nuclear colonialism, and the political symbolism of plants,” Hirst explains on the festival’s website. This is part of an ongoing critical research project by Hirst investigating Britain’s nuclear history.
In 1952, Britain’s first atomic device was assembled on Foulness, close to the Essex coast; the bomb was sent to and detonated on the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of northwest Australia. “This was the beginning of Britain’s devastating testing of nuclear weapons on Indigenous lands at Maralinga and Emu Field in so-called Australia,” she writes.
But Conservative Southend Councillors objected to this stating of facts. Southend Council is currently run by a coalition of Labour, Independent, and Liberal Democrat councillors, although the Conservative party have the most seats. The controversy played out on social media, with Hirst writing on Instagram: “These individuals (one of whom is a former UKIP Councillor) took issue with a plaque included in the work, which critically reflected upon Britain’s nuclear history and colonial legacy—that is, instead of celebrating Britain’s nuclear capabilities, the work highlighted Britain’s devastating nuclear tests on Indigenous Lands in Australia during the 1950s and 60s. We were given a 48 hour ultimatum to remove the work.”
Southend-based artist charity The Old Waterworks (TOW), which hosted Hirst, issued a statement: “History is not simply a celebratory fanfare and it is everyone’s right to be able to explore the nuances of this shared history and how it has ongoing impacts today… Art is meant to spark debate, provoke thought and encourage new ways of seeing the world, it should not be shut down because what it proposes does not align with the views of individuals, particularly when based on extensive research and historical facts.”
When a country reaches the point where stating facts is deemed a “far left wing attack,” one has to worry about what comes next. However, I wonder—hopefully, perhaps naively—if the councillors’ actions may contribute to an example of the Streisand effect, “the act of trying to suppress information but simply making it more widespread as a result.” Certainly, I wouldn’t have come across Hirst’s work if it weren’t for this outrageous censorship campaign. More people might now be exposed to the issues raised in this artwork—as well as the fact that Tory politicians believe threats of a malicious smear campaign against public artwork are fair game in 2021. I thought they were on a drive for more free speech, not less.
Similarly, there was a police raid on an East London warehouse, the Hoxton Docks, which was hosting the annual Antepavilion architecture commission. They were involved, tangentially, with Extinction Rebellion, whose members had been attending workshops there. The target was a structure erected on the roof entitled ‘All Along the Watchtower’, “a reusable, lightweight tensegrity” structure constructed of bamboo poles and steel cables. The piece was designed by Project Bunny Rabbit, a collective who had previously built towers for Extinction Rebellion—seemingly the bane of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s existence—and the intended target of the raid.
The group were preparing for their Free The Press march on Sunday 27 June, which took aim at the four media moguls who own the majority of British newspapers: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Sir Frederick Barclay, and Baron Evgeny Lebedev. Police believed further “tensegrity” structures would be used as part of the protests.
Chief Inspector Joe Stokoe, from the Met police’s public order command, said: “We believe certain protest groups are specifically intending to disrupt some business locations or potentially cause criminal damage to property.” Extinction Rebellion responded by saying that the raid “had uncovered only activists making art.”
Nuala Gathercole Lam, from Extinction Rebellion UK, said: “This is what happens when you take peaceful protest action to the true centres of power in this country… The media moguls’ fear of four people making art in an East London warehouse suggests they know they cannot withstand public scrutiny.”
“We are an architecture prize,” added Russell Gray, the owner of the canal-side complex who was arrested. “We weren’t prepared to become a propaganda tool for these Extinction Rebellion people.” He added: “We support the erection of the structure, the workshop, training people to do construction and craftsmanship. It doesn’t extend to any endorsement of Extinction Rebellion, on whom I’m neutral at best.”
Large swathes of the Conservative party, it would seem, are not only trying to make themselves immune to criticism: they want to free themselves from the very possibility of criticism. And that criticism doesn’t even have to target the party themselves—wealthy donors or their twisted, ignorant approach to British history will suffice. It’s outrageous—and likely to continue.