Monday, February 28, 2005

She's many things, but she's not a chav.

Julie Birchill's documentary on chavs last week (on Sky One - where else?) raised some interesting issues. Why do people hate chavs? Where did the term come from? What social conditions created chavs? (Margaret Thatcher apparently). Birchill defended chavs, saying it was just middle-class snobbery and envy. I'll grant her snobbery - but only partially agree on the envy - it's difficult to be envious of someone who has so few advantages or prospects in life. Middle-class people may be scared of chavs, and they may be scared of being seen as one, but they're not envious of them.

Julie also claimed to be a chav herself. Again, she's pushing it. Like myself, she is a product of a working-class family. But having working-class parents doesn't make you a chav. Nor does having the odd bag of fish and chips. She writes for a broadsheet and makes documentaries for goodness sakes.

So Julie just came across as a) wanting to be provocative for the sake of it - media blag in other words b) or (less likely) liberal guilt at leaving her working-class roots (how many people on council estates do you know who have their own swimming pool?) She didn't even dress like a chav, wearing "slimming black" for the whole programme (although granted she was sitting on a leopard skin sofa). The shots of her and friend Jackie Clune going around the market, admiring chav clothes looked more like ironic "appreciation" of naff attire, rather than the real thing. And irony is the opposite of chav.

Julie pointed out that it's better to be a chav because then you can be sure of your own success (rather than wondering if you got it all because of rich Daddy). A fair point. However, some types of success automatically stop you from being a chav - namely the ones that involve academia or working for broadsheets. She also (rather subjectively) pointed out that chav girls are very discerning when it comes to boyfriends, whereas rich girls are slags who will shag anyone. Far too generalising.

Here's how I understad chavs: Being a chav is about having an under-class outlook on life. It has less to do with how much money you have, although 99.9999% of chavs are poor, the ones who do make it rich, and manage to STAY chavs are very much in the popular, low-brow entertainment world - singers, sports people, models, actors, reality tv stars. Or lottery winners. They don't stop being underclass, they're just underclass made good. And this is where envy comes in - the middle-classes are angry and envious that a very small minority of poor people can earn much more money than them - and that when they do so, they don't act middle-class. However, the huge amount of media attention on the rich chav (Beckham etc) is simply another way that the vast majority of under-class people are kept down. Most of them will never win the lottery or get to go on a reality tv show. However, while there's the chance that they will, they can ignore the other traditional way out - education. This under-class now have a set of people to emulate - people like themselves who have made it good, but continue to be under-class in spirit. I think this is what annoys the middle-classes, because the older social structure used to be that you envied and tried to emulate your "social betters". Now the poor want to be like Daniella Westbrook rather than The Royal family.

And chav culture is part of the larger celebrity culture, which has rocketed in the UK in the last 5 years, since the start of Big Brother. Chav celebrities are much more interesting to write about - because they continue to act in ways that make them appear like soap characters. They get drunk and fight in public, have messy relationships, show their emotions, "tell all" to the papers, get it wrong and can be laughed at. They don't have reputations to worry about. They are completely accessible and appear to need attention - any attention - the desire to "be a celebrity" or "be famous" is the ultimate chav goal. The socially elite do the opposite - they want to disappear or be anonymously rich, because ultimately they understand that fame is a poisoned chalice - it may be exciting and glamorous but living under constant public and media scrutiny brings little chance of real happiness. The public's dual thirst for "glamour" and "reality" (two rather mutually exclusive terms) have helped to create the celebrity chav, who tries to embody both at the same time.

Unlike Julie, I don't see being a chav as an enviable state. But I don't see any reason to mock chavs either. They're just a consequence of our new social structure - our society's partial (but not total) move towards democracy and equality. For most people, we continue to have a social caste (not class) system - most people are born into a social caste and they die there. The fact that a few people can now appear to escape this, due to luck or an inborn non-academic talent simply helps to reinforce the status quo and ensures that education continues to be viewed as unattractive to the poor.


lola said...

Brilliant. Talking of celebrity culture - what happens next in Jamie 4 U?

lola said...

Brilliant. Talking of celebrity culture - what happens next in Jamie 4 U?