TikTok’s “chav” trend has received more than 1 billion views.
It satirizes an aesthetic associated with the British working class.
Users may not realize it, but experts worry it promotes damaging class stereotypes.
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In 10 seconds, a TikTok user who goes by “Maddie” transforms her look, applying bronzer several shades deeper than her skin tone, heavy eye make-up, and pale lips. She wears a grey hoodie, huge hoop earrings and scowls into the camera while lip-syncing “Body” by British rapper Bugzy Malone. The video is one of thousands on the platform using the #chav hashtag, which has over 1 billion views.
TikTok “chavs” are portrayed as young white women who dress in cheap sweats, wear patchy fake tan, and speak in an exaggerated version of Estuary English – an accent traditionally associated with the British working class.
It’s unclear whether the often non-British TikTok users posting videos parodying what they perceive as a “chav” understand the deep-seated connotations of the word. “Chav” has long been used to mock and belittle Britain’s working class, and the new trend appears to be reigniting this narrative.
The UK has long vilified working-class people
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “chav” as a “young person from the working class, usually without a high level of education.” In 2004, it was announced as the Oxford Languages “Word of the Year” and entered the mainstream, appearing in documentaries and television shows. Although its origins are not entirely clear, author Lance Manley posited in his 2010 book that the word was an acronym for “council housed and violent.”
Journalist Owen Jones wrote in his 2012 book on the concept of “chavs” that it has historically been used by politicians to perpetuate social and economic inequality in the UK. He argues that the idea that working class struggles are “consequences of personal behavior, not the social structure of the country,” was used by Conservative politicians to justify cuts to public spending, especially in the wake of the economic crisis of 2007. Jones cites comments from former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2010, which justified welfare caps by saying they would encourage people to have “responsibility for their choices.”
Jones has referred to the word chav as “deeply offensive,” and working-class activists have long called for it to be treated as a slur.
Perception of class identity is more rooted in stereotypes than ever
While the concept of the British working class used to be based on socioeconomic standing, the TikTok trend mocking the community seems to view it as simply as an aesthetic, ignoring the marginalization that goes along with it. This may in part be connected to a change in how British people consider their own class identity.
A study by The Guardian found that many people consider themselves working class despite having middle-class upbringings. It’s thought this could be due to the “grandparent effect” – using previous generations’ circumstances as a means of deflecting one’s own class privilege. This may be as a result of increased discussions surrounding systemic oppression.
Fleur MacInnes, a PhD student at the University of Oxford who posts TikTok videos educating her followers on social justice issues, suggests that users are unaware of the wider implications of the #chav trend and are in fact manipulating aesthetics based on stereotypes. “When you see people try to describe what does and doesn’t make a ‘chav’, the definitions are all over the place,” she said, adding that the term is used so loosely that it leaves anyone who is working-class “at risk of being deemed too ‘chavvy’ to be respected.”
Characters from popular British television shows have been described by various media outlets as “chavs” due to their clothes, class, and accent and use of slang. The BBC’s Creative Diversity Report 2020 found that “often those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are depicted negatively, fuelled by stereotypes and seen as the object of ridicule.”
Reality TV shows such as “The Jeremy Kyle Show” and documentaries such as “Benefits Street” have also been heavily criticized for their treatment of the working-class people they present, often in a sensationalized manner.
Dr. Deidre O’Neill, editor of the Journal of Class and Culture, told Insider that “the proliferation of reality television documentaries that have been designated as ‘poverty porn’ represent working-class people as lazy, dishonest, and not very bright. “
Users may not understand the pain they’re causing with this trend
Many teenagers may not remember these pop culture phenomena, but the TikTok trends are helping to keep these stereotypes alive among a whole new demographic.
Whether intentional or not, the use of this trend can have a real impact on those from working-class backgrounds. 19-year-old university student Emily Taylor Davies finds the trend to be personally offensive. “I am from a very working-class background – which people never seem to believe as I don’t fit into the ‘chav’ box ingrained in their head. It makes me deeply uncomfortable that there is such a widely accepted ideal that an entire section of society should fit a certain stereotype,” she said.
Kat Bukowick, a 25-year-old TikTok creator with 30,000 followers who has seen an increase in “chav”-related content on the platform, thinks that most of it stems from a lack of education. “Loads of people taking part in the trends are either American or so far removed from class politics by the means of their own privilege that they haven’t thought about it,” she said.
The use of class stereotypes to create humorous content on TikTok isn’t just relegated to working-class characters. The #privateschool hashtag also has over 1 billion views on TikTok and features videos satirizing wealthy teenagers who boast about attending prestigious boarding schools, owning flashy cars, and wearing designer fashion.
Olivia Anna, a 20-year-old TikTok user with close to 100,000 followers, went to a state school but has posted #privateschoolgirl videos. She told Insider she thinks the popularity of the trend is down to a desire to redress the balance of privilege.
While the “private school” videos follow a similar formula to the “chav” content on TikTok, some think there is a distinction. O’Neill told Insider that unlike parodying the rich, a negative representation of the working-class “reinforces and reproduces other negative discourses around class that are already in circulation.”
TikTok content based on class stereotypes highlights issues of inequality that exist in British society
O’Neill told Insider that these TikTok trends are a symptom of a wider problem. They construct working-class people and working-class culture as the problem and not poverty and inequality,” she said.
O’Neill said that there are real-life dangers that could result from the perpetuation of these class stereotypes on TikTok. “We are living at a time when the welfare state is being rolled back and more cuts to public services are on the way. If we stigmatize the people who rely on those services and construct that reliance as morally reprehensible, it becomes easier to justify the cuts to the welfare budget,” she said.
O’Neill added, “What these hashtags do is make sure that this marginalization and demonization are reproduced and justified.”
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