British school parodies are some of my favourite TikToks. From rating the top ten school hymns (Cauliflowers Fluffy got the top spot, if you’re wondering), to pretending to be the popular girl at school, it’s funny – and a little unnerving – to realise that my childhood was the exact same as everyone else’s. But amongst these generally harmless sketches, TikTok users are contributing to the classist ‘chav’ stereotype that has a long history of working class oppression.
I thought we’d had this conversation. In fact, when I first saw one of these videos, I was confused; I checked the likes, not expecting many, and saw they numbered in the millions. The chav hashtag on the app has almost a billion views at the time of writing this. It’s full of teenagers slapping foundation on, streaking bronzer across their cheekbones, and artfully letting a false eyelash hang off in their impersonation of a ‘chav.’ Hooped earrings, chewing gum, and Victoria’s Secret spray complete the look. In many of these videos, the creator acts out a scene as the ‘chav’: a dumb, loudmouthed girl with a rough accent and poor grammar.
A sketch with 2.6 million likes shows a ‘nerd’ transformed into a ‘chav.’ In it, the girl asks for a shower, and is told “Chavs don’t shower.” Another, imitating a character select game screen, describes the ‘chav’ character as “late every day to school”, “bottom set”, and as having “anger issues.” In an uncomfortable display of profiling, one TikTok simply zooms in on a group of pre-teens in tracksuits with the viral sound ‘chav check’ playing in the background.
One user describes Khloe Kardashian, among other celebrities, as “looking chav-ish”, ironically hitting on a key feature of the discriminatory use of the word. ‘Chav’ trends have long been part of the mainstream, but gold hoops, scrunchies, and jogging bottoms on celebrities aren’t considered trashy or cheap. This double standard is the hallmark of appropriation; trendy on the rich and tacky on the poor.
TikTok’s chav character is also undeniably gendered. The vast majority of the videos on the ‘chav’ hashtag involve users impersonating ‘chavvy’ women – coarse, gobby, and aggressive. It seems that talking back at the teacher and getting angry isn’t fitting behaviour for the educated, middle class woman. This feeds into the idea, learnt even in our schools, that a girl is quiet, patient, and polite; God forbid she play class clown or act cocky. Our society thinks aggression is reserved for the lower classes; we know this from Jeremy Kyle’s circus of a TV show in which he would bring in low-income families in order to exploit and aggravate serious issues they faced. This is a serious misrepresentation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
It seems the ‘chav’ caricature, which depicts the working class as trashy, aggressive and antisocial, is making a sinister comeback among a generation who appear ignorant of its role in demonising the lower classes.
The etymology of the word chav is unclear, but its harmful associations are obvious from the popular misconception that it is an acronym for ‘council house and violence.’ The media played a large role in legitimising use of the word; ‘chav’ was used in 946 British newspaper articles in 2005. In the same year, Boris Johnson added his unwanted two cents in a column for the Telegraph in which he described the UK’s poorest communities as made up of “chavs”, “losers”, “burglars”, “drug addicts” and “criminals.”
The 2003 TV show Little Britain saw Matt Lucas and David Walliams – two middle-class and privately educated comedians – in velour tracksuits and hoop earrings in an imitation of working-class women. Vicky Pollard, played by Lucas, is a vulgar, ineloquent woman who shoplifts, has a teenage pregnancy and swaps the baby for a Westlife CD, and spends a year in prison. Pollard is often seen shouting in a broad accent littered with poor pronunciation and grammatical errors. The TikTok chav sketches are no more than a modern day reincarnation of this kind of tasteless satire.
There are those who are quick to dismiss this as part and parcel of sketch comedy. But Little Britain, just like the ‘chav check’ TikToks, serves to normalise use of the chav stereotype. They validate the false and damaging narrative, started in Thatcher era, that justified cuts to the welfare state on the basis that an individual is to blame for their poverty.
The chav stereotype has always been political; to pretend otherwise is to ignore an entrenched class system that permeates every level of British society. Politicians have long taken advantage of the unsympathetic portrayal of those of low social status to justify benefit cuts. The myth of the lazy jobless masses “scrounging off the state” was employed time and time again during the post-2008 era of recession. It’s no coincidence that in Little Britain, one of Vicky Pollard’s story arcs involves her trying to get pregnant in order to be eligible for council housing. The cultural representation of the working classes as dirty, stupid, and lazy creates the ideal political climate for slashing public service funding.
Whilst instances of benefit fraud exist and are of course reprehensible, the effect on the economy is grossly exaggerated by the media and by pro-austerity politicians. In fact, comparisons between Jobseeker’s Allowance in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and the US show that our government is one of the least generous. During Cameron’s majority government, £21 billion was cut from the welfare budget; a UN report in 2019 showed that since 2010 child poverty in the UK has risen 7% and homelessness has risen by 60%. The effects of austerity politics have been deadly for some low income families, yet the political and cultural narrative offers little in the way of pity.
It is for this reason that the resurgence of chav-bashing is so dangerous. A society that is compassionate and understanding of the many factors that contribute to poverty is necessary in order to bridge the vast wealth gap between the rich and poor in this country. It might seem amusing to older generations to think of TikTok as a political space, but a new generation who will soon be of voting age are growing up believing that working class steretypes are acceptable forms of humour. Even accounting for the generational gap is giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Teenagers on TikTok are not necessarily to blame for this; a significant proportion of the users making these videos are from the US and elsewhere, and are likely unaware of the history of working class demonisation in the UK. The creator of a ‘chav check’ Instagram filter – disturbing proof that the trend is expanding out of its original platform – is Filipino, and defended the filter by saying: “Since chav culture has become embedded in our meme and pop culture landscape, social media has helped fuel people’s interest in hopping onto trend.” The history of the word has been erased, and now, harnessing the new power of viral internet culture, ‘chav’ is going global. But the phenomenon had to have started in the UK, and there are plenty of British TikTok stars also participating in this new cycle of mocking the working classes.
Just a few weeks ago, over 300 Conservative MPs voted against extending provision of free school meals to children over the school holidays. In a now deleted tweet, one of these politicians, Ben Bradley, linked the provision of free school meals with “crack dens” and “brothels.” The demonisation of the working class lives on, and TikTok is only making it worse – its never been more important to educate yourself on the shameful history of ‘chav-bashing’ in British culture.