Thursday, 25 January 2007

Chav-bashing

It’s freaking cold here! The temperature dropped dramatically on Monday, ending what had been a very mild weather streak the past few weeks. I was actually lulled into thinking that was going to be how it was all the time. I had read that the average temperature here in January is 5 C (42 F), but this week it’s been consistently 0 C (32 F). I guess it snowed overnight because there’s snow on everything this morning.

Whenever the temperature changes I get a cold, so of course I’m now sick. Although this may have something to do with the ridiculous amount of alcohol I drank Saturday night in Cologne. It was fun but made for a miserable plane ride back.

I thought I would write today about this really interesting idea here of “the chav,” a concept which doesn’t have any direct translation in American English but has some close relatives based on regions. Chavs are sort of a euphemism for “the great unwashed,” low-income, ignorant people preoccupied with tacky designer fashions. The defining features of the stereotype include clothing in the Burberry pattern (notably a now-discontinued baseball cap) and other things such as tracksuits, hoodies and sweatpants. Ali G was a caricature of this type of person. Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is another example of such a caricature.

I suppose our analogous terms might be a “Guido,” or in New York, the “bridge and tunnel” crowd. However these terms only apply to people in specific regions of the Northeast. “White trash” might be another comparable example, but this term tends to be applied more to rural populations in the US, rather than chavs who are typically more urban.

Anyway what’s been interesting is the absolute ferocity in the way these people are derided here. I mean this isn’t a term you would own. The disdain is practically dripping from people’s lips when they say it. A quintessential place for a chav to be from is Essex, and I’ve heard many people constantly complaining about these “chavs from Essex” causing trouble and just basically making life miserable for everyone else.


An article I read yesterday on Spiked Online made me start to think differently about the use of the term. Bearing in mind the high importance class still has in British society, I am now questioning whether the term is just a new manifestation of classism.

The Neil Davenport article was about the Goody-Shetty controversy, and basically asks this question: Who is bullying whom here? Davenport argues that rather than being a reflection of the racial tension still tearing Britain apart, or a sign that Britain has come a long way and will no longer tolerate racism in any form, the episode is actually a measure of the disrepair in political and public life. This sentiment was echoed Sunday in a column in The Guardian by Jackie Ashley, in which she argues that the end of the Blair years has seen a return to the “rotten culture” that was bemoaned at the end of the Thatcher years, the jeering greed, the boorish materialism, the "no such thing as society" society. I think we’ve seen a similar trend in the states, a return to the “me generation” of the 1980’s under Reagan. Could the Big Brother row, rather than being a reflection about racism in modern British society, actually be a reflection of the alarming cruelty and materialism of the culture as a whole? And in this sense, is the widespread demonization of chavs a symptom of that same problem?

Davenport reminds readers of things said by a white housemate to a black housemate about the way she looks and talks on last year’s Celebrity Big Brother – comments that didn’t even hit the front pages. The comments were uttered by Pete Burns. I can’t exactly figure out what he’s supposed to be, so I’ll leave it to this Wikipedia entry to explain it. Basically he is a transsexual who was a pop star in the 1980s. Davenport writes:
Burns laid into Traci Bingham, the black American actress most famous for her
slo-mo appearances in Baywatch. He was far more cruel than Jade Goody was to
Shilpa Shetty.
‘You’ve got a short shelf-life. I know black don’t crack, but ultimately you get dusty hair’, Burns told Bingham, referring to black people’s skin texture and afro hair. ‘I can’t believe the absolute diarrhoea that’s dripping from your mouth’, he continued. ‘Your whole culture, everything you come from, everything you aspire to be is repugnant to me.’ He told Bingham she was ‘insincere to the point of nausea’ and ‘just fundamentally a fucking LA whore’. He called her a bitch, and when she protested he said: ‘I know the meaning of bitch, it was just black terminology, it’s fundamentally your language.’ He left the room and boasted to the other housemates, ‘I just attacked Traci for the hell of it’, while Bingham wiped away the tears.
It makes Jade Goody’s use of the word ‘Poppadom’ look...well, like the idiotic outburst it was. Why didn’t Burns v Bingham cause a storm? Maybe because it didn’t fit today’s chav-bashing script. Burns is the tongue-in-cheek pop star whose ‘acidic wit’ went down well in certain liberal circles, while Bingham is a black
American known for posing in a swimsuit - and who could feel sorry for a person
like that? Jade, on the other hand, is coarse ‘white trash’ and Shilpa Shetty is
respectable and refined, ‘just like us’.
So Burns gets away with his spiteful rant while Jade is buried alive by politicians and the media for hers. It seems it’s not what she said that really matters, but where she comes from and what she represents.
Interesting, right? But it makes sense. Why is Jade receiving the brunt of criticism for the conflict when it was former Miss Britain Danielle who said the worst of it? This isn’t about Shilpa at all, or about racism. It’s about the culture that Jade Goody represents. People believe Jade comes from a “poor breeding” in which ignorance and racism is commonplace.

Now the fact is the stereotypes about this underclass might have some truth, but in essence hasn’t the overblown reaction been a bullying of a different sort? Is it the bullying of a sophisticated, urbane upper class of a less educated, bumbling underclass? I suspect that may have something to do with it

It would be tempting for me to join in with the mob and call for Jade’s head. She is, after all, a particularly nasty and brutish woman. But historically, one class of people bullying another has rarely led to good things. I would say there’s something very unwise in that. After all, I don’t like the way intellectual elites are vilified in the US, so why would it be ok for those elites to vilify the working class here in the UK?

It’s interesting how living in a different place can change your outlook on these things.

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