Why ‘Chav’ is a Feminist Issue.

Chav, n. British slang (derogatory). “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
– Oxford English Dictionary

1. The C word

If ‘cunt’ is reportedly losing its power to shock or offend, don’t worry, other c-words are available. ‘Class’, for instance, appears to have become unsuitable for use in polite society these days, while ‘Chav’ has never been so commonplace in the respectable parlance of those who would never dream of using any other c-word so blithely. Owen Jones’ book Chavs, a welcome and necessary analysis of the latter phenomenon, identifies it as a culture ‘created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists’, and examines the word’s place in current political and cultural discourse in the context of a simultaneous narrowing of socio-economic opportunity.

Before we begin, it’s worth heading off a few preconceptions at the pass. ‘Chav’ is a multivalent and unstable signifier, and its origin and evolution shows it meaning different things to different people. It’s been around a relatively long time: a 2005 study described ‘chav’ as a strange subculture which, unlike its predecessors, lacked any association with a particular musical movement or political ideals. 2004 saw the rise of ‘chavertising’, a marketing strategy targeting ’chavs’ as a subculture with spending power, whose members ‘wore their wealth’ and prioritised consumption. At the tail-end of 2004, I attended a gig in Chatham by the former Libertine Carl Barat, whose dubious supergroup, in deference to the town’s history with the term, and with who knows what degree of irony or self-awareness, styled themselves ‘The Chavs’ for the evening. And the (working class and Welsh) novelty rap crew Goldie Lookin Chain were satirizing various aspects of ‘chav’ culture as far back as 2001.

Jones’ book, however, focuses on a particular and relatively recent variation in the word‘s meaning, one which is concentrated in political and media discourse and which is overwhelmingly used about the working class rather than by them. This hasn’t always been, and isn’t always the case – Lynsey Hanley’s review of the book locates the idea of ‘chavs’ within the complexities of working-class communities, where the word can be used to differentiate between ‘those who aim for “respectability” and those who disdain it’. Back in my 1990s childhood, the latter group were certainly distinguishable, known with varying degrees of contempt, amusement or fear as ‘neds’ or ‘townies’. But these terms were localised, used within a community to delineate internal hierarchies, rather than to section off an entire community by those at one socio-economic remove from it.

Regardless of the tortuous relationship between the term and the demographic it delineates, the use of the word in 21st century political discourse has developed a peculiar, specific and politically-loaded edge. Jones outlines with sharpness and sensitivity how the word has been stripped of its previous meaning and reapplied in government and media rhetoric, almost invariably being conflated with ‘lower socio-economic group’ by those of a higher one, without reference to or cognisance of the lower socio-economic individuals being tarred with the same brush.

2. An equal-opportunity stereotype?

At first glance, ‘chav’ is a term tied to class rather than gender. Chav stereotypes are remarkably even-handed: for every lager-swilling lout there’s a single mother, for every Wayne Rooney a Waynetta Slob. The sports gear and leisurewear prominent in ‘chav’ dress is a type of clothing which makes it possible to efface one’s femininity with shapeless tracksuits and scraped-back hair. The baseball cap which graces the cover of Jones’ book is a gender-neutral accessory. Is the female ‘chav’ a recognisable figure? A google image search for ‘chavette’ brings up images of relative deprivation and degradation rather than the upwardly-mobile targets of ‘chavertising’ – the ubiquitous Croydon facelift, tracksuits, pregnant stomachs and yards of bare skin – many of which, interestingly, are self-conscious or pastiche portrayals by those not identifying as a permament part of the subculture – a kind of chav drag. There’s a Newcastle fancy-dress company selling a ‘Super Chavette’ costume, as well as several ‘chav babe’ sites – the straight, and no less curious, counterpart of the numerous gay male ‘chav porn’ sites discussed here by Jack Cullen. And the ‘chav’ icon extraordinaire is of course female too – Vicky Pollard, one of the oddest fictional stereotypes to be fixed as a moral standard since George Bush Snr instructed America to be ‘more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’.

The types of women stereotyped as ‘chavs’ make an interesting point about the particularly virulent strain of misogyny which chav-hatred can contain. Anti-chav commentators reveal a disquieting obsession with the presumed sexual precociousness and promiscuity of young working-class women, as well as their aggressive lack of deference and their status outside traditional family and community hierarchies. According to one review of Jones’ book, the behaviour for which ‘chavs’ are criticised includes being too loud, too flash, too drunk, too vulgar and too disrespectful towards their ‘betters’. Is this particularly problematic behaviour when observed in women?

The tendency for anti-chav rhetoric to thinly veil both misogyny and class hatred reached an eyebrow-raising pitch in James Delingpole’s spittle-flecked rant that Vicky Pollard embodies:

‘several of the great scourges of contemporary Britain: aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye…’

Here an anti-chav stance allows a thoroughly unpleasant perpetuation of damaging stereotypes of the working class female (sexual promiscuity, sexual precociousness, a thoughtless lack of protection resulting in pregnancy) as well as a proscribing of non-traditional behaviour (women existing outside traditional family roles, deriving financial support from the state rather than a husband). Imogen Tyler‘s 2008 study ‘Chav Mum, Chav Scum’ found not only that ‘the word “chav,” alongside its various synonyms and regional variations, has become a ubiquitous term of abuse for the white poor’, but also that ‘the figure of the female chav, and the vilification of young white working-class mothers, embodies historically familiar and contemporary anxieties about female sexuality, reproduction, fertility, and “racial mixing.”’

This gendered and class-based disgust has become particularly prevalent in UK comedy, as identified in Barbara Ellen’s wrecking-ball swing at Little Britain:

‘Rewarding middle-class, educated, comedy workaholics for lampooning people without any of their advantages, struggling on the margins of society – was this where we’d come to, a boorish festival of exploitation and contempt? … Vicky Pollard alone gave certain sections of the media a label for the disgust they love to express towards young girls spiralling downwards, due to poverty, illiteracy and teen pregnancy…’

While the comedies in question do not exclusively portray working class and female characters, the unedifying sight of Oxbridge-educated male comedians sticking it to underclass female grotesques does form part of a disconcerting trend in contemporary comedy towards punching downwards. Pace Kathy Burke as the proto-chav Waynetta Slob, the only recent mainstream female comedian to draw on this stereotype has been Catherine Tate as Lauren Cooper – one of whose relatively nuanced and sympathetic appearances has as its pay-off her unsuspected and incongruous knowledge of Shakespeare, rather than a further display of the depths of her blissful ignorance.

3. Are we bovvered, though?

Apart from the latent misogyny of chav-hatred, then, why is ‘chav’ a feminist issue? The ‘chav’ stereotypes which have gained media prominence and cultural currency are those which are politically useful, being amenable to adoption for narratives which play on the idea of a semi-criminal, scrounging, feckless underclass to justify political attacks on all of us lower down the socio-economic scale, and many of these stereotypes are female. The current government’s rhetoric repeatedly plays on the stereotype of the feckless and promiscuous single mother, whose ‘irresponsibility’ must be punished, to justify the wider reduction or removal of state support from benefits claimants (even though over half of single parents are in paid employment, a figure rising to 71% for those with a child over the age of twelve). The Daily Mail, happily conflating fact and fiction, used a picture of Waynetta Slob to illustrate an article on the increased number of women claiming sickness benefit, accompanied by the headline ‘Rising toll of ‘Waynettas’. As the smoke cleared after last month’s riots over much of the UK, the single mother was again in the firing line, along with the moral decline, sexual depravity, and social disintegration she is held to represent.

There is still a frustrating lack of attention to class paid by mainstream feminism, whose academic and theoretical focus is often divorced from practical considerations of material inequality, with the result that feminist analysis can seem off-puttingly remote and attuned only to middle-class concerns. Far from having vanished as a vector of political identity, class remains a stubborn and strengthening line of social division. The concept of the stereotypical ‘chav’, and its expansion into a term covering an entire externally-defined and already disadvantaged class, is one that makes the barriers of socio-economic difference appear insurmountable, erasing the potential for solidarity over the common problems we face. Acknowledging that the discourse around ‘chavs’ can be a cover for denigrating the social agency and sexual autonomy of working-class women, as well as for wider political attacks on the working class, is a valuable step towards effectively opposing it.

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