The unbearable lightness of chav baiting

It was featured as part of ‘twentysomethinglondon’ and that’s certainly what Cafe Viva felt like when I first arrived, although as the afternoon’s moved on the age bracket seems to be widening… Earlier on, this “small and intimate” cafe was dominated by a table of well-dressed young women – students, maybe – who were talking about a man one of them met who was, she told them ‘a bit of a chav’.

This reference, casually used, casually accepted, were a shorthand that conveyed to her friends that there was a gulf between them that meant his attempt to “hit on her” were absurd and laughable. Imogen Tyler, author of Revolting Subjects, has done a lot of work on chavs and the politics of class. In 2006 she wrote that “[e]xperiencing the frisson of acting like a chav has become a major leisure occupation in Britain where middle class students now regularly hold “chav nites”, in which they dress up as chavs and chavettes”. Eight years on, it’s remarkable how these well-spoken, well-dressed and apparently privileged young women appeared so comfortable using the term to both categorise and denigrate someone.

Tyler writes that the “emergence of the grotesque and comic figure of the chav within a range of contemporary British media, primarily television comedy, reality-genre television, Internet forums and newspapers, has made class differences and antagonisms explicitly visible in contemporary Britain. Class-based discrimination and open snobbery is made socially acceptable through claims that this vicious name-calling has a ‘satirical’ function.”

Such class disgust is linked to issues of race, Tyler argues:

Metaphors of disease, invasion and excessive breeding that are often invoked within white racist responses to immigrants and ethnic minorities are mobilized by the white middle-class in order to differentiate their “respectable whiteness” from the whiteness of the lower class chavs. The process of making white lower class identity filthy is an attempt to differentiate between respectable and non-respectable forms of whiteness (and an attempt to abject the white poor from spheres of white privilege).

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