As we settle into term, those students active in sports clubs and societies are settling into (and stumbling out of) circles. The great Warwick pre- ‘Pop!’ institution has seen hundreds of respectable students lose their balance, inhibitions, and dignity while sitting in a costumed circle. Sometimes they are dressed as superheroes, cats, or pieces of fruit. Sometimes they are handcuffed together. And sometimes, lamentably, the theme is “chavs.”
People like to think the word ‘chav’ is inoffensive because it supposedly describes a distasteful kind of person. Chavs are the offensive ones, with all their anti-social behaviour and whatnot, am I right? Not only are they Council Housed, they’re Violent too!
But Council Housed And Violent is a backronym for a word of Romani origin meaning ‘child’. ‘Chav’ doesn’t really mean anything at all: it’s just a pejorative word for a stereotype that has contributed greatly to the demonisation of both the working class and young people in general.
Since successive governments and the media have encouraged people to see ‘the poor’ as obese benefit scroungers with too many kids, the word ‘chav’ has slipped into acceptable vocabulary. Public school boys David Walliams and Matt Lucas put the stereotype on TV and by 2006, 70% of TV industry professionals believed Vicky Pollard was an “accurate reflection of white working class youth.”
There is an inherent classism and snobbery in the concept and use of the word ‘chav’. It has never been used as a self-identifier and it has never been reclaimed. It is solely a label imposed on a certain group of people by a society that is wealthier than they are.
In his book Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones argues that the stereotype allows British society to excuse its widening inequality because “the people at the bottom deserve to be there.” If all poor young men are violent, lazy, and unwilling to work, we don’t need to worry about finding them jobs. If all poor young women are promiscuously popping out baby after baby and feeding each one with the taxpayer’s pennies, we don’t have to improve the schools they’ll attend.
It is entirely inappropriate to dress up in a mimicking parody of a damaging stigma. The concept of the ‘chav’ is inextricably tied to representations of an underclass or sub-class that expects the government to pay for their trainers.
Even if all people who struggle for money were like this, where is the attraction in dressing up as someone who has less money than you? Would you think it was hilarious if Bluebell residents circled dressed as Rootes residents?
When Prince William dressed as a ‘chav’ for a photograph at the end of his first term at Sandhurst, The Sun called it a “jokey outfit… [he] went to a lot of trouble thinking up what to wear…he struggled to pull off a working-class accent.” Poor Wills, going through all that struggle and trouble just to imitate a group that struggles in a way he never will! Surely we all agree that his choice of costume was ignorant and unimaginative.
With Halloween approaching, the idea of culturally appropriative costumes has been brought to the Internet’s attention by the ‘We’re A Culture, Not A Costume’ campaign. The campaign focuses on white people dressing up as different races for their costume – as geishas, Native Americans, Asian ‘nerds’ or black ‘gangsters’ – but isn’t something similar going on when students dress as the damaging stereotype of a group that bears the brunt of the blame for ‘broken Britain’?
You put the costume on for one night and when you get home you take it off again, but in doing so you perpetuate a stigma that someone else has to bear every day, because the way they choose to dress has come to be associated with criminal behaviour.
I can only issue a plea to Social Secs to think more closely about using this theme for circling. Because dressing as the stereotype the likes of Andrew Mitchell have fed to us about ‘the working class’ just isn’t very classy at all.