ARTICLE / LONG READ
LEFT-WING political commentator Owen Jones writes in his 2012 book CHAVS: THE DEMONIZATION OF THE WORKING CLASS, “class hatred has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites and everyday conversations”. One comedy show that fights back against this “class hatred” is MISFITS (E4 2009-2013). While other shows might have working class young offenders as the antagonists, the creator, Howard Overman, decided that they should be the protagonists.
MISFITS is about a group of young offenders who gain superpowers from a storm and are thrown into numerous comedic but dangerous situations. This creates a different type of situational humour and also a new archetypal hero that other shows have gone on to replicate. A comedy drama that has used a similar formula to MISFITS is BEING HUMAN (BBC Three 2008-2013), which places vampires, werewolves and ghosts into reality, forcing three of them to live together and eventually look after a child. The protagonists in MISFITS are seen as working class not only in society in general but in the microcosm that is created in the community centre. MISFITS is extremely reflective of Jones who writes, “‘Chavs’ are often treated as synonymous with the ‘white working class’”. The title MISFITS speaks to the stereotype of the working-class chav; one way or another they do not fit into society and they rebel against the norms that have been set for them by the middle and upper classes. But what is the general opinion about the working class and chavs by wider society?
Jones writes “Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain”. The hatred of chavs and the working class is still clear in society today. In 2017, an Independent headline warned of “Young Tory activists caught discussing 'gassing chavs' and 'shooting peasants' in leaked WhatsApp group”. The news article detailed how Tory-supporting youth group Activate, launched to help working class youth engage in politics, had been saying such things as “gas them all” and a recommendation to "use them as substitutes for animals when testing". The story reveals the hatred and lack of respect shown to the working class. This hatred and disapproval of the working classes is explored on our screens in films such as HARRY BROWN (Daniel Barber 2009), where a gang of youths murder an elderly gentleman in an underpass, and ATTACK THE BLOCK (Joe Cornish 2011), where the protagonists start by attempting to steal from a woman returning to her home. Somewhat similar to using the Arab character to represent the “other”, the “chav” stereotype seems to be an easy fall-back when depicting non-law-abiding citizens.
ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, THE CHAV DOES NOT FIT INTO SOCIETY.
Film and television, whether fictional or factual, represents society and in doing so they can represent the class structure at the time. This is evident in THE HUNGER GAMES (Gary Ross 2012) where the class system dictates how people are picked to compete in the games: a gladiatorial contest between each district or class. One person is selected from each district and each district represents a different class or is a part of a particular class. The series' protagonist Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is from the lowest class - District 12 - where food is rationed and everyone is dressed in similar mundane clothes. Each district has an industry and 12’s industry is mining. The different industries have different social value, for example, fashion is high class and farming and mining are depicted as low class.
The people in District 12 get the least support from the Capitol or the government, which is very reflective in our society. During Thatcher’s term, there were many strikes by working-class miners who rightfully thought that they were not being treated equally compared to other classes. More recently, a 2017 Independent article noted, “Research reveals ‘class pay gap’ in Britain’s professions of £6,800”. This article suggests that Britain remains an “elitist” society in which people with a poorer upbringing or from a workingclass background are paid less than those with a richer upbringing even if they have the same qualifications. This deeply unfair system is similar to the system in THE HUNGER GAMES because of the help that the upper classes or upper districts receive during the games compared to those of a lower district. June Deery and Andrea Press, authors of MEDIA AND CLASS: TV, FILM AND DIGITAL CULTURE write: “For each of us, our class position affects how we will live and how long we will live, how we will be cared for and educated, how we will interact with the law, and what experiences and pleasures are open to us”. This is evident in MISFITS. With our protagonists being young offenders the show begins to create a hierarchy of power and control. In this case, there are clear examples of youth resisting authority as it is the probation officer who holds the power.
The power struggle between youth and an authority figure is one that has been seen throughout the decades. However, MISFITS represent it humorously and portrays the divide between classes in a way that accentuates the problem in society but without being heavy handed. Similar to THE HUNGER GAMES, the misfits wear uniform clothes and the orange jumpsuit has the potential to dehumanise the characters, stripping them of their individual personalities.
The representation of the working class by the characters Nathan (Robert Sheehan), Simon (Iwan Rheon), Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Alisha (Antonia Thomas) and Kelly (Lauren Socha) allow the audience to relate to them even if they are not working class themselves. With her hair scraped back, large hoop earrings and constant use of slang, Kelly is a classic example of a stereotypical chav. Her character almost mocks this stereotypical form. This seemingly expose society's view of the working class and there is a lack of rebuttal from the working class or chavs themselves. In their 2014 article “'Chavs, chavettes and pramface girls': Teenage Mothers, Marginalised Young Men and the Management of Stigma”, published in the Journal of Youth Studies, Anoop Nayak and Mary Jane Kehily write: “A notable silence in work on media representation lies in the muted presence of chavs themselves. Little is known regarding who these young people actually are - if they self-identify with the label or how they might speak back to these representations.” This lack of presence in the media from the working class allows middle and upper classes to dictate and create working class characters according to how they view the working class themselves. This creates an inaccurate representation. How can we change it?
THE LACK OF DISCUSSION ABOUT CLASS BY MEDIA AND GOVERNMENT HAS ALLOWED CLASS HATRED TO TAKE CONTROL.
Deery and Press also write, “Since it is not physically expressed in an obvious way, class is generally less noticeable than gender or race and therefore more dependent on the judgment of the observer”. The lack of recognisable class expression in films and television causes people to make their own judgment and this causes people to use what they see in films and television to describe the working class.
Writer and director Ken Loach discusses class politics in his British social realism films, such as I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016) where he exposes the problems within society and its interpretation of working class people. Daniel (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old carpenter who, after a heart attack, must fight the system in order to receive the support that he needs and deserves. The social realist approach allows the audience to better see the reality of the issue. Daniel Blake is the embodiment of a working-class individual. His struggles with job loss and lack of help from the government resonate within the working class community who may have faced some of these issues themselves. Owen Jones suggests, “Because ‘class’ had for so long been forbidden in the political establishment, the only inequalities discussed by politicians and the media were racial ones”. The lack of discussion about class by media and government has allowed class hatred to take control. Now that the government is talking about class issues, it creates an opportunity for change in the representation of the working class.
Another idea put forward by Deery and Press is “It is once again recognized that class matters, quite simply, it still marks and consolidates power, which means that it still affects the fundamentals of life and death”. The elitist society in which we still live means our class holds so much power over what we are realistically able to achieve. We talk about “equality for all” but there is still a huge class divide that needs to be spoken about in and addressed by mainstream media and in government.
The recent turbulent times that Britain has faced with Brexit and the change of power from David Cameron to Theresa May have created a discussion about class. The working class are obviously going to be affected by the changes that will take place over the coming years. Instead of portraying the working class as “misfits”, “miscreants” and “chavs” we need fair and honest representations on screen. We cannot condone their demonisation. MISFITS showed that having a group of “chavs” as the protagonists can create an insightful show and achieve excellent ratings.