Social Media and Class Performativity

Maisie Allen is a third year Liberal Arts student at KCL majoring in English Literature. She is passionate about accessibility within the arts, socialism, feminist podcasts, and her cello.

[Featured Image: An iPhone set on a table, showing the TikTok logo on the screen. Source]

In the current image obsessed society we live in, many of us are often drawn into the world of identity performativity, meaning that our acts are constantly constituting the identity we show to the world. This is often discussed in the realm of gender, with Judith Butler’s notion of gender as unstable and as something inherently performative being one of the most famous theses on this. However, decades on, and in the midst of an online renaissance of sorts, performativity and stereotypes of class is something that has recently come under scrutiny, especially on the popular online video platform TikTok. 

Working class communities have, for years, been demonised by those in power i.e. the ruling class, whether they are elected officials or members of the aristocracy and monarchy and this was notably chronicled by journalist Owen Jones in his 2011 book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. With prejudice increasing, an aestheticisation, and by default a caricature, of class has emerged across social media. These stereotypes ring familiar to benefit scrounger tropes displayed on our television sets at the height of Conservative austerity in the early 2010s and during the Blair era at the turn of the millennium. 

During lockdown earlier in the year, social media usage in the UK soared and apps which encouraged you to make your own content, like TikTok, rose in popularity, paralleling many young people’s feelings of boredom. Amongst the dance challenges and viral pranks, old stereotypes of the working class community, these so-called “chavs” have gained traction once more. Played off as comedy and satire, the “chav” trend only lends credibility to our individualist economy and elitist social hierarchies that have plagued the UK for decades. The orange foundation, the eyebrows filled in with marker pen, the hints at teen pregnancy are also traits of the “chav” that are inherently gendered and sexist in nature. Working class women and girls are often met with far harsher criticism than their male counterparts and the teen pregnancy narrative is often used as a dog whistle to police female sexuality and slut shame women. 

Additionally, portrayals of working class people and the stereotype of the “chav” almost exclusively to only be white, which not only erases working class people of colour from discussions around socioeconomic privilege and class hierarchies, but also fails to acknowledge the inherent links between class structure and white supremacy. The narrative of the disaffected and disengaged “white working class” and their “chav” appearance is one that gained traction in the late 2000s, just after Gordon Brown took office as Prime Minister, when Islamophobia was increasing in light of the 7/7 attacks and multiculturalism was being rejected. Encouraged by far-right agendas, by ‘othering’ working class people and communities of colour, a racial division was created to foster in-fighting and hostility, rather than aiming their disillusionment at those in power. 

However, on the flip side to this, portrayals of the “chav” stereotype and of working class people are also strangely being viewed as trendy, namely with the clothes that are associated with us. Tracksuits and trainers were previously exclusively seen as unfashionable to wear outside of the house, due to their working class and “chav” associations, whereas now they’re fetishised as fashion items; poor has somehow become synonymous with ‘edgy’. This may sound positive, but the co-opting of material objects, whether that is clothing, accessories, interior design or even extracurricular activities, is both disturbing and proof of how our world fetishes signs of marginalisation without doing anything to stop it. 

Current cultural discourse around this is rife on platforms like TikTok, and one particular example comes to mind: Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove’s daughter Beatrice’s TikTok account. Originally operating under the username @420bandobaby (which has since been claimed by another user after the original account was deleted), Gove’s 17 year old daughter was just one of many privileged individuals who created content with the guise of a ‘working class aesthetic’, including references to casual drug use. One aspect that is particularly frustrating about the latter is that drug use, especially cannabis, has been utilised by the police and criminal justice system to target and further criminalise working class communities and people of colour whereas Gove’s daughter, like many affluent white people are able to do this without further retribution. I would like to stress that she is not the only one who does this, but she is a symptom of how unequal our society is. 

Class, and all that intersects with it, is not something which can or should be co-opted as an aesthetic for social media content. It is also not something to be used as an excuse for those which benefit from the existing structures can hide behind to feel less guilty about their current privileges. Working class individuals are not people to be mocked, their lives are just as valid as anyone else’s and when our communities are still struggling under our neoliberal economy, we deserve support and not tired slanderous stereotypes dressed as satire.

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