“Chav” is a social phenomenon that gained significant popular media coverage and attention in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s. Chavs are often characterised, by others, as young people from a background of low socioeconomic status, usually clothed in branded sportswear. All definitions of Chav position them as culturally anomalous, as Other.
This article maps out a multidisciplinary definition of the Chav, synthesised from 21 published academic publications: three recurrent themes in scholarly discussion emerge. First, this research presents whiteness as an assumed and essential facet of Chav identity. When marginalising Chavs because of their “incorrect whiteness”, these works assign them a problematic and complex relationship with ethnicity and race. Second, Chav discourse has previously been discussed as a form of intense class-based abhorrence. Chavs, it would seem, are perceived as anomalous by their own class and those who deem themselves of a higher socioeconomic status. Finally, Chavs’ consumption choices are explored as amplifying such negative constructions of class and white ethnic identities, which are deemed as forming an undesirable aesthetic.
This piece is not intended to debate whether or not Chav is a subculture, clubculture or neotribe. Although Greg Martin’s discussion around the similarities between historical subcultures and Chavs remains pertinent and convincing, this article discusses how young people labelled as Chavs are excluded on a variety of fronts. It draws a cross-disciplinary mapping of the Chav, providing the beginnings of a definition of a derogatory label, applied to young people marking them anomalous in British society.
What Is a Chav?
The word Chav became officially included in the English language in the UK in 2003, when it was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The current OED entry offers many points for further discussion, all centred upon a discriminatory positioning of Chav:
chav, n. Etymology: Probably either < Romani čhavo unmarried Romani male, male Romani child (see chavvy n.), or shortened < either chavvy n. or its etymon Angloromani chavvy. Brit. 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.
Chav was adopted by British national media as a catch-all term encompassing regional variants. Many discussions have likened Chav to groups such as “Bogans” in Australia and “Trailer Trash” in the US. Websites such as UrbanDictionary and Chavscum have often, informally, defined Chav through a series of derogatory “backcronyms” such as Council Housed And Violent or Council House Associated Vermin, positioning it as a derogatory social label synonymous with notions of perceived criminality, poverty, poor taste, danger, fear, class, and whiteness.
Chav came to real prominence in the early 2000s in mainstream British media, gaining visibility through television shows such as Shameless (2004-2013), Little Britain (2003-2006), and The Catherine Tate Show (2004-2009). The term exploded across the tabloid press, as noted by Antoinette Renouf in 2005. Extensive tabloid press coverage drove the phenomenon to front-page coverage in TIME magazine in 2008. Chavs were observed as often wearing Burberry check-patterned clothing. For the first time since its founding in 1856, and due to the extent of Chav’s negative media coverage, Burberry decided to largely remove its trademark check pattern between 2001 and 2014 from sale.
Chavs in Academia
The rubric of the Chav did not emerge in academia with the same vigour as it did in popular media, failing to gain the visibility of previous youth social formations such as Punks, Mods, et al. Rather, there has been a modest but consistent number of academic publications discussing this subject: 1-3 publications per year, published between 2006-2015.
Of the 22 academic texts explicitly addressing and discussing Chavs, none were published prior to 2006. Extensive searches on databases such as EBSCO, JSTOR and ProQuest, yielded no further academic publications on this subject since Joanne Heeney’s 2015 discussion of Chav and its relationship to contested conceptualisations of disability.
From a review of the available literature, the following key thematic groupings run through the publications: Chavs’ embodiment of a "wrong" type of white identity; their embodiment of a "wrong" type of working-class identity; and finally, their depiction as flawed consumers. I will now discuss these groupings, and their implications for future research, in order to chart a multidisciplinary conceptualisation of the Chav. Ultimately, my discussion will evidence how "out of place" Chavs appear to be in terms of race and ethnicity, class, and consumption choices.
Chavs as “Wrong” Whites
The dividing practices (Foucault) evident in UK popular media and websites such as Urbandictionary in the early 2000s distinctly separated “hypervisible ‘filthy whites’” (Tyler) from the “respectable whiteness” of the British middle-class. As Imogen Tyler puts it, “the cumulative effect of this disgust is the blocking of the disenfranchised white poor from view; they are rendered invisible and incomprehensible”, a perspective revisited in relation to the "celebrity chav" by Tyler and Joe Bennett.
In a wider discussion of ethnicity, segregation and discrimination, Colin Webster discusses Chav and “white trash”, within the context of discourses that criminalise certain forms of whiteness. The conspicuous absence of whiteness in debates regarding fair representation of ethnicity and exclusion is highlighted here, as is the difficulty that social sciences often encounter in conceptualising whiteness in terms exceeding privilege, superiority, power, and normality.
Bennett discusses Chavspeak, as a language conceived as enacting combinations of well-known sociolinguistic stereotypes. Chavspeak derives from an amalgamation of Black English vernaculars, potentially identifying its speakers as "race traitors". Bennett's exploration of Chavs as turncoats towards their own whiteness places them in an anomalous position of exclusion, as “Other” white working-class people.
A Google image search for Chav conducted on 8th July 2020 yielded, in 198 of the first 200 images, the pictures of white youth. In popular culture, Chavs are invariably white, as seen in shows such as Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and, arguably, also in Paul Abbott’s Shameless.
There is no question, however, that whiteness is an assumed and essential facet of Chav identity. Explorations of class and consumption may help to clarify this muddy conceptualisation of ethnicity and Chavs.
Chavs as “Wrong” Working Class
Chav discourse has been discussed as addressing intense class-based abhorrence (Hayward and Yar; Tyler). Indeed, while focussing more upon the nexus between chavs, class, and masculinity, Anoop Nayak’s ethnographic approach identifies a clear distinction between “Charver kids” (a slang term for Chav found in the North-East of England) and “Real Geordies” (Geordie is a regional term identifying inhabitants from that same area, most specifically from Newcastle-upon-Tyne). Nayak identified Chavs as rough, violent and impoverished, against the respectable, skilled and upwardly mobile working-class embodied by the “Real Geordies” (825).
Similar distinctions between different types of working classes appear in the work of Sumi Hollingworth and Katya Williams. In a study of white, middle-class students from English urban state comprehensive schools in Riverside and Norton, the authors found that “Chav comes to represent everything about whiteness that the middle-classes are not” (479). Here, Chav is discussed as a label that school-age children reserve for “others”, namely working-class peers who stand out because of their clothing, their behaviour, and their educational aspirations. Alterity is a concept reinforced by Bennett’s discussion of Chavspeak, as he remarks that “Chavs are other people, and Chavspeak is how other people talk” (8). The same position is echoed in Sarah Spencer, Judy Clegg, and Joy Stackhouse’s study of the interplay between language, social class, and education in younger generations.
Chavspotting is the focus of Bennett’s exploration of lived class experiences. Here, the evocation of the Chav is seen as a way to reinforce and reproduce dominant rhetoric against the poor. Bennett discusses the ways in which websites such as Chavscum.com used towns, cities and shopping centres as ideal locations to practice Chav-spotting. What is evident, however, is that behind Chavspotting lies the need for recontextualisation of normalising social practices which involve identification of determinate social groups in social spaces. This finding is supported by the interviews conducted by Ken McCullock et al (548) who found the Chav label, along with its regional variant of Charva, to be an extension of these social practices of identification, as it was applied to people of lower socioeconomic status as a marker of difference: “Chav/Charva … it’s what more posh people use to try and describe thugs and that” (McCulloch et al., 552).
The semi-structured interview data gathered by Spencer, Clegg, and Stackhouse reveals how the label of Chav trickled down from stereotypes in popular culture to the real-life experiences of school-aged children. Here, Chavs are likened by school children to animals, “the boys are like monkeys, and the girls are like squeaky squirrels who like to slap people if they even look at you” (136) and their language is defined as lacking complexity. It bears relevance that, in these interviews, children in middle-class areas are once again “othering” the Chav, applying the label to children from working-class areas.
Heeney’s discussion of the Chav pivots around questions of class and race. This is particularly evident as she addresses the media contention surrounding glamour model Katie Price, and her receipt of disability welfare benefits for her son.
Ethnicity and class are key in academic discussion of the Chav, and in this context they prove to be interwoven and inexorably slippery. Just as previous academic discussions surrounding ethnicity challenge assumptions around whiteness, privilege and discrimination, an equally labyrinthine picture is drawn on the relationship between class and the Chavs, and on the practices of exclusion and symbolic to which they are subject.
Chavs as “Wrong” Consumers
Keith Hayward and Majid Yar’s much-cited work points to a rethinking of the underclass concept (Murray) through debates of social marginality and consumption practices. Unlike previous socio-cultural formations (subcultures), Chavs should not be viewed as the result of society choosing to “reject or invert mainstream aspirations or desires” but simply as “flawed” consumers (Hayward and Yar, 18). The authors remarked that the negative social construction and vilification of Chav can be attributed to “a set of narrow and seemingly irrational and un-aesthetic consumer choices” (18). Chavs are discussed as lacking in taste and/or educational/intelligence (cultural capital), and not in economic capital (Bourdieu): it is the former and not the latter that makes them the object of ridicule and scorn. Chav consumption choices are often regarded, and reported, as the wrong use of economic capital.
Matthew Adams and Jayne Rainsborough also discuss the ways in which cultural sites of representation--newspapers, websites, television--achieve a level of uniformity in their portrayal of Chavs as out of place and continually framed as “wrong consumers", just as Nayak did. In their argument, they also note how Chavs have been intertextually represented as sites of bodily indiscretion in relation to behaviours, lifestyles and consumption choices.
It is these flawed consumption choices that Paul Johnson discusses in relation to the complex ways in which the Chav stereotype, and their consumption choices, are both eroticised and subjected to a form of symbolic violence. Within this context, “Council chic” has been marketed and packaged towards gay men through themed club events, merchandise, sex lines and escort services. The signifiers of flawed consumption (branded sportswear, jewellery, etc), upon which much of the Chav-based subjugation is centred thus become a hook to promote and sell sexual services. As such, this process subjects Chavs to a form of symbolic violence, as their worth is fetishised, commodified, and further diminished in gay culture.
The importance of consumption choices and, more specifically, of choices which are considered to be "wrong" adds one final piece to this map of the Chav (Mason and Wigley). What was already noted as discrimination towards Chavs centred upon notions of class, socioeconomic status, and, ethnicity, is amplified by emphasis on consumption choices deemed to be aesthetically undesirable. This all comes together through the “Othering” of a pattern of consumerist choices that encompasses branded clothes, sportswear and other garments typically labelled as "chavvy".
Chav: Not Always a Label
In spite of its rare occurrence in academic discourse on Chavs, it is worth noting here that not all scholarly discussions focus on the notion of Chav as assigned identity, as the work of Kehily, Nayak and Young clearly demonstrates.
Kehily and Nayak’s performative approach to Chav adopts an urban ethnography approach to remark that, although these socio-economic-racial labels are felt as pejorative, they can be negotiated within immediate contexts to become less discriminatory and gain positive connotations of respectability in given situations. Indeed, such labels can be enacted as a transitional identity to be used and adopted intermittently. Chav remains an applied label, but a flexible label which can be negotiated and adapted.
Robert Young challenges many established conceptualisations of Chav culture, paying particular attention to notions of class and self-identification. His study found that approximately 15% of his 3,000 fifteen-year old respondents, all based in the Glasgow area, self-identified as Chav or "Ned" (a Scottish variant of Chav). The cultural criminological approach taken by Young does not clearly specify what options were given to participants when selecting "Neds or popular" as self-identification. Young’s work is of real value in the discussion of Chav, since it constitutes the only example of self-identification as Chav (Ned); future work reasserting these findings is required for the debate to be continued in this direction.
Conclusion: Marginalised on All Fronts?
Have Chavs been ostracised for being the wrong type of white person? Much has been discussed around the problematic role of ethnicity in Chav culture. Indeed, many scholars have discussed how Chav adopted the language, dress and style of ethnic minority groups. This assimilation of non-white identities leaves the Chav stranded on two fronts: (1) they are marked as Other by predominantly white social groups and vilified as race/ethnicity traitors (Bennett, Chavspeak); (2) they stand apart from ethnic minority identities through a series of exaggerated and denigrated consumption choices – adopting a bricolage identity that defines them against other groups surrounding them.
Are Chavs the wrong type of white, working-class consumer? We know from the seminal works of Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall that subcultural styles can often convey a range of semiotic messages to the outside world. If one were to bear in mind the potentially isolated nature of those considered Chavs, one could see in their dress a consumption of "status" (McCulloch et al., 554). The adoption of a style predominantly consisting of expensive-looking branded clothes, highly-visible jewellery associated with an exaggerated sporting lifestyle, stands as a symbol of disposable income and physical prowess, a way of ‘fronting up’ to labels of poverty, criminality and lack of social and cultural capital.
As my charting process comes to a conclusion, with the exclusion of the studies conducted by Young, Kehily and Nayak, Chav is solely discussed as an “Othering” label, vastly different from the self-determined identities of other youth subcultures. As a matter of fact, a number of studies portray the angry reactions to such labelling (Hollingworth and Williams; Bennett; Mason and Wigley). So are Chavs vilified because of their whiteness, their class, or their consumption choices? More likely, they are vilified because of a combination of all of the above. Therefore, we would not be mistaken in identifying Chavs as completely lacking in identity capital. What is apparent from the literature discussed is that the Chav exists in an anomalous “no man's land”.
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