Chav-shaming

// 23 March 2012

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Ciara O’Connor discusses the intersection of classism and sexism in the reaction to Tulisa’s sex tape.

Photo of Tulisa singing into a mic onstage at a festival, wearing a black leather jacketA sex tape of Tulisa Contostavlos, of X-Factor and N-Dubz fame, was leaked a few days ago. This isn’t remarkable in itself; sex tapes of celebrities are common enough and usually get met with glee and a healthy dose of schadenfreude, before being forgotten about and consigned to the showbiz archives. But there was something distinctly different and extremely unsettling about the reaction to Tulisa’s video. Ignorant sexist misplaced moral outrage, I resignedly expected; it was its intermingling with vitriolic class-hatred that surprised me.

The word “chav” would not go away. This derogatory term of abuse, loaded with class prejudice, was ubiquitous in tweets on the subject. Certainly, tweeters were using it as a self contained insult: “Tulisa makes my blood boil. Fucking chav”. In fact, the words “slut” and “chav” were used pretty much interchangeably.

Tweet after tweet focused obsessively on Tulisa’s working class background: her “chavvery”. Many expressed a lack of surprise at the tape, because they “always knew she was a chav, was just a matter of time really before she made one”. One, fairly representative, tweet read “Oh Tulisa, living up to the chav image we all expected of you”. The implications here are fairly unsettling: sexuality and class are seemingly still being conflated in a way that would be more at home in Victorian or Edwardian times. The concept of a dangerously immoral and highly sexed lower class is apparently still relevant.

But is “chav” a feminist issue? Certainly, the blanket rule of women being “sluts” while men are “studs” seems to be intensified for those perceived to be in the lower social classes. The media has its straw chav: a Vicky Pollard figure with her row of buggies containing multicoloured (because racial mixing is obviously another sign of moral destitution) children, who chooses pregnancy with its supposedly huge state benefits as a viable career option. The Daily Mail’s benefit scrounger par excellence is the working class woman with more children than she can afford, who got pregnant for the council flat.

In a stroke of genius that nipped ideas of social mobility in the bud before they could even get started, 19th century Britain saw the poor as naturally immoral. In a chicken and egg style dilemma, it was difficult to ascertain what came first: an uncontrollable sexual appetite (that symptom of their immorality) or being working class. This kind of thinking helped to keep the lower classes in their place. And apparently, it still does. “I have a feelin that her true Chav instinct will make for a good blowie”; “Tulisa and her sick sex tape has leaked. Now everybody can see what a common chav she is, scurry back into your hole”. Or summed up not-so-nicely: “once a chav, always a chav”.

The mood of many of the tweets was that she had it coming. How dare she be successful? How dare she appear on our prime time TV screens in beautiful dresses, in a role where her opinion matters? How bloody dare she. “Tulisa will always be a chav no matter how famous she gets, you can still see it all over her face”.

This rationale is bizarre anyway: Tulisa has never tried to hide her background and upbringing. In fact, she’s forged a whole career on it. The N-Dubz brand is hoop-earrings and tracksuits and baseball hats and bling: they self-consciously style themselves on what the popular imagination has defined as “chav”.

The fact that the Tweeters had to comfort themselves by believing that Tulisa had been pretending to be something she’s not is extremely odd and betrays the fact that vast sections of our society literally still can’t imagine a woman who no only doesn’t aspire to be perceived as middle class and sexually pure, but who is successful and popular at the same time. Where this sickening vitriol comes from, I have no idea. But it seems we still have a long way to go before sexual license and social mobility are no longer dirty words.

Photo of Tulisa by festivalsforall, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

matarij // Posted 23 March 2012 at 3:13 pm

‘vast sections of our society literally still can’t imagine a woman who not only doesn’t aspire to be perceived as middle class and sexually pure, but who is successful and popular at the same time.’ Yes this is very much the case – the working class is despised by the media and working class women even more so. Very annoying.

Molly Bushnell // Posted 23 March 2012 at 4:04 pm

I believe the real issue here has been neglected. While twitter has always been flooded with demonstration of anyone with a working class accent as ‘chav’, ‘pikey’ used interchangeably with ‘slut’ and the like, Tulisa’s predicament has highlighted a different form of sexism.

Not long after the original tape was leaked Tulisa brought out this video (http://t.co/iVHSOj60) defending herself and her actions. The summary of her defense is that she was in a loving, committed relationship and she trusted this man completely. The response I saw on twitter was not the ‘chav-bashing’ Ciara describes, but a wave of young women, some of whom around 13, defending Tulisa. The general theme seemed to be ‘haven’t we all done it?’. I wonder if that’s the message Tulisa wants to send to her young fans. The message that offering yourself up in this way to someone you trust is okay, and you are wholly not responsible for the consequence.

This isn’t something that only happens to celebrities, in fact compromising pictures and videos of girls have been circulating for my entire teenage years, all of them sent to boys they trusted. One girl, a friend of my cousin’s, had to leave school when a video of her spread through every other school in the area. I believe that it is the role of women like Tulisa to protect their fans from this behavior. In fact, it is the role of women in general to make sure young girls don’t seek this sort of validification and instead are confident enough to make sure they are not taken advantage of.

Laura // Posted 23 March 2012 at 4:45 pm

@ Molly – But neither Tulisa nor any of those girls are responsible for boys/men choosing to share photos and videos with other people without their consent. The boys and men are. I also think there’s a big difference between adult women making a sex tape with a partner and teenage girls feeling they have to perform sexually for boys.

However, the focus of Ciara’s piece was the classism in the public’s reaction, so I’d like to keep the comment thread focused on that, please.

Rhian E Jones // Posted 23 March 2012 at 5:25 pm

Good post. I wrote for Bad Reputation last summer on ‘chav’ as an intersection of sexism and classism, of which the Tulisa furore is a great example. Like the concept of feminism as removed from and/or inaccessible to working-class women – a debate which it obviously ties into – it’s a significant issue which I’m pleased to see being drawn out and interrogated further.

Rose // Posted 23 March 2012 at 5:53 pm

This ‘chav’ = ‘classism’, thing always bugs me.

I grew up in a working class area where the word chav was in common usage, for a group of people who look and act in a certain way, with huge gender segregation.

Males hang around in groups, and beat people up for no reason. Planning and instigating gang rapes. A gang of twenty-odd guys in their late teens hospitalising two 13 year old girls.

Female chavs accept being badly treated by males as standard. They would stand on the side of a road and have sex with whatever (older) chav boy racer pulled up – because that was what was expected of them. If they didn’t they were ‘frigid’. (Frigid girls get sexually abused).

Grim huh?

Growing up, alot of my working class friends got hospitalised, with the simple explaination ‘chavs did it’.

One of my friends (female) was walking home from a friends house when she was 16, got attacked by ten odd chav guys, and they beat her up, ripping off aload of her scalp, and threw her through a window. She was in hospital for months.

Only on moving to a middle class area have I found people using chav to mean working class. And yes, it is really insulting to working class people, and yes, it is kinda classism. But then, most middle class people I know would be called ‘posh’ by the people I grew up with. That means stuck up, greedy, over-proud, rich……. and aload of other unpleasant things that the average middle class person isn’t. Also classism, also tarring a whole class with the same brush.

I agree that the use of the word that you highlight is unacceptable. But for different reasons. For me, it’s like someone walking into their kitchen and complaining that somebody ‘raped’ their butter, when they find it empty.

Apart from that, to me it comes down to ‘kiss and tell’, it’s not the kissing, but the telling thats the character flaw.

Shadow // Posted 23 March 2012 at 6:19 pm

Double whammy for Tulisa Contostavlos because she is supposedly not only a s…t but also a working class s…t. Misogyny and classism go together and this whole issue is about Tulisa being put once again in her place – beneath men. Above article mentioned the dominant late Victorian male view that working class women (but not working class males) were all supposedly rampant nymphomaniacs and these working class women were responsible for producing innumerable children and creating new generations of (male) criminals. Working class males have never been perceived by male supremacist system and their adherents as ‘sexually promiscuous’ – men are never ‘just sex’ but women have yet to be seen and accepted as other than ‘men’s disposable sexual service stations.’ That is why working class women were demonised – just as middle class women were held to different male standards – end result is always the same – maintenance of male control over all women.

Nothing changes – women are, according to male supremacy just ‘sex’ and if male supremacy can demonise women even further by engaging in classist male superiority – then they do.

Clodia // Posted 24 March 2012 at 5:10 pm

Totally agree with this especially on the combination of sexist and classist insults traded over the tape. Similar tweets and comments were made about the group mentored by Tulisa, Little Mix, for being basically working class lasses, with people calling them chavs and assuming they are not very bright. I happened to teach one of this group who is from a working class background and extremely intelligent, hardworking and sensible as well as talented. Why do we only give credit to middle class women who achieve; i’m sure Tulisa had to work for it too!

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