Chavs TikTok illustration
Culture

The 'Chav' Caricature Has Made a Comeback On TikTok

Teens are posting chav make-up tutorials, cartoon transformations and "comedy" sketches with views in the millions. How did this 2000s insult find a second life?
23 April 2020, 8:30am

"Yeah, I'm pregnant," a girl tells her friend in a TikTok video that's been viewed over 2.6 million times. Wearing an Adidas top, she has overdrawn her eyebrows, purposefully not blending in the bronzer three shades too dark for her. Her friend has followed a similar makeup routine, but her hair is scraped back into a tight bun and she's drinking from a can. The clip is captioned "dress down day at school n the chavs are in ur class".

Another TikTok – a "choose your character"-style video – shows an impersonation of "The Chav". Like a video game figure gently bobbing up and down as she spins on the selection menu, a young school girl wearing blotchy makeup has the following phrases appear next to her: "Wears black air forces, says 'bruv & fam', 'say it to my face', 'I know people', tries to be roadman, late everyday to school, bottom set."

These videos are just two of the thousands of #chav clips on TikTok right now. The platform is full of chav makeup tutorials, cartoon transformations and "comedy" sketches. All in all, videos with the "chav" hashtag have been watched over 160 million times. There's even a popular dance group with more than 450,000 followers called the TikTokChavs, which consists of five boys wearing Adidas tracksuits and puffa jackets dancing to viral songs. A member of the group recently revealed: "I'd have to say, none of us are exactly 'chavvy' in real life. We were all brought up quite well, which we try not to let our followers know."

The etymology of the word "chav" is unclear. It may have origins in the Romani word chavi, meaning "child", but the more popular – and likely untrue – theory is that it's an acronym for "council housed and violent". Whatever the origins, the meaning is fairly universal: a stereotype portraying sections of the British working classes as angry and benefit-grabbing with no real life ambitions.

If you didn't know these videos were posted recently, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were made in the early-2000s, during the reign of shows like _Little Britain_ and The Catherine Tate Show. A time when "privately educated, multi-millionaire comedians dressed up as chavs for our amusement in popular sitcoms", as Owen Jones writes in his book Chavs. The journalist and activist believes that, for a time, this form of class hatred became an integral, respectable part of modern British culture and was present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites and everyday conversations. Incidentally, Catherine Tate will be reprising her role as "Lauren" alongside a Little Britain reunion for a BBC's Big Night In this evening (Thursday, the 23rd of April).

But why has the chav caricature made a sudden comeback on TikTok, a platform with a predominantly younger audience? After speaking to multiple TikTok users famed for their "chav" content, it became clear that every single one of them was following a trend and copying someone else.

Abi is 16 and has over 800,000 followers on TikTok. A few months ago she created a series about Stacey, "the local chav". In a voice completely different to her character, she said: "I'd seen another person do it and I thought it was funny. I thought I'd do one and it did quite well, so I continued making them." She thinks a chav is "your stereotypical British girl with big eyebrows who smokes and wears perfume". According to Abi, being a chav is a "stage we've all been through [at school], in Year Seven and Eight".

Like Abi, Molly May believes being a chav is a personality type. The TikToker from Leeds says: "I think it's just what kind of person you are. Like, if you're someone who has a lot of makeup and acts a bit more rough and that. Your social [standing] doesn't matter. It's just like your personality, isn't it?" Molly May said she also made her chav video after seeing someone else do it.

As most of the discourse around the vilification of the working class took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it's unlikely today's teens would understand its significance. While none of the TikTok users I spoke to seemed to have an awareness of how historically and politically loaded the term "chav" is, they understood it can be a problematic "character" to portray. Abi said: "I'd say it can be quite controversial, especially since a lot of rich people do get very defensive about it. However, the majority of people laugh about it."

While Mariam, who posted this video, says she went to secondary school with "a lot of girls who boys called 'chavs', and was trying to copy some of the same language that those girls would use". She says she uses the slang herself on a regular basis, so it was very natural for her to emulate. "I just obviously did an exaggerated version of how I would speak, especially in secondary school."

Nibel, 20, from Surrey – who made this video – thinks the word "chav" isn't as offensive now as it was "back then". She said: "I would never call someone a chav, because obviously that was offensive to them, but now I think it's a bit better and I think more people are calling themselves a chav."

While these videos don't flout TikTok's Community Guidelines, the director of the think-tank CLASS, Faiza Shaheen, believes this kind of depiction of people can have real consequences. She said: "Often people think they're having a bit of a laugh, just making fun of someone and the way they speak, but it's deeply political. If you look at what happened with the demonisation of the working class [in the mid-2000s], they were made into this caricature of people who speak a certain way, like they don't care, commit petty crimes, have children and unwanted pregnancies.

"It was a certain way of depicting working class communities living on the estate as 'not having any strong moral values', but what came off the back of that was huge cuts to benefits and caps on housing benefits, and what we call a 'pathology bill' around the white working class in particular.

"They were made to be some of the real villains in society. We were told they're the racists and getting society into trouble. While people think it's a bit of a joke, it really isn't. Maybe some people are too young to remember this, and it's really important that they do. That sort of narrative of an underclass of 'chavs' resulted in real hardship in terms of lower incomes. Whether we like it or not, people do like making fun of others. And especially when you're younger, you don't really understand the consequences of it – and when there isn't any policing of it, then I suppose it's the thing you can get away with."

Unlike those before them, the TikTok generation doesn't have the luxury of making mistakes in front of a smaller audience – emotionally maturing online is just another thing they'll have to learn to navigate. In a few years, some of these teens will grow up, cringe at the content they've made, write a reflective apology on a Notes app and delete it from their feeds, begging for the TL's forgiveness.

Evidently, there is a disconnect between these teens and the long history of British classism which precedes them. But can we really blame them for that? We spend so much time collectively scrutinising the mistakes of individuals instead of questioning why and how classism has permeated every part of our society, causing this particular type of chasm to happen in the first place.

Over the years, conversations around class and privilege have become so obscured that some people think earning £80,000 doesn't make you rich. It would be unfair to point fingers at the teens alone, when the majority of adults surrounding them and the institutions they're part of haven't figured it out either. But not hearing the term "chav" thrown around on daytime TV and in the mainstream media doesn't mean conversations around class have moved forward.

@thediyora