How TikTok resurrected the problematic "chav" stereotype

Of all the Y2K trends Gen Z have adopted, the casual classism of "chav check" is among the worst.

by Katie Davies
15 September 2020, 1:31pm

2004 was the year of the chav. The Oxford English Dictionary announced it as their word of the year, Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard was still considered comedy, and Burberry saw sales plummet after its signature check became the go-to shorthand for knock-off brands. But like all Y2K trends, the chav didn’t die out at the end of the 00s — they were just biding their time for a TikTok revival. Whether it’s showcasing your hoops to #chavcheck or caking on foundation to the sounds of Soph Aspin’s callouts, chav jokes on TikTok have gone viral this summer, racking up millions of views.

“The chav trend was something I came across and felt it would be a funny idea. I live in the UK and have grown up around chavs, so I felt it would be fun,” says Yasmin Barnes, a 20-year-old student living in Birmingham. Her chav look took 40 minutes to complete.

“Throughout my education, the term ‘chav’ was always very common. There was always a group of people who were known as the chavs,” Yasmin says. “I think the trend went viral because it’s something people would say relates to the UK and almost ‘defines’ it. A lot of people live with chavs and the trend going viral showed people outside of the UK what it’s like here.”

The chav aesthetic has become so popular that even foreign creators are also getting in on the trend, with #britishchav ranking as the third biggest chav hashtag on TikTok. Bella Morehead is a student based in Arizona who racked up hundreds of thousands of like on her #chavcheck post. “I lived in London for two years, so I experienced chavs there first, but we have those girls in the States too — cheeto girls,” she says. “I just thought it would be fun, and it was. Considering the copious amount of clout I got from the video, it seems as though my US followers enjoyed it.”

At first glance, 2020’s chav tropes don’t look too different from the 00s originals, with creators using concealer for lipstick, clumpy mascara, and layers of fake tan. But the thin, pencilled-on eyebrows chavs were mocked for in the 00s have been replaced with overshaded versions of the 2010s fuller brow trend. The 00s chav trope of branded sportswear has also taken a backseat — probably because it has been embraced by the mainstream.

For commentators and scholars on culture and class, it's no surprise that the stereotype is back on social media — largely because it wasn’t new the first time around. “People knew the stereotype, but there wasn’t one name for it. Different regions had their own words for ‘chav’, but they were very local, like ‘scally’ in Liverpool or ‘ned’ in Scotland,” says Joe Spencer-Bennett, Head of Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. The word “chav” originated in Kent, but spread in tabloid newspapers and the still-barely-there world of social media. It gave the whole country a single word to express one thing, starting a national conversation and capturing the nation’s imagination as one. But that doesn’t mean that everyone was on the same page.

“One of the biggest appeals was that ‘chav’ meant all kinds of things to all kinds of people,” says Joe. “For some people, you had to be white to be a chav. For some people, it was copying the whole Ali G thing.”

TikTok is just the latest platform to benefit from hype bringing the country together, updating chav jokes to fit with trends that were already popular on the app, where makeup challenges are front and centre. “Over the pandemic we’ve been pushed so much further online if we want to connect with people,” says Kate Orton-Johnson, Senior Lecture in Digital Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. “One of the ways we connect is sharing humour, feeling like we’re involved in something. Viral trends, TikTok memes: people want to feel part of the collective and the conversation.”

By the time chavs first fell out of fashion at the end of the 00s, mainstream opinion had turned on the word. More people had started to realise, and educate others, on the dark classist undertones of chav jokes. The word chav never actually stood for, “Council House and Violent”, but by the end of the decade, so many people believed it that it might as well have. For anyone who experienced the chav trend first time around, the TikTok revival feels just as drenched in classism and poor-shaming as its predecessor. Chav jokes in 2020 still lean heavily on working class culture, with creators putting on or hamming up regional accents, ripping into working class slang, and mocking those who buy cheap brands or designer fakes. But even with all of those tropes, what it means to be a chav still isn’t clearly defined. It isn’t just about being poor or living on benefits, it’s also about a certain kind of style or attitude. That means that many people — especially working class people — won’t explicitly link being a chav to a lack of financial wealth.

“Wherever you are on the social scale, chavs are below you,” says Joe. “And that’s because different people draw class boundaries differently too. If you’re working class or if you’re middle class, chavs are always someone else.”

“Most teenagers wouldn’t dream of posting racist TikToks, but classism is probably seen as the more acceptable form of discrimination,” says Kate. “TikTok is very orientated towards makeup and clothes, so maybe people don’t see [making fun of people’s makeup and clothes] as offensive. They probably see it more as a matter of taste. It’s not always about class, but about things which are similar, like having a disposable income. But one of the ways we feel connected is by ‘othering’ other people. It’s probably done quite thoughtlessly.” For now, however, lots of content creators don’t see chav trends the same way. “Being a chav is a choice,” according to Bella. “If [people] find it offensive, they can simply choose to stop being chavish.”

“Chav jokes can be funny to people as it isn’t just one type of look. A lot of people who are chavs all change the look up slightly but still contain the same stereotype,” TikTok user Yasmin claims. “To people who think the trend makes fun of poor people, I believe it’s a harmless trend and doesn’t exactly use someone’s financial status against them. It’s a way of bringing some light to the internet.”

But just like chavs have had their 2020 revival, experts think that backlash against the stereotype could make a comeback too — and because chav trends now live on social media instead of in newspapers, it may happen more quickly than before. “All stereotypes are recycled: they help us make sense of the world,” says Kate. “But they have consequences if they become accepted as true. I do hope there will be a backlash at some point. One of the best things about social media is that most people have a mobile phone and data, so at some point, we’re going to hear back from some of these people who are being demonised.”