- TikTok is host to a growing number of videos stereotyping and mocking working-class people in the UK.
- The term ‘chav’ – a slur used to describe poor people – features in thousands of clips posted to the app, which have been watched more than 150 million times in total.
- The TikTok Chavs, a dance troupe made up of students attending an elite drama school, is one of the most popular accounts, having earned more than 20 million views in a matter of months.
- The left-leaning Fabian Society told Business Insider jokes targeting those with less status and power in society were ‘unacceptable’.
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TikTok, the video-sharing phenomenon seemingly adored by teens everywhere, has rapidly become one of the most popular apps in the UK.
According to data from App Annie, a mobile data and analytics platform, TikTok was the UK’s fifth most downloaded app in 2019, ahead of online giants like Spotify, Snapchat and Facebook. New estimates from eMarketer suggest the app will surpass 10 million British users by the end of 2021.
In September, celebrating the company’s one-year anniversary in the UK, TikTok revealed “pets”, “sports” and “comedy” were the country’s most popular content categories.
But one troublingly popular category went unmentioned: “chavs”.
For the better part of a decade, starting in the mid-2000s, much of Britain’s political discourse revolved around whether it was acceptable to describe poor people as chavs.
As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, a chav is “a young person from the working-class, usually without a high level of education, who typically behaves in a loud and annoying way and wears designer clothes”. Almost any British person would understand the term.
Writing in The Times, one columnist called the term a form of “social racism”. Prominent left-leaning journalist and activist Owen Jones used it as the title of his debut book, decrying the “demonization of the working class”.
There is a longstanding tradition of playing chavs for laughs in the UK. In 2005, two of the country’s most popular TV comedies, “Little Britain” and “The Catherine Tate Show”, featured characters written as teenage girls, always seen in sports gear, who regularly suffered unwanted pregnancies, violence and multiple run-ins with the law.
In the same year, more than a decade before he would become Prime Minister, Boris Johnson described the bottom fifth of British people as “chavs, losers, burglars [and] drug addicts”.
The term appeared to have fallen out of fashion in the UK.
But TikTok paints a very different picture.
Over the past two years, videos captioned with the hashtags #chav or #chavs have racked up more than 150 million views between them. #BritishChavs, #UKChavs and #SchoolChavs have been watched by another 12 million.
In these videos, “chavvy” girls are regularly mocked for wearing too much make-up, while those who either eat or work in McDonald’s are considered fair game for abuse.
Some, including one account with the moniker @drawingchavs, specialize in reimagining well-known cartoons like “SpongeBob SquarePants” or “The Simpsons” as chavs, adding earrings, sneakers and even altering their ethnicity. It isn’t clear who is behind the account, but it has racked up more than 3,000 followers.
But perhaps the biggest proponents – and beneficiaries – of Britain’s newly digitized obsession with class are The TikTok Chavs.
In November, the eight-man entourage, all aged 18-21, uploaded their first video: a riff on the “Git Up” challenge, in which people dance to the song of the same name by American singer-songwriter Blanco Brown.
In the Chavs’ version, the boys stand at the side of the road in a rundown part of town, their hoods up and baseball caps swiveled back, before breaking out into a tightly choreographed bop. The clip of (what appeared to be) five British delinquents joyously jiving to country rap racked up hundreds of thousands of clicks.
In the months since, the troupe’s backlog of videos – one captioned “At least they aren’t out stabbing people” is particularly popular – has received over 20 million views.
The TikTok Chavs account has more than 300,000 followers at the time of writing.
Speaking to Business Insider, crew member George Brooks, 20, admitted the line-up is in reality “not very chavvy”.
At least three of the group’s core line-up currently attend Laine Theatre Arts, an independent dance and drama college in the leafy town of Epsom, where students pay approximately $23,000 a year in tuition.
“I’d have to say none of us are exactly ‘chavvy’ in real life,” said Brooks. “We were all brought up quite well, which we try not to let our followers know.”
What does he think has made the group so successful? “I think, from that first video, people just found it really funny, you know… Just the idea of a group of chavs all dancing to this song.”
Asked if he thought a group of men pretending to be “chavs” for comic effect could be construed as problematic, he said: “We have been thinking about changing our name…
“The word ‘chav’ is obviously a bit controversial.”
Brooks insisted that the group’s members are not middle-class, with some of them being in receipt of government-backed Dance and Drama Awards, which provide financial support for those pursuing the creative arts.
However, DADAs work on a sliding scale and smaller bursaries can be awarded to those with a household income exceeding $110,000. When asked to clarify which of the group’s members received DADAs and how generous they were, the group declined to comment.
The Fabian Society, a leading left-wing organization in the UK, has previously described use of the word as indicative of a “middle-class hatred of the…working-class”.
Speaking to Business Insider, the group’s general secretary Andrew Harrop said stereotyping based on social background was “unacceptable”.
He added: “When it comes to jokes targeting those with less power and status in society, people should always stop, think, and ask themselves how they would feel if they were on the receiving end.”
It isn’t clear that such content breaches TikTok’s guidelines, though these describe the app as an “inclusive platform” focused on keeping users safe.
Business Insider approached TikTok for comment.