In scenes similar to the earlier days of Twitter, users yesterday found a new bête noire in the form of Hetty Douglas, an artist living in Peckham, who shared a photo of four men in construction gear with the caption: “These guys look like they got one GCSE.”
The snobbery, and similar poor taste slogans in some of her artwork such as “you’re peng but your English is shit”, led to intense mockery. Douglas began trending on Twitter and deleted her Instagram after people shared photos of her posing with her Jobcentre work plan, and complaining about the lack of water coolers in the building when she went to sign on.
The Daily Mail, Evening Standard and The Sun wrote up the backlash, while snippets from interviews with Douglas revealed she had claimed: “I think as long as we are kind and gentle to others and, more importantly, ourselves then everything is bless.” A profile of Douglas on the site of creative agency Babyface referred to Douglas as “the first Earl of Shottinghamshire, who currently resides on the Peckham-Camberwell borders; Her coat of arms is a neat little composition of a beanie, two tinnys of Stella, crossed paintbrushes and some potato gratin.”
Babyface have since taken the profile down, leaving only the cache.
Douglas’s background is only presumed, but most people read her as “a spoiled little rich girl gentrifying south London” because her behaviour is symptomatic of a trend in London and beyond: of embracing working class cultural signifiers while struggling to conceal your visceral hatred of actual working class people.
People behave stupidly in their youth, but there’s a difference between vomiting outside a bar, and feeling you have a right to publicly mock perfect strangers and make assumptions about their intelligence based on their workwear. Previously, Douglas had joked about the horror of finding a homeless person attractive – imagine discovering someone sleeping rough could be anything less than a figure of contempt for you! But the McDonalds Instagram post was a perfect metaphor for this tendency: entering spaces you deem working class to show how real and down to earth you are, but retaining a sense of disgust at the people who are in the same space for reasons other than irony.
It’s a phenomenon I first encountered at university. At a drinks reception on the first day of term, students were asked to meet their lecturers and each other over wine and crisps. I was ushered over to some lecturers with the handful of fellow scholarship kids to meet some senior members of faculty. One asked me a few questions about my background, then said “A word of advice – lose the accent, it’ll only hold you back.”
Minutes later, other students were introducing themselves to me: all from London, they claimed to be from Brixton, Peckham and Hackney. Later I learned that was code for, respectively, Herne Hill, East Dulwich and Stoke Newington.
While I was being told to shake off any vestige of my background, my classmates were confidently asserting they were far less middle class than the actuality, as if faking working class identity was a progressive form of dressing up.
This continued through university: endless bores bent my ear about their “working class roots” (usually their grandfather had seen a coal miner on a train once) and I quickly learnt the most middle class conversation of all is over whether you are “truly” middle class, and oh – isn’t it just so complex? People who went to schools that cost far more than my large family lived on in a year earnestly argued that they couldn’t truly be middle class because their mother was a teacher not a magistrate, or other minor quibbles. For these people, reading Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier showed how open minded they were.
Orwell’s approach, adopting the dress and lifestyle of the working classes to report on them is still endemic today. The poverty safari approach – where a middle class person goes “undercover” as a member of the underclass to expose the realities of low paid life – is still regarded as the height of investigative work on social issues. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed has spawned dozens of copycat books, each less valuable than the original. The idea that you could simply ask, or commission, people in these jobs what their life is like and listen to them seems ludicrous to many journalists, failing as it does to provide them with any kudos for fleetingly enduring hardship and sacrifice themselves.
There are thousands of privileged young people in Britain though who spend their days eulogising about going to Greggs and Wetherspoons as if it shows how grounded and open-minded they are. No working class person I know does the same, because for most people going to McDonalds isn’t a notable event in which they’re deviating in what is acceptable for their class. They’re buying food or ordering a pint, not going on a class-crossing field trip to an alien territory in which they feel comfortable because being middle class affords you the confidence to feel entitled to enter any space you wish.
Instagramming photos from your Wetherspoons crawl seems exciting and exotic when you have the privilege to adopt any class signifier you like. But being working class hasn’t ever meant people treat me or friends with any wide-eyed respect. Instead I’m spoken to as if I’m stupid, have scorn poured on the fact I decided against going to Oxford, have people make openly scornful jokes about the areas we come from especially post-Brexit, or slag off “benefit scroungers” even after pointing out you grew up on benefits.
Playing class dress up is so irritating because it doesn’t erode discrimination and snobbery based on class. Common People by Pulp was a criticism, not an instruction manual. Tweeting and effusing about working class signifiers grates because middle class people have the cultural privilege to do so without reprisals, while working class people are still discriminated against openly day in and day out.
If you went to boarding school and are bankrolled by your parents, own it, and be honest about your privilege: don’t think donning an Adidas tracksuit and tweeting about going to Greggs for lunch is anything other than offensive and embarrassing.
Dawn Foster is a journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter.