The ‘Chav’ Caricature Is Now an Instagram Filter

We’re all aware of TikTok’s “chav check” by now, a trend that sees middle-class teens apply cream contour, smack on chewing gum and lip sync to Millie B’s “M to the B” for clout. As it stands, the #chavcheck hashtag on the video sharing platform has over 373 million views, while #chav has 827 million.

Now, this problematic trend of impersonating and caricaturing “chavs” has migrated to Instagram. A quick search for “chav” on the app’s effect gallery brings up filters that impose unblended bronzer, ashy highlighter and slug-like eyebrows onto your face. It’s a grossly exaggerated representation of the British chav stereotype, defined as “a young person of a type characterised by brash and loutish behaviour, usually with connotations of a low social status”.

Dr. Joe Spencer-Bennett is a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, and he says that the word derives from a Romani word, chavi or chavo, meaning “child”. “There are also false etymologies which were proposed when the word became prominent in the mid-00s, such as that it stood for ‘Council House and Violent’ (a ‘backronym’) or that it was a blend of ‘Cheltenham/Chatham Average’,” he tells VICE News. “These are false but they are revealing of what people thought the word meant, and of its associations with class stereotypes.”

Given the long history of the demonisation of the working class in Britain, it’s uncomfortable to see these damaging depictions of chavs circulating on social media. But do the creators of these Instagram filters even realise how harmful this trend can be?

Russia-based Ilya is the creator of the “chav check” Instagram filter, which features massive brows and chalky makeup. “I don’t think my [filter] can offend anyone, because this ‘chav check’ meme has long been popular on the web,” he says. “I didn’t make this [filter] in order to offend anyone. If suddenly this [filter] did offend someone, I would apologise to them and explain why it was created: it was created for fun.”

Kiara has also created a chav filter, called “chav check w/ sounds” as it features a snippet of audio from “M to the B”, along with grey highlighter and comically bad contour. According to Kiara, a chav is “someone who does their makeup differently, like overly filled in brows, using pale-coloured concealer for lipstick, and too much bronzer” or someone who wears “[Puffa] jackets with fur on the hood, with hoop earrings as an accessory”.

Like Ilya, Kiara is not based in the UK – she lives in the Philippines. She too was inspired by the TikTok “chav check” trend. “I think at the end of the day, it’s a harmless joke. It’s never intended to degrade a specific group of people,” she says. “Since chav culture has become embedded in our meme and pop culture landscape, social media has helped fuel people’s interest in hopping onto the trend.” It’s interesting that Kiara thinks chav culture is embedded only in “meme and pop culture”, when most people in the UK would consider it thoroughly embedded in British culture as a whole.

Revulsion towards young working-class people began to mount in 1998, when then Prime Minister Tony Blair created anti-social behaviour orders or “ASBOs” in order to clamp down on teenage delinquency. Chavs quickly became stock characters on comedy shows like The Catherine Tate Show and Little Britain: Lauren Cooper and Vicky Pollard were both clearly cut from the same cloth, with their hoop earrings and grating catchphrases. The chav stereotype predates the TikTok trend by over 20 years, and is steeped in snobbery, elitism and classism – although some younger people may not realise this.

Maxim is another creator who specialises in creating augmented reality filters. He’s the creator of the “hey luv” Instagram filter – previously called “chav luv”. The filter gives you swooping lashes, a beauty spot and a big messy bun. For Maxim, the inspiration for this filter was also the TikTok trend, rather than any real-life chavs. “I created this filter a couple of weeks ago after [seeing] the ‘chav check’ TikTok trend where people put on an immense amount of makeup, with big eyelashes and contouring,” Maxim says.

Maxim explains that he is Russian and currently lives in France, and initially did not realise how loaded the word “chav” was in the UK. “After some research, I found that chav was being used as a slur in Britain. That’s why I’m not using this word,” he says, going some way to explain why the filter’s name recently changed from “chav luv” to “hey luv”.

Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to expect younger people or people outside the United Kingdom to immediately grasp how harmful the chav stereotype is. It’s clear that most making these filters aren’t creating them out of malice, and there are those like Maxim who have learned about the politically  charged history of “chav” culture and adjusted their actions accordingly.

But as these damaging stereotypes continue to abound on social media – and travel across the world – it’s a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go when it comes to tackling classism. As Dr. Bennett says, playfully using the image of a chav without appreciating the longstanding history of social inequality in the UK is “a huge part of the problem”.

@serenathesmith