Heirs, spares and chairs: the Fulford family, stars of BBC3's Life is Toff. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Inside Tatler, Life is Toff and British TV’s troubling obsession with all things posh

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for posh porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory.

It’s 2014 and posh people are everywhere. Anyone who’s given the British media even a cursory glance recently would be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the British public were living out their existences with their finely bred noses buried in leather-bound copies of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners, plums planted firmly in their mouths (that is, when their gilded gobs are not otherwise occupied with eating a pear in the correct fashion, using a silver spoon). Television in particular has been going posh mad for some time now, and with tonight’s premier of new BBC documentary Posh People: Inside Tatler, the obsession with the high born shows no sign of abating. In an inversion of the well-established phenomenon of “poverty porn” (see Benefits Street), programmes such as this are “posh porn”, offering plebs like us a glimpse into this highly exclusive world of red trousers, farting black Labradors, crumbling castles whose foundations are weaker than the chins that inhabit them, and general tomfoolery including such larks as side-saddle racing (Inside Tatler) and the torturing of siblings with air rifles (Life is Toff).

I confess that I was ignorant of the favourite pastimes of the upper classes until I got to university and became aware that old Harrovians turning up to lectures in togas was seen (if only by the participants) as “top banter”. Made in Chelsea, which features someone I went to university with, is now in its eighth series and, in three short years, has managed to exceed even its own aspirations of deathly dullness to become a kind of Groundhog Day of Shags involving endless, circuitous conversations centred purely around who did who and when. It truly is the Twilight Zone of toffs. Downton Abbey, meanwhile, limps on like the decrepit dog who was the show’s most three-dimensional character until it died of cancer in a recent episode. It has become so tedious that when an ITV Player glitch froze Thomas the Evil Butler motionless in a downstairs corridor, I failed to notice for several minutes. This must surely be the only programme where the line, “I’m going upstairs to take my hat off” is considered welcome comic relief.

At least, I suppose, the posh are having fun this time. The slightly batty ancient dowager that was the society magazine Tatler has, under the editorship of Kate Reardon, gone from being a magazine that I used to hate reading as a student to a witty, satirical Sloane-fest that I now rather enjoy. Granted, Tatler’s recent video featuring an enraging array of poshos waving their arms about and mouthing the words to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” during the magazine’s Little Black Book party is an argument for class war if ever I saw one. As a sage Twitter commentator noted, it is “interesting if only as proof that a sense of rhythm can in fact be eliminated over centuries of selective breeding”. Still, it beats seeking out a tramp for the sole purpose of setting fire to a £50 note in front of him – an alleged recent activity of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, alma mater of Boris, Dave and Gideon.

Call me a lefty conspiracy theorist if you must, but it has not escaped my notice that the trend for Posh Porn has coincided with the term of the poshest government in living memory. The working class heroes of Britpop who dominated the cultural climate under the Major and Blair governments are now but nostalgic items of memorabilia for a generation who were hardwired to believe that one could be posh, or cool, but not both. Russell Brand’s verbosity was mocked by the internet for sounding like the song “Parklife” by Blur. Some, including Brand himself, considered this class snobbery from a condescending metropolitan elite. I do not necessarily disagree with this interpretation, but I do think the fact the point of reference for those unused to seeing a philosophising Cockney on their television screens was a music video made in 1994 says something profound about the wasteland that is our current cultural climate.

“Rich people don’t create culture,” remarked Grayson Perry last week, as he argued for the urgent need for affordable housing – but that is exactly what they are doing, all around us. The past few years have seen a revival of royalist sentiments – the wedding, the Jubilee, the Jesus-like worship of baby Prince George. In September, the Guardian ran a Posh Britain special that included a “How Posh Are You?” quiz. Moneyed heiress Cara Delevigne has overtaken Croydon girl Kate Moss as this year’s – and indeed last year’s and probably next year’s – model. Funny, intelligent shows about working class life such as Shameless, Phoenix Nights, The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey are no more. Actors and comedians seem to be getting posher and posher, as working-class performers struggle to find work. Reality TV offers up toff after toff; as well as the posh programming already mentioned, shows such as Posh Pawn, You Can’t Get the Staff, Ladies of London, Liberty of London, and even Gogglebox beat us about the chops with the silver hammer of prosperity until we’re left dribbling, comatose and inexplicably craving a Fortnum’s Welsh Rarebit. Last year, I bought a Barbour jacket, having entered John Lewis as if in a trance, an act for which I can only blame the interminable drip-feed of privilege that is delivered to us via the pheasant-stuffed Ocado van that the country’s media has become. And as for the atrocity that is Mumford & Sons, well, everything that can conceivably said about these Lords of the Banjo has already been said.

All these strands of blatant poshness have combined to render the British Media the Chap Olympiad to end all Chap Olympiads (as if it wasn’t posh enough already). If that weren’t bad enough, the British public are being regularly and inhumanely punished – what for, it is unclear – through the medium of the historical country-house documentary. These often focus on the bonkers aristos of yore (including my new favourite dead aristocrat Henry Cyril Paget the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, a man so camp he makes Freddy Mercury look like a tax auditor) as if to say: “Behold, peasants, the current crop of tedious toffs that you are forced to endure are culturally embedded in the very fabric of our society, so get used to it.” All this posh porn is curiously devoid of politics, instead focusing on the adorable foibles and eccentricities of our benign overlords as though they are cuddly cartoon teddy bears too bumbling and lacking in intelligence to constitute any real threat to the majority’s desire to live in a less rampantly unequal society – the Boris Johnson complex. Francis Fulford, the paterfamilias in Life is Toff, is reportedly a Ukip supporter, but as an audience we are never really exposed to his political views. The closest we come to seeing him for the unpleasant snob he shows the potential of being is when he laments how his father sold off a nearby village – a village in which people live – that is now worth millions.

I have no beef with individual posh people (some of my best friends are posh, etc etc) but it does strike me as strange that, less than six months before a general election and at a time when the gap between rich and poor has widened to become a yawning canyon, we are seeing so little of how ordinary people are living, and struggling to get by. We live in a society where a Labour MP in Islington regards the sight of a St George’s flag as “astonishing” – has she been to an estate in our borough recently? It is a society in which people are relying on food banks so as not to starve and a charity exists with the simple purpose of providing homeless and vulnerable children with their very own pair of pyjamas. And yet, we are being force-fed aristocratic programming that, far from being critical, is aspirational. As a nation, our cultural output revolves increasingly around the super rich and how much bloody fun they’re having, while those of us who are not having so much fun are largely ignored. Inside Tatler and Life is Toff may be good for a laugh, but the rich are having the last. This cultural dominance can only end when the current government does. Perhaps then, the disadvantaged will once again be afforded the opportunity to crack their own jokes. Until then, we’ll have to make do with the putting on and taking off of hats. 

This article was amended on November 27.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.