The middle-class snobbery about being middle class

A third of the most well-off, high status people in society consider themselves to be working class. Maybe it's time for some new definitions?

On facing pages of a weekend national newspaper, there are reviews of two new books, both analysing the British class system in different fashions.

One, Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System argues it's now all about money and how you spend it, while the other, Sorry! The English and Their Manners, touches on the use of English, social codes, and how to read them.

Both deal with a fascination that never seems to die among Britons - an endless discussion of class, what it means and why we might care.

Having lived outside the UK for part of my life, I identify a little with the outsider who observes British ways, and wonders why. Partly because, when I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during my high school years, I was always being asked by other teenagers to explain these funny little habits.

Britain was full of mysteries to Pittsburghers, who had an idea it was full of people either wearing bowler hats or kilts; who had no idea there was a country called Wales; and thought British music was oddly challenging; and that all of us were dead posh.

From the outside looking in, the fascination, or even obsession, with class in Britain feels idiosyncratic and oddly backward. Some of those authors who reflected it to the world, such as Wodehouse and Christie, were living abroad at the time; perhaps seeing it through a glass less darkly.

From Christie's snobbery about people with money but no class to Wodehouse's heroes trying to marry chorus girls, we have moved on through Upstairs Downstairs, and Essex Girls, to TOWIE, and still bright-cheeked columnists think it is public-school hilarious to come up with digs about Kate Middleton's mum party firm, and her air hostess past (wave your arms).

But it goes on, and on. In some tightly written newspaper columns, in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and other places where the chosen few have made it, comments float forth on where people were "schooled" and which "college" they went to; about "proper" universities, and the others; and who says "loo" and who doesn't, and who cares?

Yet, in 2013, we do still care. But the markers have changed. In British Future's new State of the Nation 2013 report we find that a third of the most well-off, high status people in society (the ABs) see themselves as working class, rather than middle class.

Middle class, you see, has now become the thing that people are snobby about, so there's no longer any need to lose your regional quirk, and find your inner U. Because being "a bit middle class" is a term edged with irony, and certainly nowhere near a compliment. While in 1950, the majority might have been striving to become the middle class, these days those who have it are throwing it back, and embracing their living-in-a-cardboard-box heritage, having decided it is far more cool to be working class. We all go to the footie now, well except those people who can't afford the whacking great ticket prices. This new-cooler-than-school working class means Westminster bigwigs and big business chaps who talk "football" can be like one of us, even if they live in a more brightly lit world.

Time then for a new definition or two? If we could move on to a place where everyone who works is working class, then that brings a whole lot of us on to the same side. If we are on the same side then we could stop caring why this sentence or that shopping bag makes us just that little better than someone else. And then maybe we could be all in it together.

But history suggests that just wouldn't be British.

Rachael Jolley is editorial director of British Future.

 

Shopping in Waitrose is generally considered to be a very middle-class thing to do. Photograph: Getty Images
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So many teenage girls don’t want to be treated as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad