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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 23 January, 2020

Lisa McInerney: Playing the 'pleb' - why are we still at it?

Jarvis Cocker was right – it’s not cool to pretend to be poor, and struggling to get by doesn’t automatically make you a folk hero.

Lisa McInerney

SO, THAT’S IT for another year. Okay, so that’s a term usually applied to the December holiday sometime around 8pm on the 25th, but given the advancing status of Halloween as a festival in its own right, it works just as well here.

With the amount of work people put into their costumes these days, it’s no wonder some of them spend November in creative fatigue.

Then there are those who love taking part in the fun of the spooky season, but couldn’t be bothered with the whole creative concept of a good Halloween costume. So we get people who dress as ‘sexy’ versions of insects, people who go in their usual garb with some excuse about being a character that requires no costume – “I’m a serial killer! They look just like the rest of us!”.

Or people who turn up as a character from a real social group who they assume won’t have sent any representatives to attend the shindig in question. So you get people dressing as “a chav” or “a big fat gypsy bride” or “a redneck” or – mortification on mortification – “a gangsta’ rapper”. Complete with blackface.

Dressing up as people from what we think is a lower social order is a pastime that’s older than any of us. The French nobility, pre-revolution, reportedly enjoyed dressing as peasants, as a fun distraction from their lives of tiring debauchery and cake-eating. The idea that being of noble birth isn’t quite as relaxing as being a wretched pleb has been used countless times in literature, on screen, in song.

“We’re still at it – and not just at Halloween”

It’s been nearly twenty years since Jarvis Cocker took the proverbial out of a rich student who thought that “poor is cool” in Common People, and really, that should have been the end of it (for what kind of monster doesn’t pay heed to Jarvis Cocker?) But we’re still at it – and not just at Halloween.

TV shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo have a bigger editorial focus on encouraging laughter and derision than cultural or social understanding. Specific to Ireland, you’ve got the likes of the Rubberbandits, a couple of comic talents who play the roles of badass skangers, but in reality have never had a horse outside unless there was a footman in livery attending it.

All well and good. It’s very hard to write or perform fiction without characters, after all, and we’ve been laughing long enough at the “upper class twit” trope. What’s interesting about the scorn involved in modern pop culture depictions of people of “lower” social classes is that no matter how mean it gets – whether it’s sneering at working class Dubs with overdone tans, or overweight Southern mamas who enter their overweight children into beauty pageants – we still haven’t moved on much from those French noblemen and their skewed admiration for the simple folk.

There is still very much a notion that living on the edge is a more authentic way of being, that people who struggle every day of their lives are somehow more “real” than their middle-class counterparts, that, to quote Jarvis again, “Poor is cool”.

“This is nonsense: life is frequently unfair”

There is an impression that people of lower social castes just don’t try hard enough to fit into society. This is nonsense, of course; life is frequently unfair and simply pulling up one’s shirtsleeves doesn’t guarantee success. Still, the feeling is that the lumpen proletariat are somehow free of the pressures of life; that they just don’t give a monkey’s about professional mobility or complying with social (or legal) boundaries. The offshoot of that is the “poor is cool” concept. It’s considered much more authentic to be a mouthy, council estate rebel than it is to be a privileged product of an artistic background (as Lily Allen’s take on her own upbringing shows).

We’re particularly susceptible to it here in Ireland, because we tend to tie the idea of struggle to our self-worth. It’s not enough to have a nice dress on; it has to be a nice dress we bought on sale in Penneys. It’s not enough to give birth; we have to have nearly died doing it. It’s not enough to have had a happy childhood; it has to have been a happy childhood in a hovel with the only toy available a hand-me-down Mr Frosty. To admit to having had a privileged upbringing is tantamount to declaring yourself a wastrel fop, so no matter the truth of our situation, we claim to having been wrung through the mill from birth.

Once, when I was writing for a site that an onlooker mused was “staffed by middle-class women”, I turned contortions in my insistence that I be reclassified as the spit ‘n’ sawdust type I am. My teenage self would have been horrified; she knew what it was like to not be able to attend school
events because there wasn’t money to spend on such fripperies, to not have the same branded sports gear as the cool kids, to return to school in September every year with no holiday news (hey, teenagers are shallow and materialistic).

But the older I got, the more I railed against my upward mobility, saw it as a betrayal of my own background. Which is strange, really. Struggle might be authentic, but it’s no bloody fun.

Jarvis was right. Poor isn’t cool. Struggling to get by doesn’t automatically make you a folk hero, living hand-to-mouth as you reject the confines of a life lived by the rules. It just makes you bloody tired. Emulating popular underclass characters for Halloween is forgiveable, as is basing one’s comedy act around earthy types not afraid to give hell to their betters. Superheroes are in short supply; it’s just that you’re no more likely to find them in a council estate than you are anywhere else.

Read previous columns on by Lisa McInerney >

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Lisa McInerney

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