Split: What Love Island Tells Us About Culture & Class In Modern Britain

In an exclusive extract from his new book for Pluto Press, Ben Tippett looks to reality TV for lessons on our cultural class ceilings

Young people are said to be the distracted generation; growing up in a world of instantaneous gratification, where everything is on demand. For most TV executives and advertisers, this has induced nothing short of an existential crisis, as they fear millennials, unable to sit down for five minutes, will abandon live TV forever.

It is for this reason that the success of UK reality show, Love Island, has become something of a life saver for the TV industry, proving that the right content can still draw millions of young people in for an hour each day over eight weeks even during the hottest summer on record (as it was in 2018). That year, even the Conservative Party tried to cash in on the popularity of the programme in an attempt to boost their dismal voting records among the young, making a knock off version of the sell-out Love Island water bottles. (The Tory knock offs, which carried slogans such as ‘Don’t let Corbyn Mug you off’, were quickly taken down after sales flopped.)

Like most reality TV shows, the Love Island audience are invited to judge the contestants as soon as they arrive on screen: are they attractive, real, fake, kind, loyal? But more than this, the audience will have started to make up their minds – based on each contestant’s accent, personality and presentation – about which class they belong to.

This gets to the heart of a common debate around class: is class about your position in the economy or about cultural signifiers such as accents, fashion, taste, language, diet and more?

The Class Conundrum

In 2018 more people applied for Love Island than for Oxbridge, which means winning the show is no small feat. The triumphant couple that year was sparkling white-toothed Jack Fincham and straight-talking Dani Dyer – the daughter of EastEnders actor and media celebrity Danny Dyer.

Danny Dyer’s public image is the stereotypical, masculine, working-class ‘geezer’. Raised by a single parent in the East End of London, before becoming an actor and moving to Essex, he has recently achieved fame playing the landlord of the famous Queen Vic pub in EastEnders. For many people, Danny Dyer is a rare and refreshing working class voice in a TV industry. dominated by the middle class, whether he is interviewing reformed gangsters, terrorists and bouncers on the violence of their previous lives in Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men, or spontaneously slipping cockney rhyming slang into EastEnders against the wishes of its ‘middle-class’ writers.

Danny Dyer represents a conundrum for class analysis. Which class does he belong to? Culturally speaking, he represents a very clear and reproduced working-class personality. But Danny Dyer is also a celebrity millionaire and therefore by any economic understanding of class, he is part of the middle class. So, which is it?

Before we answer this question, given that we have looked at some cultural stereotypes of the working class, it is only fair to do the same for the middle class. What does a middle-class person look like? We might have a clear idea of some middle-class traits, but even the most defining cultural characteristics of class can quickly become slippery. On the one hand a middle-class person is embodied by a character like Jeremy Clarkson – former co-presenter of TV show Top Gear: a middle-aged man reading the Daily Mail, living in the home counties, buying a sports car in a mid-life crisis, voting Conservative, gorging on red meat and rugby, etc. But we can also imagine a middle-class person that embodies the complete opposite of these things: university educated; liberal-left; enjoys eating avocados and quinoa; cares about the environment; cycles; wears Birkenstocks; drinks oat-milk flat whites; likes foreign films, etc. There are in fact many different cultural representations of both the middle and working class.

Understanding class purely along cultural lines often leaves us unable to properly tackle and challenge where power really lies in the UK today. We are left with stereotypes that are reproduced by a media that is dominated by the upper classes (nearly half of all newspaper columnists went to private school despite only seven per cent of the population being privately educated). These stereotypes tend to reinforce a white, male stereotype of class that almost always looks back to a nostalgic past rather than the conditions of inequality and power today. Focusing purely on the cultural connotations of class reproduces the stereotypes of decades ago, preventing us from understanding how class relations change over time, how class is neither solely white nor male and speaks with many different accents and languages.

Also, the focus on culture is so often reproduced by the media to try and undermine the potential power of working people in this country. We see this clearly with somebody like Alan Sugar, who is often presented as a working-class hero, having grown up in a poor Jewish immigrant family in Hackney before leaving school at 16 to go on to build a successful business that would turn him into a millionaire by his early 30s. His working class credentials, however, sit oddly with the fact that he is now a billionaire, member of the House of Lords, has the catchphrase ‘you’re fired’ and goes on tirades against the poor, saying in 2015:

Who are the poor these days? You’ve got some people up north and in places like that who are quite poor, but they all have mobile phones, being poor, and they’ve got microwave ovens, being poor, and they’ve got televisions, being poor. Compare that to 60 years ago. If you really want to know what poor is like, go and live where I lived in Hackney, where you didn’t have enough money for the electric, didn’t have a shilling for the meter.

Whether it’s Danny Dyer or Alan Sugar, it’s fair to say that the cultural signifiers of class reproduced by the media can be extremely misleading, propagating the idea that famous billionaires are working class, while say, an office worker that happens to enjoy opera might not be. With this, it is fair to conclude that Danny Dyer occupies a middle-class position in society due to his fame and wealth, despite not fitting into either of the middle-class images above.

The Class Ceiling

This is not to say that culture does not matter at all. ‘How you come across’ can be an important driver of who ends up rich and in the powerful positions in the economy. If you ever discuss class, the conversation is likely to turn to a discussion on meritocracy – the idea that those who end up in the best positions do so because they are the best. Or to phrase it more brutally, those who end up poor and in the worst jobs are the least talented. What is clear is that in order for there to be a meritocratic system, there needs to be social mobility. And if there is one thing that people agree on across the political spectrum, it is that Britain is not a very socially mobile place. It explains why in 2010 one of the first things the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition did was set up a Social Mobility Commission. The latest chair of the Commission, Dame Martina Milburn, articulated the aims of the commission in their latest report: ‘Politicians, employers and educators all need to work together to ensure that Britain’s elite becomes more diverse in gender, ethnicity and social back-ground. It is time to close the power gap and ensure that those at the top can relate to and represent ordinary people.’

In fact, Britain was deemed so socially immobile by the com-mission in 2017, that the whole team actually quit in protest at the lack of government action on the issue. In their last report before quitting they wrote a candid summary of their findings, ‘Whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed, because they are not. It cannot go on like this.’

Let us look at an example of how cultural traits can help create such a class ceiling that stops people getting into the top jobs. Go back for a moment to those TV executives we started with. Getting a commissioning job at a major TV company is one of the most illustrious jobs in the creative industry. Com-missioning editors decide what millions of people will watch and therefore have the power to speak directly to people in their homes and shape the collective consciousness of the country.

In 2019, researchers from the London School of Economics, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, published a book called The Class Ceiling, summing up years of research on exactly this relationship between cultural aspects of class and social mobility. They were given unparalleled access to Channel 4 and interviewed a top senior commissioner at the broadcaster to find out how he got to the top of the company. Mark (not his real name) was honest about many of the economic privileges that helped him along the way: a private school education, a place at a top university and the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ to secure London rent while he navigated the precarious world of the creative arts. He recounts how those without this crucial safety net ended up having to take safer and more stable jobs within the industry, such as more administrative roles but with less career progression. In his own words, without such privileges the risk of going for the top job would have been like ‘sky diving without a parachute’.

But what Friedman and Laurison found was that these economic privileges were not the only help Mark had. In the competitive environment of a Channel 4 commissioning room, it is not just how good you are at the job that matters. What also matters is how well you can perform a set of cultural codes. The researchers who were interviewing Mark found that he could act in a certain way that had nothing to do with how well he could do the job, but which signalled to others that he belonged in the club. As Mark recounts, ‘The rules are that it’s good to be right, but it’s better to be funny.’ Knowing when to swear or knowing in what context to put your feet on the desk could go a long way to being respected – codes that had been learned at private school.

The researchers found similar ideas across a range of industries: architecture firms, acting, and accountancy. At the top of society, culture matters for class. Even those from less privileged backgrounds who went to the same university, got the same degree and entered the same profession, ended up in a lower paid and less powerful roles in part due to these cultural codes. The authors refer to this as the class pay gap. In some cases, particularly when it intersected with race and gender, the gap was vast. For example, black British women with working-class origins who are socially mobile and find a job in the top professions still earn £20,000 a year less than white men in the same jobs but who come from a privileged background!9 It pays to be privileged.

A Cup of Tea

In Britain it is often said that you can tell someone’s class by how they drink a cup of tea. Even Danny Dyer, as he moves from East End ‘geezer’ to household fame, seems to understand his changing class position by the tea he drinks, ‘I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’ve got a bit more sophisticated in my old age. I like a bit of jasmine tea. I love it.’

A rigid distinction that says class is just about economics or culture is clearly a false binary. The distinction between the two is blurred – economics influences culture and cultural factors can help reproduce inequalities over time. That said, treating it as a purely cultural phenomenon makes it seem like a weird, British quirk, rather than a powerful economic force that shapes the lives of everyone on the globe. Class is about global power and the vast economic inequalities it produces, rather than about manufactured, gendered and outdated images that judge people by how they take their tea. Much more interesting questions to ask are: who makes the tea, under what conditions and who ultimately is getting rich off of it?

Split: Class Divides Uncovered by Ben Tippet is published by Pluto Press

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