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Opinion | ‘Working class cosplaying’ and playing down privilege remains on the minds of young people at university.

With pop culture moments like Saltburn bringing attention once again to the phenomenon of 'working class cosplaying', Emily Brewster explores it's prominence at the University of Bristol.

By Emily Brewster, Third Year, History

Class is, and has always been, a uniquely British obsession and anxiety. Whilst playing up one’s social class had always been the instinct of Britons, youngsters around the time around Beatlemania, uncoincidentally, began to associate a ‘coolness’ with being working-class, socialist, or Northern. In the younger generations of Britain’s middle class, eager to downplay privilege and appear self-made like their idols, a class dysphoria emerged which continues to manifest itself at universities like Bristol today, demonstrating the clear discomfort we still have with class identity in Britain.

Love it or hate it, Saltburn testifies to a persistence of Britain’s obsession with class which has defined us for centuries. The film screams with references to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, a novel written in 1945 about a motherless middle-class Oxford University student, adopted by an eccentric aristocrat and brought to his lavish stately home and dysfunctional, repressed family. The twist in Saltburn, (massive spoiler alert), is that Oliver’s story of abusive addict parents and a deprived working-class upbringing in Prescot (cue Rosamund Pike’s perfect representation of Southerners talking about the North) is exposed as a total fiction. His ‘working class cosplaying’ is a case of the extreme and frankly psychotic, but at its core emulates a tangible tendency of the British middle class today to play down their privilege and fabricate a humbler personal history.

The common basis for this may be how we understand our class – is it hereditary? Is it where you live? What your parents do for work? The so-called ‘grandparent effect’, which states that we form our own class identities from that of our ancestors, leads many demonstrably middle-class Britons to view themselves ‘by blood’ as working class. Before falling into my own trap, disclosure of my own privilege is pertinent; I come from a white, Southern, distinctly middle-class background, with two medic parents who have worked hideously hard to enable an excessively comfortable upbringing for my sister and I. For me to identify as otherwise would frankly be delusional, showing the problematic nature of the ‘grandparent effect’. However, to humour my reasoning, considering my maternal ancestors as the archetypal British working-class family would indeed entitle my claim to this identity. Born in Stoke, home of England’s pottery industry in the West Midlands, as the daughter of an electrician and a secretary, my mum was one of few from her secondary school to take A-levels, and even fewer to attend a Russell Group university – the University of Bristol, in fact. Having spoken widely to my acutely middle-class social pool, I realised this story of ancestral social mobility was not unique; several friends are proud to acknowledge their parents’ less privileged backgrounds, though thankfully without claiming these to be their own.

Despite fitting the ‘grandfather effect’ brief perfectly to identify as working class, it would precisely be ‘working class cosplay’ for me to express myself as such. Comparing my experiences as a current student at Bristol with that of my mother’s 30 years earlier with these class distinctions in mind exposes their pervasiveness and magnifies the privileged position I had entering halls of residence, as a middle class southerner. It is no coincidence that the West Midlands accent she was raised with had all but vanished when she finished her medical degree. Wanting to fit in with the overwhelmingly Southern, privately educated cohort at Bristol in the late 1980s and evade their persistent teasing of her regional accent and dialect, my mother adopted the Queen’s English of her middle to upper class peers to mitigate the perceptible class difference she felt. How much change the university has undertaken since then is dubious; from a poll on Epigram’s Instagram account, almost ¾ of respondents self-identified as middle class, whilst only 17% described themselves as working class. Similar conclusions can be drawn when considering my flat in my halls of residence – notorious as Stoke Bishop is as a public-school stomping ground. Of 22 students, most had attended private schools and not one could be identified as working class.

Given these statistics suggesting the privileged class still occupying the majority of university places at Bristol, why is it we see middle class students coming to top universities portraying themselves as ‘hard done by’? My reckoning is that in the age of ‘check your privilege’, where nepotism is still powerful, but distinctly un-cool, the middle and upper classes are feeling increasingly inadequate. Gone are the days where people were clapped on the back for getting the prestigious job, even if their father had ‘put in a word’. Instead, the first question you hear, asked in hushed tones, is ‘do you think they pulled the nepo-card?’. This ‘fetishisation of meritocracy’, as the Guardian coined it, causes students to disassociate with their privilege and present the ‘self-made’ image of themselves instead. We see this in the behaviour of our peers and ourselves; thrift-shopping not from economic necessity but to fit an aesthetic and altering a quintessential Queen’s English accent with a strange ‘roadman’ twang totally incongruous with everything else about them. We all know these people, and I’m ashamed to say, it’s probably sometimes me too. 

As shown in the viral clip of Victoria Beckham being told to ‘be honest’ by her husband after telling her interviewer she grew up ‘very working class’, then reluctantly admitting her father drove a Rolls Royce, it is apparent that ‘working class cosplaying’ is peppered across the privileged classes in Britain. Though sometimes amusing to see, the highly visible aestheticisation of working-class identity by Bristol’s middle-class students reinforces the class snobbery which working class students like my mother have experienced and felt isolated by. At the end of the day, it’s always pretty transparent when you pretend to be something you’re not, unless of course, you’re some sort of Saltburn psychopath.

Featured Image: Megan Ioannides

How prominent do you think 'working class cosplaying' is at the University of Bristol?