The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.
Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).
Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.
Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says
First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).
The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says
the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).
hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.
At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26). However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:
whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).
Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states
Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).
The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).
De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.
Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/feb/05/britishidentity.gender
Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.
Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.
hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.
Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7368909/What-is-an-Essex-Girl.html
Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17. http://www.youtube.com/user/TOWIEtv
Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.