From the 1950s to today, Britain has been represented on the world cinema stage through ‘social realism’, a genre that provides a mirror for a national and international audience to reflect on contemporary social discourse across the British isles. As such, the genre naturally reflects class dynamics, focusing primarily on the working-classes’ struggle in Britain.
Despite its attempt to break down social boundaries and highlight the disparity between classes, the genre has become almost a stereotype of itself. The majority of working-class are films made, and critiqued, by middle and upper-class people. It wouldn’t be a surprise to say that the British film industry (like most arts industries) is dominated by filmmakers, producers, critics and even viewers from a higher social status. The issue with creating art and critiquing it is that it requires money, and those from working-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage compared to those from wealthy ones. As such, what we get are social realist films from the perspective of middle-class people; a perspective of poor Britain as the middle-class imagines it. This becomes a problem, as the middle-class’s fantastical ideas of what working-class life in Britain is becomes the normalised representation we come to accept, regardless of its validity.
What comes from this is a fetishisation of the working-class. A romanticised, middle-class perspective of the gritty, dirty, unstable and brutal life of working-class people. Take, for instance, Ken Loach. Pegged as the ‘most important social realist filmmaker of our time’, Loach is praised for his working-class films, critics claim his films dictate the reality of lower-class Britain. Critics glorify Loach’s work for its representation of deprived Britain and of the people destroyed by the classist system.
Yet, it would be remiss to not mention Loach’s own middle-class background (the filmmaker attended Oxford University, where he studied law, which was granted to him due to his wealthy upbringing and private school education). Loach hasn’t experienced the working-class lifestyle he depicts in his films; his stories are crafted and filtered through his middle-class idea of what working-class life is like.
In My Name is Joe (1988), Loach focuses on an unemployed, recovering alcoholic, who lives in the seedy council estates of Glasgow. Joe is involved with drugs and theft, has a history of domestic abuse and violence and is involved with gangsters. Loach’s film emphasises the life of crime and addiction associated with lower-class Britain, in this case, Scotland. Similarly Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting utilises similar themes, mixing magic and social realism, associating the Scots with drugs, violence, crime and destruction.
In I, Daniel Blake, the characters are placed in similar situations, plagued by abuse and addiction, living in squalor and destroyed by the system. The film’s female protagonist lives with her daughter in a homeless shelter, before getting moved to government housing; gets her meals from the food bank; and works as a prostitute to make money.
I’m, of course, not suggesting that Loach’s films aren’t vital and important in highlighting the disparities that are pressing in today’s society. Nor am I suggesting that Loach can’t or shouldn’t make films because of his middle-class origins. I, in fact, come from an American middle-class background. It would be hypocritical of me to say that Loach’s film lack realism and authenticity when I, myself, am not a working-class Briton. I would be just as, if not more, guilty of stereotyping classes because I’m not even British.
Rather, I would like to suggest that the dominant representations in social realist films are not the reality of Britain’s lower classes that we have come to accept as truth. Despite Loach’s important messages regarding the government’s failure to help these people, it assumes this is how the majority of working-class people live: in hunger and desperation. This type of representation creates a stigma around the working-class lifestyle; for us outsiders (both international audiences and national audiences from other classes), we see the British working-class as nothing more than hopeless individuals feeding off the welfare system. It becomes our predominant understanding of how “the other half” lives, as the term “social realism” assumes that this is, in fact, realism. A realistic representation.
But, this isn’t the truth. Not all of working-class Britain struggle and starve and are cheated by the system. It might have elements of truth and moments of realism, but the general concept of social realist films are based in fiction.
Andrea Arnold functions as an anomaly to this theory. Arnold is one of Britain’s most renowned filmmakers and one of the very few from a working-class background. Her early films are highly reflective of her upbringing, drawing on her experience as a working-class woman to create more authentic social realist films. Her 2009 film Fish Tank has come to be one of Arnold’s most defining and successful films. Following a young girl’s life in a council estate in Kent, Fish Tank captures similar elements and themes as Loach’s and other social realist films.
Arnold uses a backdrop of a tattered and filthy housing estate in a rundown neighbourhood, and an underprivileged family relying on social welfare and government assistance to help them live as the setting for her story. Yet, despite Arnold playing to the troupes of the genre, she still makes essential commentary through her characters of how middle-class England views the working-class.
Fish Tank’s plot follows the sexual dynamics between the lower-class protagonist, Mia (Katie Jarvis), and her mother’s middle-class boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). Conor can be seen as a relatively middle-class man (albeit, more lower-middle than Oxford-educated Loach) with a well-paying job, a suburban home and nuclear family unit. Conor’s sexual obsession with both Mia and her mother shows his infatuation with the poorer class’s exoticism and his desire to escape from his predictable middle-class life.
Conor seemingly fetishises Mia and her family, finding sexual pleasure and gratification from them being almost the complete opposite to his domestic life. The social dialogue of Arnold’s film is reflected in the critical commentary surrounding the film. Much like Conor, the middle-class critics who praised the film upon its release seemed to fetishise the grim and bleak reality of Mia’s life. Whereas Conor masked his obsession with romance, the middle-class audience portrays their voyeuristic obsession as high art, worthy of cultural and social significance. The audience of Fish Tank can be seen as romanticising – perhaps even sexualising – Arnold’s film, much like how Conor romanticises the excitement of the Williams’ unpredictable and messy lifestyle.
Arnold ends Conor’s and Mia’s relationship bluntly: after Mia infringes on his middle-class stability by kidnapping his daughter, he abuses Mia one last time. Slapping her in the face, leaving her emotionally and physically abused, to never encounter her again. Conor serves as a metaphor of middle-class critics, who praise working-class films and insist that working-class cinema is a vital part of the class discussion in Britain. Yet, when it comes to enacting policies that will genuinely support the real people living like the Williams or to get involved personally – threatening their social superiority and security – they leave, never to be seen again.
Although these middle-class critics and filmmakers can be praised for acknowledging the importance of films like Fish Tank and drawing attention to the misfortune caused by Britain’s class system, they still hide behind their class. Like Conor, they just want the thrill and sexual gratification of ‘feeling working-class’. This sentiment transfers outside of cinema and into the real world, from Southern middle-class university students dressing like “chavs” at Northern universities, to upper-class celebrities and socialites supporting and glorifying the Labour movement.
As audience members, we must acknowledge the stereotypes and misrepresentation in social realist cinema. These films may be coined as “real”, but they are still stories morphed by fiction. We need to be conscious of who is creating our media and how they represent our society: to take from these films an understanding of the institutions in place that divide society, to not build on the stereotypes but to break them down. Because without social consciousness we are disregarding the real people these stories are meant to reflect. We become nothing more than Conor abusing Mia.
by Shelby Cooke
Shelby Cooke is an MA Film Studies student from the United States, currently based in Norwich. Her area of interest is British cinema, with a focus on culture and society. Her favourite films include The Man Who Fell to Earth (big Bowie stan), Fish Tank, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Paddington. You can find her fawning over British celebs on Twitter (@shelbscookie) and Instagram (@shelbs.cooke).