This month I have mostly been expanding my geek. In particular, thanks to Christmas related acquisitions, I have been exploring the role of the Chav in geek culture.
Now, you’d think that Chavs had no place in Geekdom. In terms of social norms, they are about as far removed as you can possibly get. It’s not even a case of Capulets and Montagues, for they are not ’both alike in dignity’, but rather a case of Capulets and Daleks in that one is a bunch of brawling, blinged up aliens from outer space and the other ones are Daleks*. However, it does seem as if there is a fashion for chav culture in geeky stuff. It may have begun with the character of Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, that is certainly the earliest I remember any reference to it, but it has since grown into other places. Two in particular I would like to talk about are Misfits and Attack the Block.
I’ve been watching the first two series of Misfits (please, no spoilers for season 3!). For those who don’t know, it is a Channel 4 creation covering the stories of a group of young offenders who inadvertently manage to acquire superpowers through the medium of a ‘weird storm’. Unlike classic superhero tropes, where the superpower also seems to bring with it a strange mental disease which makes them think it would be a great idea to dress up in a silly costume and go out fighting crime, our young offenders are more inclined to keep their heads down and hope to avoid being caught for numerous crimes they commit (often by accident) after they acquire their powers**. In this it has similarities to NBC’s Heroes, another example of a trend to ground the superhero in modern clothes instead of lycra, but without the overt wealth and power of the characters in this American series. In Misfits, we have a mix of many classic British TV shows. There are elements of teen dramas like Hollyoaks and Skins***, the ‘scummy underclass’ bits of Shameless, bits that are reminiscent of Queer as Folk and a nice line in sarcastic humour which hits many of the geek buttons (as well as some geek references).
What I found fascinating about this programme from a writer’s point of view is the way in which the characters are portrayed. The writers manage to make them sympathetic without losing any of the edge. They do some terrible things, get into a lot of trouble, have sex and take drugs all over the place and this is all after they have been arrested and charged for ASBO worthy crimes and yet you still feel for them and see them as three dimensional characters rather than thin ciphers. I think part of this is based on the concept of the antihero, which I will talk about in more detail later. They are classic antihero material – managing to come out doing the right thing despite not starting out with necessarily those intentions. As I said above, they don’t want to save the world or even stop people with rogue powers causing trouble for the community but they often end up doing just that in the end. Sometimes, they have to do really bad things in order to ‘do the right thing’ and that is another trait of the antihero – they are often followers of the maxim that the end justifies the means.
Attack the Block was the other chav/underclass geekery I sampled recently. This is an alien invasion story but instead of being set in a far distant, alien planet or somewhere even more outre (like America) this is set on a council estate in London. From the publicity you expect a far more comedic venture. It compares itself with Shaun of the Dead for a start and even has that film’s ‘comic sidekick’ Nick Frost in it. With this marketing, you expect a lot more blatant humour but while there is comedy in this, the overall effect is more Dog Soldiers, with its grim and violent gallows humour, than the occasionally slapstick Shaun of the Dead**** Nick Frost, despite being billed quite highly, for example, is barely in this – gaining less screen time than the female lead (Jodie Whittaker) who gets barely any billing. Instead, the heroic focus falls onto a gang of juvenile delinquents and in particular on their leader, Moses. John Boyega plays Moses with a great deal of talent. He starts off as a fairly unlikable character. He’s the archetype of the ‘hoodie wearing juvenile delinquent’ that the Daily Mail is always talking about. As the film progresses we see the layers of this laconic and brooding character get peeled away and we slowly begin to see him in a more sympathetic light. Finally, as the film draws to a close, he is revealed to be the true hero of the film with possibly one of the best ‘hero shots’ ever as he walks out of a lift, wielding a weapon.
What I found interesting about Moses is how he compares with Shaun of the Dead’s Shaun. The two are typical of an anti hero and a hero. In the case of Shaun, in order to become the hero he has to overcome his middle class uncertainties and focus on a goal – that of surviving a night of Zombie hell. Much of what he has to overcome is fear of what others think of him. This to my mind places him firmly in the role of a hero. Moses, on the other hand, has different internal conflicts. He has to come to terms with the bad things he has done in the past, fight the darkness within and overcome prejudice and assumptions about his character by others before he can be the hero. This makes him more of an antihero, someone who starts out almost appearing to be a villain but who undergoes a process of change which reveals him to be not what was first assumed. The same applies to the characters in Misfits. Again, they begin as criminals with a variety of bad deeds to their names (and continue to perform many of these bad deeds throughout) but, through luck mostly, they are placed in a position where they get the chance to be heroic.
I do wonder if this is the current appeal of the Chav in geekdom. The chance to see what is a fairly well used and rather negative stereotype being subverted by good writing and acting into something actually quite positive.
*Humour. Sort of.
** Particularly, the murder of two probation officers.
*** The explicit sex scenes and rampant drug taking among the teen generation being the main link here.
**** Though there are geek references galore in this from references to Aliens to several subtle nods to famous SF writers in the street and block names. Press pause when you see the map of the block flash up (very briefly) on screen. Someone spent a lot of time and effort designing that map specifically so that geeks would press pause and have mini geekgasms. Do not disappoint them.