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Exploring Teenage Pregnancy and Media Representations of 'Chavs'

by Hetty Frampton[1], School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University


This article explores the influence of class tensions in relation to news media representations of teenage pregnancy. It makes specific reference to contemporary notions of the 'chav' figure as a derogatory, yet constructed term. The article begins by considering feminist media theories of motherhood proposed by Imogen Tyler and Steph Lawler in particular relation to class and the 'chav' phenomenon; these theories are subsequently discussed with reference to news media production and questions of the ideological effects of British newspapers (namely The Daily Mail and The Guardian). The central discussion compares a small number of pertinent newspaper articles in conjunction with the aforementioned feminist theories of motherhood through discourse analysis. In particular, it examines the disparate representations of both working- and middle-class teenage pregnancies by conducting a comparative analysis of the experiences of two teenagers, Melissa and Lucy, which act to construct and reinforce dominant social ideologies through news production. Finally, concerns of diverse audience receptions, class identities and contested meanings are considered in relation to concepts of 'class pride' and important theories of an active audience response.

Keywords: News media, ideology, class, representation, 'chav', teenage pregnancy.


The concept of social class influences the way in which British society and power relations operate in everyday situations, and this can often have a great impact on the way in which we encounter personal practices and daily experiences. This intense preoccupation with class in society can be recognised in a range of contemporary media portrayals which deal with the issue of teenage pregnancy; these include reality television, film, documentary, comedy sketch-shows and investigative journalism. For instance, the plethora of BBC productions concerning young mothers and underage pregnancy are hard to ignore: from reality programmes such as Young Mums' Mansion (2008), to documentaries following teenage mothers-to-be in Underage and Pregnant (2009) and the girls who are feeling broody in Pregnancy: My Big Decision (2009), we are constantly confronted by the issue of teenage pregnancy in different media forms.

Within this paper, I will argue that the association of social class with issues of teenage motherhood is unmistakeable, examining the relationship between the constructed 'chav' mum and the subsequent representation of underage, illegitimate pregnancies. The method employed in this study was an applied discourse analysis to a small selection of newspaper articles from The Daily Mail and The Guardian; drawing on previous analysis of caricaturing class, such as Tyler's 'figurative methodology' (2008) which traces the constructed 'chav' figure through different media forms, and Skeggs's categories of representing the working class (2004a). This article, therefore, explores teenage pregnancy, and considers the ever-powerful ideological influence of class upon the construction and representation of teenage mothers from both working- and middle-class backgrounds.

The 'Chav' Phenomenon

During the last century, developments in the terminology used to refer to the working class have become increasingly negative and unconstructive, meaning that social class has become distinguished by taste, and more importantly, a perceived lack of taste (Adams and Raisborough, 2008: 1173). While social anxieties regarding working-class mothers and teenage pregnancy 'have always been a target of social stigma', a more focused class hatred can be seen with 'the fetishisation of the chav mum within popular culture [which] marks a new outpouring of sexist class disgust' (Tyler, 2008: 26). The working classes of the twentieth century, once associated with diligence and hard work, are often forgotten and we are reminded of pessimistic concepts of the 'underclass', and now more recently, the prolific 'chav' character. For example, Lawler (2004: 119) laments the figurative loss of the working class: 'now that the proletariat is held not to exist, its place taken by a feckless underclass, what possible worth could be attached to those who slip the net of the allegedly expanding middle classes?' As such, this new trend in expression indicates 'a new vocabulary of social class [...] The word "chav", alongside its various synonyms and regional variations, has become a ubiquitous term of abuse for white working-class subjects' (Tyler, 2008: 17). Consequently, the term 'chav' has become a common idiom realigned with stereotypical notions of the lower-class and disaffected urban youth in Britain; a notion which is reinforced 'almost daily by both tabloid headlines and chic broadsheet "style" inserts' (Hayward and Yar, 2006: 16), and through powerfully constructed class representations.

These evident changes to our own phraseology and cultural disposition – and the ease in which we tend to accept these alterations – indicate the inherent power which everyday discourses have upon the representation and construction of class in contemporary media formats, emphasised through social panic and anxiety. However, this ease of adopting new terminology becomes concerning when one begins to consider the implications of such developments. The influence of one's class upon everyday, personal experiences is unmistakeable within the contemporary, yet stigmatised example of teenage pregnancy and motherhood, whereby the representation of this experience is often communicated with direct reference to class and social status. As Skeggs (2004b: 25) claims: 'motherhood [is] a highly conscious class-based experience'. Therefore, these tensions need to be recognised and assessed due to the strong influences that class can have upon such a personal and intimate experience as motherhood.

Representing Class in Media and News Discourse

Tensions between the middle and working classes within different media forms have already been investigated and debated extensively. Tyler's examination of the 'chav' figure explores how social class is often represented in contemporary British media through highly caricatured portrayals, and can be seen as 'part of a larger process of "class making" which attempts to distinguish the [...] upper and middle classes from the white poor' (Tyler, 2008: 18). Furthermore, according to media theory, 'the emergence of these figures is always expressive of an underlying social crisis or anxiety' (Tyler, 2008: 18); as such, the concerns surrounding the plethora of young mothers and teenage pregnancies arguably stem from more deep-seated social worries (Pearson, 1983; Cohen, 2002), and project middle-class concerns through the representation of the 'chav' mum[2]. She is 'produced through disgust reactions [and] embodies historically familiar and contemporary anxieties about female sexuality, reproduction [and] fertility' (Tyler, 2008: 29). Specifically, the 'chav' mother can be seen as a figure who challenges middle-class women to face their own reproductive responsibilities and personal choices. This reaction of disgust towards the 'chav' mum, therefore, originates from an increasing personal anxiety; from those women, putting their career before motherhood, who are reminded of their choice directly through the face of working-class young mothers (Tyler, 2008). Tyler's theories of the 'chav' mother are also present in the representation of teenage pregnancy in national newspapers, in which similar experiences of teenage motherhood are depicted in vastly contrasting ways, largely dependent upon the subject's class.

In similar respects, media discourses are often used in order to distance and 'other' working classes from an upheld notion of middle-class respectability. Lawler argues – in relation to parental activism and community protests against paedophilia[3] – that the treatment and portrayal of working-class subjects within the broadsheet press often focuses upon 'a mingled horror of, and fascination with, working-class women' (2002: 103). As Lawler suggests, class tensions become visible and recognisable within news reporting, and she stresses that the working class or '"the mob" has been constituted as the antithesis of the autonomous, rational subject we are encouraged to be' (2002: 109). As such, we can see that middle-class representations are handled sympathetically, compared to the vilified portrayal of the working-class 'rioting' mother who is regarded as the epitome of an uncivilised citizen.

This concept of 'respectability' determines whose voice is acknowledged and accepted within media discourses. For example, Lawler notes the class friction between the middle and working classes which results in the overarching ability to influence common perceptions: this power of voice results in a dominance which allows writers to 'produce working-class people as abhorrent and as foundationally 'other' to a middle-class existence that is silently marked as normal and desirable' (Lawler, 2005: 431). Consequently, any deviation from desired normality is generally considered repellent and disgusting: a visceral reaction 'that is aroused when "good" taste is seen to [be] violated' (Lawler, 2005: 436). As Lawler asserts, they (the working class) are framed 'as bad neglectful mothers, oversexualized and with the "wrong" kind of relation to men' (2002: 109). These judgements portrayed in the national press have the potential to become widely accepted when reproduced in everyday situations, thus creating an antithesis of what middle-class readers deem to constitute respectable behaviour.

Questions of Ideology: Constructing the News

News does not simply reflect everyday events: it creates, shapes and purposefully constructs intricate ways of seeing the world and understanding society. For instance, social scientists often 'speak of "constructing the news," of "making news," [and] of the "social construction of reality"' (Schudson, 1997: 7). One can see this ideological effect of newspapers through the sheer scale of their everyday function, as mass circulation of the national press arguably retains an extensive and irrefutable influence over predominant ideas. Moreover, newspapers can simultaneously provide a voice and a platform to ideas of the powerful, while removing this opportunity from particular social groupings, and these news production choices can be reflected in terms of class. In the nineteenth century, for example, as newspapers became dependent upon advertisements, 'the new economic realities of the press worked against radical newspapers' (Eldridge et al., 1997: 21). Access to economic capital became instrumental in presenting a powerful, accepted voice within society, and newspapers emerged as a media form indicative of the ideological functioning of the press: as representative and generative of the ideas of the 'powerful'.

Nevertheless, there remains a growing diversity within news sources and arenas for alternative views through which representations of class are arguably developing, indicating further contestation and negotiation with regard to the construction of the 'chav' figure and vilified pregnant teenager (Tyler, 2008). As Adams and Raisborough recognise, these powerful constructions of class 'need not imply that working-class people do nothing to resist or appropriate these cultural representations [...] we are all involved in emotionally motivated boundary work' (2008: 1174). Therefore, while mainstream newspaper discourse remains 'powerful' and influential, there are within these very sites and arenas divided contestations of constructed images of class.

As such, in order to assess important class tensions within representations of teenage pregnancy, two focal articles have been taken from The Daily Mail: 'I had four abortions by the time I was 16' (Weathers, 2008) and 'I didn't want this baby' (Johnston, 2005). The investigation also makes reference to a pertinent Guardian article, 'The stigma of being a teenage mum' (Aitkenhead, 2005). These select articles represent three individual experiences of teenage motherhood and their subsequent construction according to social class. They have been chosen specifically to examine classed responses to teenage pregnancy, and to investigate particular instances where the ideological functioning of newspapers can determine the manner in which working-class representations compare starkly with middle-class experiences.

Caricaturing Class: Representations of 'Chavs' and Teen Pregnancy

Tyler's claim that 'social class is often represented through caricatured figures [...] figures that are often communicated in highly emotive ways,' (2008: 19) can be seen in The Daily Mail newspaper article 'I didn't want this baby' (Johnston, 2005), which depicts the experiences of working-class teenage mother Melissa, just days after the birth of her son. Within the article, not only is Melissa caricatured throughout, but Johnston's discourse conveys the entire family in highly emotive, loaded ways: generating an impersonal, clinical representation of the working-class subjects, who are distanced through unnamed references to their position in generation rather than by Christian name. The class of Melissa and her family becomes evident through these caricatured images of behaviour, as Johnston introduces the family:

The nappy is on back-to-front. It is the grandmother who notices, comments loudly and rolls her eyes. Mother just gives one of her 'what-does-it-matter' shrugs and can't quite decide whether to giggle or glare. Baby, mercifully, is only two days old, oblivious to everything. Long may it continue, for all their sakes.

From grandmother, to mother, to 'baby, mercifully [...] only two days old', Johnston's naming further embodies Lawler's theory of a middle-class reader who may indulge in a 'mingled horror of, and fascination with, working-class women' (2002: 103). Johnston's construction of this opening scene arguably invites the reader to gape voyeuristically at the subjects on display here, creating a paradox between fascination and disgust at the personal, inner workings of the 'chav' family. As Tyler elaborates, perceptions can be altered through these disgust reactions: 'social class is emotionally mediated [...] through repeated expressions of disgust for those deemed to be of a lower social class' (2008: 19). The life which Melissa and her despondent family lead is marked as an existence in an alien world which is unacceptable in terms of social class, automatically 'othered' through Melissa's son and his ill-fated birth: 'For who would want to be born into Kody's world?' Far removed from the improved lifestyle which Melissa aspires to and yet fails to achieve, the Smith family remain classed in their representation: 'I want him to have a much better life. I want him to do things'. And so, the article begins with these established intentions, clearly reducing the 'dysfunctional' working-class family to a clinical status and allowing a fascination in gazing at the internal, alien behaviour of these 'chav' representations.

This portrait of unsatisfactory family life is categorised by Johnston as utterly dysfunctional, with the volatile mother-daughter relationship deemed inexplicably unnatural, distanced further through these detached instances of naming: 'dynamics between a new mother and her own mother are always going to be difficult when both are living in the same house. The relationship between these two, however, is something else'. Compared to accepted familial bonds, Melissa's family are marked as unable to conform to these traditional and acceptable values, distanced through the named reference, 'these two'. Even more so, Melissa is consistently typified as indifferent to the accepted forms of mothering she is required to adopt:

"Melissa only does things she wants to do," says Maureen. It soon emerges that there have been a lot of things Melissa has not wanted to do. [...] She proudly announces that she didn't attend antenatal classes, either.

Melissa, we can see, can only appropriate her own forms of mothering – namely shrugging indifferently to her new-born son – considered intrinsically alien to the typified and accepted forms of mothering from a more respectable social position.

This emotive, accentuated caricaturing is developed throughout the article as Johnston places intertextual references to convey succinctly the humorous, yet despicable, character of Melissa to a middle-class readership. Johnston quips, 'If the situation wasn't so serious, the sheer scale of Melissa's Kevin-the-Teenager strops would be funny.' Melissa is characterised as a typically obstinate and ungrateful 'chav' teenager, despite her recent initiation into motherhood. She is framed as a bad mother able only to scowl, stare at her trainers – a typically symbolic recognition of 'chav' taste and style (Hayward and Yar, 2006) – and prompt uncomfortable arguments with her own mother. Even Dwain, the father of Melissa's son, remains a humorous caricature of male aggression and social hostility. Unable to attend Johnston's interview, Dwain is only remembered by his animated actions: 'The previous day he emerged from the house, where he had been feeding his firstborn, and lobbed a stone at a photographer. Melissa grins at the thought that Kody will take after his dad'. These carefully inserted asides from Johnston directly illuminate the use of mockery as a form of class distinction, recognised by Raisborough and Adams as a 'qualifier' for highlighting difference: '"it's only a joke" is a prime example of the ways humour seems to lift itself beyond social reproach' (2008: 52). Here, by using accessible, widely recognised references to other comic media portrayals of unsavoury, belligerent teenage characters in oscillation with more blunt expressions of disgust and distancing, Johnston again produces an image of the working class which acts to provoke humour through repulsion of a lower social status.

This immediately recognisable representation and creation of the working class can also be seen through Johnston's insertion of dialectic language from the 'chav' subjects in the article. Melissa's voice punctures Johnston's controlled and well-constructed narrative:

[Kody's] second name is equally contentious. "It's Craig, after my son Craig, his uncle..." begins Maureen, breezily. "No it's not," shouts Melissa. "It's Craig after Dwain's father Craig. It's got nothing to do with our Craig. [...] It's me that chose it, so it's me that knows".

Here, Johnston arguably draws our attention to Melissa's regionally classed background, allowing a shared knowledge to resonate between journalist and reader at the expense of the 'chav' subject, who adopts a vernacular style and tone of language, poles apart from middle-class existences. To difficult or probing questions, Melissa's stubborn reticence evokes her verbal avoidance and repetitive rejection of responsibility: 'Melissa tuts. Again', receiving reprimand from her mother, 'She tuts, again', and in response to her Sure Start community support programme, 'Melissa tuts. "I stopped going"'. Just as the Little Britain character Vicky Pollard is typified as the teenage 'chav' mum through her incomprehensible, thickly regional Midlands accent (Tyler, 2008: 37), Johnston's emphasis upon dialect and reticence with appropriate language can be seen to denote in a powerful way the class of Melissa. Compared to Johnston's respectable voice, these techniques can be seen as 'part of a larger process of 'class-making' which attempts to distinguish the white upper and middle classes from the white poor' (Tyler, 2008: 18), vocalising the judgements of those who have undeniable access to news production, and both representing and constructing working-class subjects through familiar, humorous characteristics.

The inherent power of journalism to frame and construct these dominant representations, argues sociologist Brian McNair, serves 'not the public [...] but the dominant, private, selfish interests of a society stratified along lines of class, sex and ethnicity' (1998: 22, emphasis in original). This stratification according to class is distinctly recognisable through the notion of 'voice' within newspapers, particularly through the clearly visible powerful discourses which have the potential to dominate and stifle subordinate perspectives. This access to create and shape representation is demonstrated further in the article, 'I didn't want this baby'. Johnston freely interjects opinion and judgement upon the subject from the start of the article, othering the working-class world which is depicted from a middle-class perspective. Baby Kody, for instance, is described as 'a perfect thing in a dreadfully imperfect situation'. By creating a rapport of shared understanding between reader and journalist (and an acceptance of what constitutes imperfect), the working-class mother Melissa arguably appears as a spectacle, unable to conform to middle-class ideals of normality. Melissa is rarely granted the opportunity to speak unreservedly, and is instead positioned as a young mother unwilling to take responsibility for her newborn son. She is constantly subjected to the intense scrutiny of the middle-class gaze which is met only with monosyllabic, non-responsive answers: 'she "might" go back to college. To do what? "Dunno". When? "Dunno". There is the same dismissive shake of the head when I ask about her hopes for little Kody'.

Tyler's study makes a similar reference to this technique used in comedy sketches (notably Little Britain), which 'invites the viewer to take up the subject position of the exasperated middle-class professional as they gaze at Vicky, the [...] sub-literate, sexually promiscuous, pregnant teen chavette' (2008: 27-28). This self-same Vicky Pollard is represented in particularly similar ways to Melissa, possessing only negative (and often appalling) parenting skills. When approached by a social worker, Vicky admits freely to swapping her baby for a Westlife CD:

Social worker: Vicky, where is the baby?

Vicky: Swapped it for a Westlife CD.

Social worker: How could you do such a thing?!

Vicky: I know, they're rubbish.

(Little Britain, 2004).

Tyler's concerns focusing on comedy sketch-shows are applicable here, as Johnston's article continually 'others' the working class subjects and their behaviour against a shared sense of middle-class respectability[4]. As Tyler elaborates, it is directly through these forms of humour that 'economic inequality, class-based discrimination and open snobbery are made palatable through claims that this vicious name calling is "ironic" or has a "satirical" function' (2008: 23). As such, this forthright distancing through mockery and disgust is associated with more subtle forms of humour and representations of class. In comparison, Johnston's newspaper discourse creates a direct and unflinching parallel between the notions of the 'respectable' and the 'unsuitable' mother.

In particular, Johnston's narrative choices are pertinent and revealing: the teenage mother, characterised as too ignorant to 'fetch [...] a towel or a cloth' is contrasted against the correctness of Johnston's voice: 'I get up to fetch the cloth, and Maureen admonishes her daughter'. Johnston's respectable voice is persistently heard interjecting her own opinion upon the working-class subjects. Her dismay at the strained relationship between mother and son is particularly evident as she notes Melissa's 'spot on the sofa, at the very far end of the room from her baby.' Moreover, Melissa's displays of mothering are judged in direct comparison to what is deemed the 'correct' forms of parental responsibility, with Johnston's role as reporter interjecting pervasive opinion and judgement upon the working-class methods of coping. Johnston comments upon the worrying irresponsibility, excess distance, and lack of bonding between Melissa and her son, Kody: 'That distance between her and her baby is not a good sign. She says she loves him – "of course, yes" but her eyes are filled with terror'. As Lawler contends, this object of 'difference' on which Johnston places much focus is integral to the making of middle-class identities, whereby 'a fictive "we" is established that symbolically excludes anyone not middle-class' (2005: 432), emphasised through the interjection of a powerful, respectable middle-class voice as Johnston places herself directly into the article, othered against the working class representations.

Sympathised Subjects: Middle Class Teenage Mothers

The notion of the 'power to produce' news, which Johnston's article displays, is instrumental in presenting and retaining voice, and these classed representations can be seen in the middle-class pregnancies depicted in a similar Daily Mail article, 'I had four abortions by the time I was 16'. Within this article, Weathers (2008) immediately indicates the paramount importance of the class of the subject Lucy through references to 'her middle-class mother's despair' and 'tears of shame' at her daughter's irresponsible actions. The article, however, when compared to the depictions of working-class teenage pregnancies (such as Melissa's) is almost entirely sympathetic: clearly taking a wholly different, classed judgement on the young girl's choices.

Rather than stereotyping Lucy's situation in the common manner 'chav' teenagers face, her ordeal is represented as a form of victimisation. Emphasised through the forceful emotive rhetoric of the piece, Weathers evidently attempts to evoke sympathy within a middle-class readership, framing Lucy's pregnancies as recollections which must be repressed: 'She's blanked out most of the memories'. Lucy's actions, conceiving four unplanned children before her sixteenth birthday, are labelled by Weathers as 'a traumatic experience for one so young', receiving little reprimand which her working-class counterparts face. Lucy's pregnancies are directly contrasted and framed in explicitly different ways to Melissa's working-class experiences. Compared with the focus upon Melissa's excess irresponsibility and dependency upon her mother's assistance, Lucy's pregnancies are detailed in direct association with her innocent role in sexual activity, and falling pregnant[5]. Lucy's four underage pregnancies are appropriated to her innocence and sexual naivety, not the same excess sexuality of working-class girls. The men with whom Lucy falls pregnant are directly positioned with the blame, with Lucy placed as the innocent victim in sexual exploration: 'they canoodled at his parents' house, and [she] says she didn't know what was happening'.

Lucy, by the close of article, is placed as a young woman who is granted the position and respectability to offer moral judgements upon the experiences of teenage pregnancy: 'I just wish other young girls would respect their bodies enough not to give them up to anybody'. This emotionally charged rhetoric continues as Lucy is granted the innocence of her age and lack of judgement; an honour that is rarely associated with the same ignorance and disrespect the working-class subjects face in Johnston's article. Instead, Lucy feels 'only a strange, emotional numbness and feeling of guilt at having upset her mother'. Unlike Johnston's representation of Melissa, who shares a rather strained relationship with her mother, Lucy's parental relations are starkly melancholy having recently lost her mother, increasing the sympathetic tone of the article, and presenting a wholly different representation of family dysfunction than that which we see in Melissa's experience: 'she can't hold back the tears when she talks about her parents and how she let them down'. Lucy's middle-class voice is heard and sympathised with as she is given the opportunity to claim 'I knew nothing. I was incredibly naive'. In comparison to working-class experiences of teenage motherhood such as Melissa's, the voice and opinions of the middle-class subject are not vilified; rather, her 'ordeal' is embraced and becomes a trait to sympathise with: 'I've blanked out my abortions and I have too much self-respect to go through all that again'.

These prominent class tensions within the two Daily Mail articles become startlingly clear if we consider the manner in which Lucy's middle-class teenage pregnancies, culminating in her fourth abortion, are handled. Recurrent mistakes made by teenage 'chavs' are recognised, highlighted, and eventually become the grounds for which they are condemned; established as objects of disgust. Johnston's article purposefully reiterates, 'Melissa, by then 15, fell pregnant again' (2005), deliberately questioning whether 'Kody [will get] a little brother or sister, to complete the dysfunctional family', whereas Lucy's repeated mistakes are handled with compassion, represented by Weathers in expressive, emotive ways:

However, listening to Lucy's story of family breakup, dysfunction and emotional neglect, one can't help but wonder if even the best sex education would have made any difference at all.

Lucy, after four aborted pregnancies, is granted the benefit of the doubt and congratulated on her survival and ability to cope under adverse pressures and abnormal circumstances. In contrast, the excessively reproductive body of the 'chav' mum forms the direct grounds for which she becomes vilified.

Moreover, when comparing these two articles, it becomes evident that 'the chav mum has a particular contemporary resonance in terms of anxieties about fertility and motherhood' and the term is used to 'classify bodies according to more or less desirable forms of reproduction' (Tyler, 2008: 29). In Weathers's article, Lucy is seen to redeem herself by the end of the narrative, raising her younger sister after their mother's death, and acknowledging her own guilt 'that I was able to get pregnant so easily with babies I didn't want while other women struggle for years'. In similar respects, broadsheet newspapers can be seen to take comparable stances to those seen in The Daily Mail. For instance, The Guardian embraces the story of successful GCSE student Hannah White in 'The stigma of being a teenage mum' (Aitkenhead, 2005). Hannah, who '[comes] from a close middle-class family', is framed in an inspirational context: a model example of the 'right' way to become a teenage mother in difficult circumstances. Despite falling pregnant before leaving school and sitting her exams while heavily pregnant, she is acknowledged directly by Aitkenhead as 'a studious teenager, quietly academic and dependable'. Hannah, unlike the teenage 'chav' mothers, is allowed to co-exist as mother and typical teenage student as Aitkenhead celebrates her meritocracy through the same sensation and emotive rhetoric which is used negatively for the working-class mothers:

At half past four, Hannah gets back from college to collect her daughter. Her face is luminous with anticipation as she scoops her up. [...] and suddenly I realise we are all standing around staring at Hannah trying to soothe her daughter. It would be an exposing moment for any young mother, but she is completely unselfconscious. Absorbed in her daughter, her self-possession is breathtaking.

Not only is Hannah accounted for as a good mother, she is able to retain her status as a hard-working student taking five A-levels. Furthermore, Aitkenhead encourages the teenage mother to discuss her experience, openly welcoming and acknowledging the voice of the middle-class subject throughout the article. As Aitkenhead concludes, she embraces, and crucially accepts Hannah's lifestyle choice to become a young mother to her daughter Ebony: 'what had looked so incongruous to me that morning – a baby amid the paraphernalia of teenage life – is by now looking startlingly natural.' This stark difference in portrayal highlights the notion of classed tensions, notably in the way in which middle-class discourses have the power to shape representations and common-sense assumptions of working-class experiences.

'Chav' Pride: Resisting the Respectable Class

Throughout this investigation we have seen the 'chav' figure represented in many ways. Melissa, the focal young working-class mother, plays numerous roles in Johnston's narrative piece: she is the sulky, hormonal teen; the disinterested, disrespectful daughter in a particularly temperamental mother/daughter relationship. Most importantly, she is the inarticulate and unintelligent mother, unable (and unwilling) to take responsibility for her child. At no point in the article is the 'chav' mother reflected in positive terms. Instead, Melissa is constantly portrayed as the feckless 'chav', as a vulgar counterpart to a respectable middle-class identity. However, it would be insufficient to suggest that all readers and consumers of Melissa's story will respond from a middle-class position, with feelings of disgust and repulsion. As Simon Duncan contends, teenage pregnancy is 'typically depicted as a calamity for individual young women' (2007: 307); however, the expressed opinions of young mothers themselves must be taken into account. Duncan elaborates, for example, that 'young mothers themselves express positive attitudes to motherhood, and describe how motherhood has made them feel stronger, more competent, more connected, and more responsible [...] Teenage parenting may be more of an opportunity than a catastrophe' (2007: 308). Therefore, these personal judgements which inevitably affect audience receptions must be considered if we are to interpret accurately the influence of these classed discourses.

An examination of 'chav pride' is a particularly useful starting point when considering notions of affirmative identities and audience reception, as the 'chav' figure can rise above 'demonisation' and instead, embrace his or her own social class. As Tyler claims: 'despite recent demonisation, the chav has become an increasingly complex figure and some of those interpellated as filthy chavs have now reclaimed the term as an affirmative sub-cultural identity' (2008: 31). This notion of the sub-cultural identity (in this case, 'chav') used in an affirmative manner is especially resonant if we consider the important factor of audience reception to a study of class, viewing audiences and readers with the autonomous power to reject negative connotations mediated to them, embracing their own social class (Martin, 2009), rather than the values ascribed to them by middle-class ideologies[6]. In this way, definitions of class, identity and social mobility are inherently fluid throughout youth cultures, demonstrating notions of class in a varied and differentiated manner.

The importance of recognising the influence of one's class upon differing levels of audience reception is noted helpfully by Eldridge et al. (1997: 132) in a discussion of David Morley's Nationwide audience research in 1980. As Eldridge et al. note, Morley's findings demonstrated that audience critique and response were related to important social elements such as class, gender, age and ethnicity (1997: 132). Taking this into account in an investigation of teenage pregnancy, it is vital to note that an audience member's social background may have a significant impact on his or her own analysis of representations of teenage pregnancy in national newspapers. The effect of gender, for example, could be highly influential upon the reception of articles concerning motherhood; as will personal experiences and a potential identification with the articles' focus. Therefore, we must consider that the creation and acceptance of one's own social identity may not be defined ideologically by middle-class concerns[7]. Instead, it remains intrinsic that we acknowledge these proliferations and divisions within the notion of class 'categories', which cannot be theorised in such strong, unmoving ways, despite the indications which may be highlighted in such newspaper articles considered here.

This, therefore, is another vital area which a study of class needs to examine; and it is insufficient simply to propose theories of ideology and representation without accounting for audience reception and active participation in acquiring meaning. And so, while it is important to notice the ideological representations portrayed in these articles and the class tensions which are generated, as this article has aimed to do, it is equally important to recognise the necessity of a more complete analysis, noting the diversity of media discourses and variation in audiences' reception of such values put forth.


To conclude, while the articles examined here indicate an influence of social class upon the represented experiences of teenage motherhood, these select examples cannot possibly take account of the implicit variations present in news reporting, such as the ability for young mothers to present their own claims regarding the positivity of pregnancy and motherhood (Duncan, 2007). In the examples investigated, Tyler's (2008) theory of caricaturing, which creates an accessible representation of the working class and provokes humour through disgust (Raisborough and Adams, 2008), is evident, particularly in The Daily Mail article which objectifies Melissa's choice to keep her child and be a mother to her son as one which warrants disgust, explicit judgement and social rejection. The 'othering' of working-class against middle-class ideals (Lawler, 2002) is also recognisable within the articles examined which celebrate the middle-class teens against the admonishment of their 'chav' counterparts. Lucy's winning battle against teenage pregnancy and Hannah's competent, inspiring role of young mother both highlight a clear exertion of power by retaining middle-class respectability through news production in these particular instances. This construction of the 'chav' mum as a source of hilarity and disgust, and the subsequent everyday, instinctive responses towards class and teenage motherhood need to be assessed further and recognised as direct constructions of image and identity.


I would like to thank Dr. Daniel Ashton of Bath Spa University for his support and guidance in the writing of this paper.


[1] Hetty Frampton is currently completing her third year at Bath Spa University, studying for a BA in English Literature and Media Communications.

[2] According to Pearson (1983), class differences and disgust become projected from changes in social functioning – as the very fabric of normality (and morality) are perceived to be disrupted. This notion of 'respectable fears' is elaborated within Cohen's moral panic theory (2002 [1972]), in which the stock figure of the societal 'folk devil' is constructed, seen to encompass familial concerns and changing relationships regarding gender and motherhood. The character of the 'chav' mum remains starkly visible within a renewed construction of this established moral panic, as their representation displays a 'decline in morality and the collapse of the traditional family' (Selman, 2003: 160).

[3] Lawler's study examined the representation of the Paulsgrove and Balham protests (2000-2001) responding to the public 'name and shame campaign' (News of the World) which published the names and addresses of known paedophiles following the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne (2002: 103).

[4] Raisborough and Adams (2008) recognise the subtle use of mockery contrasting with more evident articulations of disgust and class distinction.

[5] The typified 'chav' mum figure is represented through her excess sexuality and immoral, vulgar characteristics (Tyler, 2008: 26).

[6] Martin (2009) acknowledges affirmative sub-cultural 'chav' identities, able to assert 'chav' pride through social activity, incorporating both middle and working class youth alike.

[7] As Adams and Raisborough stress in relation to consumer culture, FairTrade and class identity, any unequivocal understanding of class and homogenised middle class disgust remains problematic (2008: 1175).


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Frampton, H. (2010), 'Exploring Teenage Pregnancy and Media Representations of 'Chavs'', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 3, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at