The Internet can be brutal. Whether you have 50 followers or 5000, the ability to document our every thought brings with it a new sense of accountability that can come back to bite, and bite hard. Just ask Justine Sacco, whose racist tweet got her fired. Or Holly Brockwell, whose indignant jibe at a cleaner was met with an avalanche of abuse.
Artist and Supreme model Hetty Douglas is the latest in a long line of names to be named and shamed online, after she posted a photo of construction workers in McDonald’s accompanied by the caption: “These guys look like they got 1 GCSE.” A GSCE is an academic qualification awarded to pupils in secondary education in England and Wales. Universities expect prospective students to have between 7-11 GSCEs, therefore Hetty’s jibe implies that the men are stupid.
The backlash was initially small-scale, with Twitter user @rhiharper responding: “And you look like a spoiled little rich girl gentrifying South London.” Then, visibility exploded. To date, the tweet has over 73,000 likes and 18,000 retweets; the joke spawned a social media storm which the artist, whose work has been featured by the likes of Dazed and i-D, said has ruined her life.
In the post, shared on her website, Douglas explained that she is from a working class background (the implication here is that there’s no way any working class person can be classist), that she has always worked and has since been told that the Instagram post means her career is over. “Journalists laid siege to my mum’s house and I’ve had to temporarily move out of my houseshare. I became an instant hate figure,” she explained.
“I’m told that I’ve got no future with my career because no one will touch me,” Douglas continued. “I hope that’s not true, because I don’t think any fair person knowing the truth would wish that on me. For everyone else, this is a cautionary tale: don’t make brash judgements on others, and certainly don’t put them on Instagram.”
It’s fair to say that most of us probably have some problematic views lying dormant somewhere. Model Munroe Bergdorf recently made headlines after being hired by L’Oréal Paris UK as the face of ‘modern diversity’ and then subsequently fired for writing a lengthy, eloquent Facebook post on the nuanced nature of structural racism and the social conditioning which makes “all white people” either consciously or subconsciously complicit. Her point was simple — we are all raised in a racist society, which means both that we internalize problematic thoughts and that white people benefit from white privilege. Still, her words were taken out of context (especially considering that they were written just after the horrific Charlottesville riot) and she was publicly vilified.
This theory applies to the class discrimination implied by Douglas – her words were undoubtedly rooted in snobbery, a fact she has since acknowledged in her explanation post. We are raised — all of us, not just middle class people — with deep-rooted stereotypes that tell us that the working classes lack intelligence. Class discrimination is not discussed often enough.
Instead of sparking this debate, Douglas’s background was imagined and subsequently dissected. One article published on HUCK was particularly incendiary, arguing her words as emblematic of a wider trend: “of embracing cultural working class signifiers while struggling to conceal your visceral hatred of actual working class people.” I’d argue that her words were rooted in mere ignorance as opposed to “visceral hatred,” but the seed was planted and the article was widely shared.
It is, of course, true that there’s a class problem in the creative industries. It’s one I have experienced myself – as a kid from a council estate with dreams of breaking into journalism, I suffered a breakdown when I moved to London to take an unpaid internship (expenses were provided, nothing else). To support this dream, I worked a bar job and a retail job, adding up to a grand total of 80 hours of work per week which just about earned me enough money to pay rent, travel between East and West London for my various jobs and, if I was lucky, buy the occasional fancy sandwich.
Jobs in creative industries are disproportionately based in large cities with extortionate living costs, meaning that those born without the privilege of rich parents or a family home in one of said cities are often priced out. Then, there is the structural racism, transphobia and other forms of discrimination which lead to minority groups being more likely to be impoverished and excluded from the higher education and entry-level jobs often needed to break into these industries. Put simply, if you’re not privileged, you’re fucked.
Meanwhile, designers are sending tracksuits which retail at eye-watering prices down runways worldwide and editorial teams are dragging photographers and stylists to council estates and impoverished areas to create the perfect aesthetic. Remember the Louis Vuitton Cruise show staged across the road from a favela? There is perhaps no better metaphor for fashion’s relationship with class. There are, of course, various discussions to be had around this topic, one of which is just how positive visibility actually is, but using working class culture as a trend without talking about the disadvantages working class people actually face is unacceptable. This is perhaps why Douglas, whose art features slogans like “you’re peng but your english is shit,” has become an acceptable scapegoat for a much, much wider problem.
Still, these attacks are a form of cyber-bullying which many of us are somehow willing to take part in. We call it “internet shaming” instead, insinuating that this is acceptable discrimination because we’re the ones in the right raining down on the one who is wrong. Sure, in the age of social media, there’s the question of accountability — if you say something discriminatory on a public platform, you should expect to be called out. If you’re a white supremacist in Trump’s America, you should expect to be doxxed; if your ideology works towards either upholding or condoning violent abuse of any minority, your words become hate speech. Hate speech is a crime, and should be treated as such.
Douglas, however, was not suggesting that we lynch all construction workers. She was merely making a shit joke which uncovered a sense of snobbery that lies dormant in most of us, because we are all conditioned to discriminate. It’s only when called out that we question these views — this is where the internet can be beneficial.
It is not, however, acceptable to wade into a stranger’s mentions with threats of violence, or to try to destroy the career of someone based on just one ignorant comment. What we should be doing is generating discussion around the actual issues without pouring scorn on just one person whose tweet happened to go viral. Often, the people involved in these scandals send apologies, some of which are genuine and others which clearly aren’t. We expect people to be perfect without being willing to trawl through our own social media histories and acknowledging that most of us have probably fucked up at some point in the past.
It’s good to hold people accountable. It is not good to attempt to ruin lives based on a small fuck-up – this pack mentality does more harm than good, and it makes us complicit in a system of acceptable cyber-bullying (sorry, “internet shaming”) which many of us simply accept without question.
Next up, here’s what the reaction to “thicc” Rihanna tells us about body shaming in 2017.
- Photography: Fred Perry