I’ve been told most of my life that I don’t sound like an Essex girl. And as a young woman from Essex, it tends to rub me up the wrong way. It often came as a ‘compliment’ from my friends who had begun to pick apart their accents and identities in the 2010s. Paying more attention than ever to the way their ‘th’s turned in ‘f’s and that their vowels were often met with a ‘w’ sound at the end.
It wasn’t because they didn’t like the way they spoke; it was just that rest of the country had tuned in to see the first series of The Only Way Is Essex and – as often happens with reality TV shows – it became the butt of the joke. There was a backlash from lots of Essex folk who found the programme negative and perpetuating a stereotype. But inevitably the ‘controversy’ died down and words like ‘jel’ and ‘sort’ became part of our vocabulary, and we just saw it for what it was – a TV show.
It wasn’t until I went to university (out of Essex), that I heard for the first time that I didn’t seem like an Essex girl. I understood that I didn’t sound like one – this was down to my Dad being a stickler for pronunciation and likely trying to compete with his older brothers who’d moved to posher places. But to not seem like one made me angry. Being met with the odd ‘shuuu-up’ after an introduction was fine but being told ‘I didn’t seem common’ by a snobby boy at a house party was a moment I’m sure he now regrets. I like to think I did Essex Girls justice on that one.
I now had an insight into how much of the country stereotyped us from TOWIE, and what was expected of young working class women from the south. The odd stereotypical remark from my peers was one thing, but it was becoming a step too far when quality reference sources pandered to the negative stereotype.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary – a dictionary designed for foreign language students learning English – shared this definition:
Essex Girl: ‘name used especially in jokes to refer to a type of young woman who is not intelligent, dresses badly, talks in a loud and ugly way and is very willing to have sex.’
For this idea and stereotype to be taught as truth to non-English speakers would have a detrimental effect on the way women I know and love would be looked upon and treated – further sharing this false narrative that women from Essex aren’t anything more than their looks and sexual proclivities. Essex is a location and not a lifestyle, we’re not defined by our looks and habits but by our thoughts and actions. And it took an outspoken and passionate group of ‘Essex Girls’ to get the definition removed from the dictionary.
As a white woman (which is always a terrible way to start any sentence), I’m privileged to have never faced adversity when it came to my identity before, and I understand it’s not the worst thing in the world to be reduced to a loud, sexually promiscuous bimbo. It’s important to recognise that people of colour disproportionately experience discrimination and adversity. But there is something so specific about the sexism and classism engendered in the Essex girl moniker – especially when compared to the definition of ‘Essex Man’.
Stereotypes are generalisations about groups of people based on a distinct characteristic or attribute, whether that be race, religion, gender, class or culture. And the reinforcement of stereotypes can have dangerous consequences – reducing a person to one belief you may hold about them. Not all stereotypes are inherently negative, but they are all lazy shortcuts. As communications professionals we must rise above this limited thinking and use our expertise and power within the media to overcome stereotypes and the unconscious biases people may hold.