For years, 'Essex Girls' have had a bad reputation: plastic, promiscuous and unintelligent. We seem to have always been regarded as a type of underclass and, as an Essex girl myself, I find it shocking that this mindset persists in 2020. Recently, popular shows - such as The Only Way Is Essex - have helped to further perpetuate this stereotype and have pushed the false 'Essex Girl' narrative back to the forefront of our media, our tabloids and even our dictionaries. In the Oxford dictionary, an 'Essex Girl' is described to be 'a brash, materialistic young woman of a type supposedly found in Essex or surrounding areas.' In reality, this could not be further from the truth.
I've come to realise that girls from Essex and 'Essex Girls' are 2 very different things.
The 'Essex Girl' stereotype takes our sex, class and location and morphs us into something that we are not. Many people just use the phrase in a humorous way, but the deep-rooted connotations behind this term have real effects. Girls from Essex are looked down upon all too often, and this is because the 'Essex Girl' phrase and the meanings behind it have impacted the way that people perceive our county and the people in it. This false perception of Essex is not just limited to the UK either. When I visited Australia and revealed my Essex roots, I was shocked to learn that people from all over the world were familiar with my hometown, and the stereotypes that characterise it. I was met with good-humoured comments from tour guides: "Oi Oi! We've got some Essex Girls with us today," and some genuine disbelief from fellow tourists: "You don't seem like you're from Essex." It wasn't until I took this trip that I realised just how prominent the 'Essex Girl' stereotype is.
'Essex Girls' are a caricature; one for which girls from Essex have to pay the price.
It is about time that the misogynistic and derogatory 'Essex Girl' stereotype is challenged, and Mark Massey is a Westcliff based photographer attempting to do just that. Mark is currently working on an ongoing project, titled 'Essexism.' With help from Arts Council England public funding, he is using the power of portrait photography to showcase the real 'Essex Girls' whilst simultaneously challenging the way that we are portrayed.
I recently had the pleasure of participating in Mark's project and spoke to him about what he hopes to achieve from his work:
Q: What inspired you to start this project?
A: "There were a few combined reasons for starting this project -
a) I've always been interested in challenging stereotypes, especially working-class bias; b) I have two daughters, and watching them grow up got me thinking more about the Essex Girl stereotype; c) I'm Southend born-and-bred and I like my projects to focus on my local community; d) I've never done a portrait project before so this was an ideal subject. I am quite shy and so meeting new people for this project has been a great way of overcoming this."
Q: What message are you hoping to spread through your photos?
A: "The main message is that the Essex Girl stereotype (like all stereotypes) is just not true - just look at all the different types of people and all the things they have achieved."
Q: What does ‘Essex Girl’ mean to you?
A: "It's hard for me to say exactly as obviously I'm a white male so I can't possibly have experienced any of the Essex Girl prejudices. But I think it's quite complicated because it's a bias against not just one aspect of a person, but three combined - gender, geography, and class."
Q: Do you think that the ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype will ever evolve into a positive image?
A: "Yes, I hope so - hopefully this project (and other similar initiatives) will go some way to contributing to this"
Q: Do you ever wonder why other counties don’t have similar stereotypes?
A: "I hadn't thought about that before but I think there are some others, but to a lesser extent - for example people from the home counties have been stereotyped as rich or posh. I think the Essex one has persisted though because it's so often perpetuated by the media."
As previously mentioned, the 'Essexism' project is ongoing and Mark is still looking for more participants to photograph. The message behind this body of work is so important, and the fact that Mark is using his platform to help dismantle this damaging stereotype is extremely inspiring. So far, Mark has photographed 37 women and has captured a diverse range of age, ethnicity, sexuality and class.
These women are strong, driven and intelligent. They are more than the stereotypes that are forced upon them and they're united by the fact that they are proud to be Essex Girls.
View 'Essexism' by Mark Massey here: https://www.markmassey.co.uk/essexism