We need to talk about the ‘four lads’ meme. Specifically we need to talk about the undercurrent of prejudice, and on occasion outright class hatred, that propelled these four unsuspecting young men from Birmingham and Coventry into the internet spotlight.
Anyone who has been online in the past year will know about the four lads. It’s a photograph of four young men looking hyper-preened for a night on the town. Their trousers are painfully tight, their tattooed arms are bulging out of their short-sleeved shirts. This is the fashion among the male youths of aspirant working-class communities. They take pride in their appearance. They look good, and they know they look good.
The photo was taken in Birmingham city centre last year. The four lads had been drinking in All Bar One and the Slug and Lettuce. This information itself was enough to trigger guffaws and head-shaking among the snobs of the world wide web. Imagine having a pint in a Slug and Lettuce? How tacky.
A few drinks in, the lads asked a passer-by to take a picture of them. They flexed and pouted as the camera clicked, and the rest is history. One of them posted the photo on his Instagram account, it was picked up by a well-known Facebook page, and before long the four men found themselves slap bang in the middle of the global meme machine.
The memes have spread like wildfire. Even Instagram — the only social media I use, because it isn’t a deranged, shouty moral cesspit like the rest of social media is — has been colonised by mockery of these four lads. Across the meme-making universe the lads have been held aloft as laughable examples of vain, vulgar 21st-century working-class men.
The fake tan, the tight clobber, the tattooed arms — to some on the internet these are all signifiers of vulgarity. The four men have become targets of the kind of middle-class disdain for working-class aspiration that has existed for a long time.
Think of the mockery of Essex girls and Essex boys, laughed at for their interest in fashion and their determination to look good. Or even Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney in the 1980s — a grotesque wide boy obsessed with enriching himself. Or just about any early Mike Leigh film, from Abigail’s Party to Secrets and Lies, which always featured a working-class character trying and hilariously failing to be more proper. Oh how the cinemagoers of Hampstead chortled at that.
The mick-taking of the four lads is a new variant of that old snobbery. They are vilified for what is presumed to be their vanity and their materialism. Why can’t they be more refined and spiritual like us — that has been the undertone of much of the meme-making. That the memes of these happy-looking, sociable young men are likely being made by sad, portly blokes or thirtysomething left-wing virgins is just one of the ironies of modern internet life.
Every now and then over the past year, the prejudice lurking under the obsession with the four lads exploded into clear view. Memes emerged showing the men expressing racist views or taking the supposedly right-wing side in the culture war. At these points it became clear what had been motoring the prejudicial obsession with the four lads — a belief that they must be ‘gammon’, that truly foul word used to describe those lower-down-the-ladder sections of society who hold different views to the cultural elite.
It was these memes that hurt the young men the most. In an interview with the Tab, one of the men — Jamie Phillips — said: ‘It’s just not on. The last thing you want your face associated with is racism.’ Another, Connor Humpage, said the depiction of him and his friends as stupid and racist is just ‘stereotyping normal lads’. He slammed the trend for depicting ‘normal lads’ as ‘racist and simple’, saying it ‘couldn’t be any further from the truth’.
The four men are now all over the mainstream media. Newspapers are talking about them. LadBible has interviewed them. They were on Good Morning Britain this morning. So we now know more about them. Three work in the construction industry, Connor is a tattoo artist. They come across as conscientious, productive members of society, a far cry from the brainless gammon they have been depicted as.
Connor is currently working on a very good tattoo of George Floyd. He describes the accusations of racism as ‘so f**king frustrating’. Another member of the group, Alex Lacey, the one who is more diminutive than the others, received the most flak. His work number was made public and he received loads of prank calls. He told Good Morning Britain that it had a ‘massive effect’ on his mental health. That is really out of order.
Thankfully the tide seems to be turning on the four lads meme. Last week the photo was given the deepfake treatment, creating a new meme showing the lads singing a sea shanty. It’s funny and strangely touching. The four men themselves think this meme is the best one so far. It has made them go truly global.
Perhaps now the prejudices of British meme-makers who look with such contempt upon a certain kind of working-class lad will give way to a fairer treatment of the four human beings in this photograph. Some are predicting the men could even monetise their online fame — post-lockdown, of course — by opening nightclubs, making guest appearances, and so on. Let’s hope they do. Though I’m sure keyboard warriors will take to the web to denounce that as vulgar too.
Whatever becomes of the four lads, let’s not forget the snobbery that made them famous. There was nothing shocking about the photograph of their night out. I’m sure they had a great time. No, what is shocking today is the leftish, liberal bile against ‘gammon’, which is really just another way of calling certain sections of society ‘pigs’. Four hard-working young men who like to have a good time vs internet saddos who think it’s funny to mock ‘lower-class’ habits and fashions — yeah, it really isn’t hard to work out which side is the decent one.