“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Essex.”
“Are you like TOWIE then? You don’t look like you’re from Essex?”
Essex. Home of Dames Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, Depeche Mode, half of Blur, and the birthplace of radio. And yet, whenever Essex is mentioned, we only seem to talk about stereotypes of women being unintelligent, orange bimbos and aggressive families of “chavs” on council estates. Depictions of Essex are offensive caricatures of working-class environments- Essex women are “easy” and hostile, and Essex men are brutish and “proper Brexit geezers”. It is extremely rare to find true, accurate representations of Essex in film and, it is with this in mind, that Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) is most definitely the most realistic portrayal of Essex. It demonstrates the complexity of youth and growing up in a system, which was ultimately made to reject you.
Fish Tank follows the story of Mia, a young girl growing up on a council estate, trying to navigate her adolescence. Within this, she establishes a passion for dancing and attempts to pursue it. Though this opportunity is taken away from her, the film explores the ways Mia tries to escape and defies the presumed disposability of those who live on council estates.
As someone from a blue-collar family, and Essex, watching this film, I can safely say it captures British working-class culture perfectly, as well as other prominent concepts such as girlhood. The complexity of Mia’s character enables her to present a duality- she is never defined by one trait. Of course, on the surface level to other characters, Mia is seen as a stereotypical, aggressive teen on a council estate, with her head-butting another girl over her dance moves; a very valid reason to fight someone. However, as an audience, we’re able to see the abundance of layers which make up Mia. She’s introverted and sensitive but that doesn’t make her cowardly- she stands up for herself in any threat of attack, but this doesn’t make her a violent person. From her relationship with her mum and sister to her passion and the comfort she finds in her dancing, Mia depicts the working class of both the UK and Essex, for what we really are. We’re not offensive Little Britain characters, we’re not the cast of TOWIE. The working class of Essex are not the butt of your classist jokes. Fish Tank and similar films, including I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Help (2021), are some of the most fundamental films to be made- they depict the reality of what it’s like to be working class, in a system set failing you- and more like them need to be made. We don’t need another Marvel movie, we all know they’re getting worse and worse each time. We need films that honestly portray British working-class culture in our current society.
We’re not offensive Little Britain characters, we’re not the cast of TOWIE. The working class of Essex are not the butt of your classist jokes.
As well as this film being incredibly significant for representations of Essex and the working class, if you’re from Essex yourself, you may find yourself playing a game of Guess Where. I’m from Grays, a town in Essex directly next to Tilbury and the A13, both prime filming locations of Fish Tank. When I tell you I could name every place in this film, I’m not lying. There’s something so surreal and exciting about not only watching a film about where you’re from and it actually being accurate but also being able to watch it and know precisely where it took place. The only time I ever see or hear about my home county being in the media is usually to do with crime. Watching a film, filmed where I can say I’ve been to and lived around its setting, is so refreshing and makes me even more proud to be from Essex. Fish Tank is, without a doubt, one of the best films ever created and it’s made even more significant by the fact that it’s from my home.