Emerald Fennell explains the sadism & masochism of the British class system

Emerald Fennell is an actress, writer and director. I actually love her as an actress, but it’s cool that she’s just barreled into the world of screenwriting, producing and directing. She wrote, directed and produced Saltburn, a sort of a knockoff of Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but modernized. Fennell recently chatted with the Sunday Times (via the Telegraph) about the film and how it’s about the British class system, and the dysfunctional relationship which exists between the working class and the upper class.

The country’s relationship with aristocracy and the upper classes has become less reverential: “We have a sadomasochistic relationship with those who not only don’t care about us but don’t even see us… The British class system is so stratified.”

Saltburn is commentary: Saltburn is about how people can be enamoured with those who are better off, Fennell said: “It is voyeurism that is tinged with condescension. It’s this cycle: ‘I’m looking at this person and I want to f— them, but that makes me feel bad about myself, so I hate them.’ We can’t help ourselves and have never been so voyeuristic.” It is a constant tension “between desire and revulsion” and that it played out in this country in our relationship with “big houses”.

It’s about Eton-educated prime ministers: Fennell also mused that Britain’s relationship with “elites” had changed, blaming this “rightly” on our government, suggesting that respect had been eroded through various Eton-educated prime ministers. “Our relationship with [elites] has changed enormously, and that’s rightly to do with our government. But we still look. It is more sadomasochistic when you know better. And we as a country can’t stop picking that scab.”

Her own posh background: Her father is the Eton-educated celebrity jeweller Theo Fennell, leading her to admit that there “is always conversation” about her acquaintance with the upper-class world in Britain. “The thing is, because of my job as an actress and writer I’ve taken myself out of all that,” she said, but added: “I mean, I have to introduce myself to people with a straight face as ‘Emerald’. I’ve had to get thick skinned about how absurd I am as a person.”

[From The Telegraph]

I think she’s right about the voyeurism and sadomasochism within the stratified British class system, but I’d also like to point out that, from what I can see as an outsider, sadism is a feature and not a bug of the whole British class system. The glee with which sadism is an end unto itself, that the entire system is built on punishment, cruelty and harm. As for Emerald’s belief that she’s “taken herself out” of the posh world… I’m sure she genuinely thinks that, but that’s not how the British class system works. She’s welcome in those elite worlds because she was born into it.

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, Cover Images.

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30 Responses to “Emerald Fennell explains the sadism & masochism of the British class system”

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  1. Mei says:

    Human psychology is so fascinating. She clearly will have benefitted from connections due to the family she was born into (read, nepo baby), or even just due to how she speaks or carries herself because of that, but it seems like she believes she’s totally on the other side now, because she’s successful in her career. What she’s describing isn’t wrong per se, but the lack of self-awareness is wild.

    • Lucy says:

      Right, I’m sure she has the “right” accent that Kate is trying to have, but maybe she’s worked to tamp it down. People can still tell. I liked her comment about having to introduce herself as emerald with a straight face 😂

      This reminds me of a book from the late 80s about English garden rooms, and it was basically all these beautiful garden rooms at big country estates. One of the “room’s” features was a Romany caravan, that had been fixed up beautifully. The story was about this 20 year old had just gotten out of one of the posh art schools, and she’s got theater design degree, all this. She’s the daughter of the Duke of cavendish, I think. I googled her, she’s currently the Duchess and lives in the enormous house she was camping on the grounds of, she’s part of the National something trust. I guess, emerald is part of that system. You can think yourself avant-garde, and away from it, but you’re really just camping on the lawn of the big house you’ll inherit, denying that there’s a castle in your future.

  2. SAS says:

    I have to say, as someone who hates the rich, I do give Emerald and Phoebe Waller-Bridge the benefit of the doubt for their brilliance.

    I feel like Australia is caught in between the British hate for the ruling rich who dgaf about any of us, and the American idolisation of billionaires. Shoot them all into space, honestly.

    • SamuelWhisker says:

      That’s fair but there are lots of people equally brilliant who never get a shot just because they didn’t go to the right school.

      • Lau says:

        @SamuelWhisker, exactly. We hear so many other young (british) artists who can’t get the same chances. It’s so tiring to always give people coming from the richer side of society the benefit of the doubt.

      • Nicole says:

        Speaking as an American, even if you get into the right school, it’s still about connections. AND even with those connections, there’s no guarantee that they pay off. I’m still very much upper WORKING middle class. (Not that I expected anything else) I’m just noticing how the game works given that I went to an Elite school (graduate not undergrad and that matters too).

      • AlpineWitch says:

        I live in a mostly low class area, every person who’s local and has tried to make in the arts (all of them, music, theatre, TV, etc.) have confirmed that beyond a certain level they couldn’t go, they found like a shut gate they didn’t have the key for.

        Talent or looks don’t matter in England, if you don’t have the right connections you don’t even get to London’s shabbiest show or concert.

        This has been the case in England for a couple of decades at least.

  3. SussexWatcher says:

    Hmmm I was expecting her comments to be more enlightened. She sounds like a nepo baby stomping their feet about how hard they worked to get where they are. She also sounds like she’s punching down a bit by blaming those looking up to the “big houses” with both desire and revulsion as being the sadomasochistic ones, rather than those at the top who perpetuate and benefit from that fcuked up system. How is she in any position to know how the non-Eton educated/non-aristocratic families feel? Because she now works as a producer?!

    • Jais says:

      Same. Your punching down comment encapsulates the slightly gross feeling I had reading this. Guess we’ll see how the movie is but there was a lack of awareness in what she said.

    • MissMarirose says:

      Given the high number of posh people who end up in the arts in Britain, I’d say her comment that she’s taken herself out of that world of the elites to be rather disingenuous. There’s been a lot written about how hard it is nowadays for working class people to break into showbiz over there.

  4. SarahCS says:

    I hadn’t made the connection to her father!

    I’ve read a few pieces about this film and wasn’t really feeling it but then saw the trailer at the cinema and it was not what I expected. Probably more for the small screen for me but I probably will watch it.

    • AlpineWitch says:

      I wasn’t surprised, much like our politicians, any artist that is becoming known is tied with the upper classes in the UK.

  5. Eurydice says:

    We have our own brand of voyeurism and sadism in the US. We think we’re entitled to know everything about everyone else, to intrude in everyone’s lives, to peek into their bathrooms and go rifling through their closets. And then we get emotional satisfaction by judging them for what we find.

    A professor from the UK I once had said that the British love to glorify failure and squash any success – and that the US is the other way around.

    • HellNah! says:

      Wow @ Eurydice. I find this comment so very interesting. Love the insight.

    • equality says:

      From the US and don’t have that level of interest in anybody’s life. Is it so much that people want to know or that some people overshare to the extent of posting every meal on SM?

  6. Tarte au Citron says:

    Even if her father wasn’t a famous jeweller, she still could leverage her connections from her time at Marlborough and Oxford, which still speaks to family money, connections etc.

    I like her though. She’s writing, getting stuff done, winning accolades for her acting & directing work, so I wouldn’t knock her for that.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t know “celebrity jeweler” was a thing.

    I like her as an actress and director, but I think she should have thought twice before even addressing this subject. Her comments are interesting and fairly incisive; but they’re not coming from an objective observer. Her father might not be titled, but he went to Eton, is well-known and no doubt wealthy. She can’t just “take herself out of that world” because of her career path. Her father is Posh, so she is too. That’s how it works.

  8. Bettyrose says:

    As opposed to the cognitive dissonance here in the US of people who claim to hate elitism while worshipping a demagogue living in a gold-plated self-annointed temple.

  9. SamuelWhisker says:

    I work in film/TV, it’s the most insanely class obsessed, nepotism obsessed industry in the country, after politics.

    I’m not denying her talent but there’s no way she’d be working in film if she’d gone to state school. Talent doesn’t matter here, only connections.

    • AlpineWitch says:

      At least you work in the sector. I got out 3 decades ago, it was literally a waste of time.

      I had had performance feedbacks from very big names but as I wasn’t connected (my father being a factory worker and my mother a housewife), my career died before starting.

      This lady comes across as very privileged and doesn’t want to admit so.

  10. TIFFANY says:

    Promising Young Woman was absolutely fantastic and her Oscar was well earned. I’m looking forward to Saltburn.

  11. OnThisDay says:

    She sounds like someone whose class commentary would benefit from studying class as a phenomenon. “The British class system is so stratified.” Yeah, a class system is stratified by definition. And I question the issue of increased voyeurism. How much info, or even gossip, does the public in the UK get about the elite class, save the royal family? Elites are good at being invisible and keeping most of their business private. We get glimpses into their culture through societu magazines, but it’s not much. That’s part of class privilege. Is she referring to celebrities and the moneyed middle classes? More gossip about folks like the Beckhams?
    Also, to focus on the masses’ infatuation with the elite, and to pathologize it in this manner totally deflects from the role elites play in cultivating our fascination with them as part of the way they manage us. Even the withholding of information is strategic.
    (I don’t mean to denigrate sadomasochism. I’m talking about it the way she is using that concept.)

    • Pointillist says:

      Bravo – what a comment!

    • AMTC says:

      @onthis day agree completely with your comment that “cultivating our fascination with them as part of the way they manage us”. The other way they manage us is by creating a psychological sense of inferiority. This was the playbook of colonialism which also had its origins in the likes of Eton.

  12. Susie says:

    Since she’s smart and talented she managed to give the nepo spiel in a smart and talented manner. “I’m not like those other nepo babies i’m actually smart and talented”. And she is but she is also posh. You can’t opt out of being posh while still doing posh things. And in the UK the arts are saturated with fancy nepo babies. She had one of her bdays showcased in Tatler. Trying to act like she’s not posh anymore makes her less interesting and makes me fear for the perspective in her art. It’s refusing to see her own blind spots. Acknowledging that she is posh and this is her observations of the upper classes is more honest and interesting. A focus from the working class about the upper classes is going to miss so much cuz it’s an alien perspective to her. Working class people aren’t stupid they know she isn’t one of them. From the way she talks and dresses to the way she eats. She is an interloper. But as fleabag showed being posh can be an interesting perspective in the hands of a talented artist. If she and the film keeps the focus on how the elites look down on the working class it will be probably a more incisive piece of work.

  13. Charlotte says:

    If anyone wants a great read on the ways in which the British colonial system was built on a) breaking the nuclear family and b) sadism — Jane Gardham’s Old Filth trilogy is a deep, tender, exploration of how these dynamics worked themselves out on the bodies and personalities of a core group of three, and a slightly larger group of perhaps five people — all of whose lives intertwine from childhood through old age.

  14. Jeannine says:

    Christopher Eccleston has written and been interviewed about the decreasing amount of working class actors in Britain.

  15. SheWolf says:

    I listened to a verbal interview she gave to NPR the other day, and she came across a lot better. More self aware and understanding of her privilege. The point she was trying to make in that interview is that by 99.99999 percent of people’s standards, her life has been extremely privileged. But in the British class system, her family is seen as gauche, new money. Which is completely fine with her, but it made her want to examine people’s obsession with pressing their face against the windows of those with a higher status, no matter how high up they are themselves to begin with.

  16. Anne Keane says:

    U.K., Britain and England are used interchangeably in the comments. Different parts of the U.K. state don’t necessarily have the same attitude to class.