This week Fox News broadcast a bizarre exchange between Tucker Carlson and Britain’s own Nigel Farage. After Farage criticised Boris Johnson’s recent performance, Carlson offered a theory to explain what had gone wrong: ‘getting Covid-19 emasculated him, it changed him, it feminized him, it weakened him as a man’. He added that this was a general property of the virus, which ‘does tend to take away the life-force…it does feminize people’.
This proposition is nonsensical, to the point where even Farage appeared reluctant to entertain it. But Carlson’s obsession with male potency (aka ‘the life-force’) and his fear of feminisation is something he shares with many men–including, as it happens, the British Prime Minister. I’ve commented before on the peculiar turns of phrase through which Johnson expresses this ancient but still prevalent form of sexism: his fondness for the word ‘spaff’, for instance, and his penchant for insulting (male) rivals using expressions that imply emasculation, like ‘girly swot’ and ‘big girl’s blouse’.
These expressions are also notable for their childishness and their archaic quality. ‘Big girl’s blouse’ was a popular playground insult when I was at school; ‘girly swot’ sounds like something you might have heard at St Custard’s, the fictional prep school in Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books (first published in the 1950s, a decade before Boris Johnson was born). It isn’t, perhaps, immediately obvious why an ambitious 21st century politician would want to sound like a character in a 1950s school story. But arguably this persona has served Johnson well.
This week, as scandals piled up around him, the media reached for the same school-story register to assess what kind of trouble he was in. Anne McElvoy described the situation in the Evening Standard as ‘his most precarious jam yet’. Others were more sanguine: the host of ITV’s Last Word pointed out that he was always ‘getting into scrapes’ (a word that’s been used about him since at least 2007), while the Washington Post also alluded to his ‘Teflon-like ability to survive these sort of scrapes’. Jams and scrapes are what schoolboys get into, not because they’re incompetent or corrupt, but because of their youthful impulsiveness and propensity for mischief. Applied to Boris Johnson these are trivializing terms: ‘He’s not the Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy!’
Another thing that recurred in media coverage was references to ‘grown-ups’–a category to which 57-year old ‘Boris’ axiomatically does not belong. For Conservatives who support his leadership on the grounds that he wins elections, a much-canvassed solution to his current problems is to put some actual grown-ups into his team. Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson who resigned this week after a recording was leaked of her making joking references to the Downing Street Christmas party that supposedly never happened, was apparently brought in to be one of these grown-ups. But she appears to have struggled with what Anne McElvoy describes in the Standard as ‘a laddish, “don’t give a f***” culture’ among staffers still loyal to her predecessor.
If this description is accurate, it exemplifies a common pattern in many groups, organisations and even families. It’s accepted that boys will be boys, or ‘lads’, but women are expected to be grown-ups, reining in men’s bad behaviour and imposing order on their chaos. ‘Men are children, women are grown-ups’ is such a mainstream idea, it served as the premise for one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Men Behaving Badly. And though I don’t dispute that it’s insulting to men, it also creates problems for women, precisely because men are not in fact children, and they often resent being bossed around by women. Managing this contradiction is a difficult balancing act. I once suggested that the Tories’ ideal woman would be Mary Poppins, a nanny whose magic powers allow her to control her charges without appearing too nannyish.
The two women who have led the Conservative party in reality were both quite nannyish, and both of them were resented for it. But they were, incontrovertibly, grown-ups. They did not get into ‘scrapes’; they were not described as ‘shambolic’; they did not appear in public with uncombed hair. They were, as they had to be, serious, disciplined and hard-working. The same could be said of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. No female politician could adopt the persona of an overgrown schoolgirl and be indulged by her party, or the media, or the public.
Another reason why men like Boris Johnson can get away with it is our willingness to see feckless or chaotic men as clever or even brilliant, whereas competent and conscientious women are dismissed as pedestrian plodders. This also has a ‘schoolboy’ connection. When people say of Johnson that he ‘isn’t interested in details’, I’m reminded of an educational theory that was popular when I was young. If girls did well in school, that was not because they were intellectually gifted but because they were good at detail, dutifully memorising and reproducing what they’d been taught (in super-neat handwriting). Boys were lazier and more slapdash, but also more intelligent and less conventional in their thinking.
This was generally presented (and in some quarters still is) as a ‘natural’ sex-difference. But as the feminist scholar Mary Evans points out in her book about life in a 1950s girls’ grammar school, the education system actively cultivated it, in that the curriculum prescribed for girls placed great emphasis on tasks that required attention to detail. At Evans’s school, for instance, pupils spent a year of domestic science lessons smocking a pinafore by hand. She refers to this as ‘education in the thankless task’, arguing that its purpose was not to teach the specific skill of smocking, but rather to inculcate more general attitudes, including a high tolerance for work which demanded prolonged concentration but was also tedious, repetitious and low in status. Since that kind of work was what most girls would end up doing, both in their homes and (if they entered it) the workplace, the school was essentially preparing them for what it saw as the realities of female adult life.
Today there is less sex-differentiation in either education or the middle-class professions. Yet the belief still apparently persists that attention to detail is for women, or the lower-status men who are labelled nerds, geeks and wonks. Alpha-males like Boris Johnson not only don’t but shouldn’t have to waste their superior intelligence on minutiae. Johnson’s frequent holidays and his eagerness to delegate work to others suggest that he also subscribes to the old belief in the effortless superiority of white upper-class men: a gentleman should not be seen to try too hard. We might be tempted to blame this on his patrician education, but in fact the young Johnson’s belief in his own superiority was too much for even his housemaster at Eton, who told his father in a letter that ‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception’.
But in his later, political career Johnson has been able to use his ‘overgrown schoolboy’ persona to insulate him from the kind of criticism he received when he was actually at school. That’s not to say he avoids all criticism, but from his point of view it’s far better to be portrayed as impulsive, ‘shambolic’, a hapless fool or an attention-seeking clown (his recent ‘Peppa Pig’ speech to the CBI has been voted the year’s funniest moment by readers of the Beano) than to be held to account for more serious shortcomings like gross negligence, dishonesty and lack of integrity.
So I really don’t understand why even his critics in the media reproduce the image he has chosen to project by repeatedly using language that reinforces it. Not turning up to COBRA meetings in the middle of a pandemic isn’t like bunking off Latin; holding parties at your workplace during a lockdown when other people aren’t even allowed to visit their dying relatives is not like organising an illicit midnight feast. Stop indulging him–and distracting us–with these references to ‘scrapes’ and ‘jams’. Stop laughing at his stunts, or his ‘gaffes’; stop saying he needs some grown-ups around him. He’s not a naughty schoolboy, he’s the Prime Minister, FFS.