“Who does he think he is?” I heard a commuter grumble, as she stared, aghast, at yet another headline about Boris Johnson. An understandable response, but not the right question. The issue isn’t who Johnson thinks he is, but what he is. Boris Johnson is a fictional character.
Johnson is a character sketch: a dramatic approach to human personality in which the subject, although presented to us as an individual person, must also stand for a social, moral, or psychological category. The individual is a type.
The character sketch is what allows me to say that Jane Austen’s Marianne Dashwood is a fantastically realized literary character with great depth, interiority and psychologized individuality AND that my eldest daughter is “a total Marianne Dashwood.” (She is, by the way. When I told her we were moving last year, she actually hugged all of the trees goodbye.) That is, Marianne Dashwood is a type, a type to which my daughter belongs. Beloved characters like Marianne Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennet succeed in being both singular and typical; they are recognizable because of this duality, which allows them to be both memorable and recognizable. In this sense, character is a brand. Or, to use another term popular with students, the most beloved characters are the most “relatable.” Without this dual quality, this shared individualism, the character cannot come to life; she remains dead on the page.
This quality is what allows a character to step out of her fiction and into other stories. It is what lets Lizzy Bennet become Bridget Jones. It is how unauthorized sequels, series, fan fiction, and adaptations are born. It is how characters become public property. We love them because we know them; we know them because they are both utterly themselves and utterly recognizable as social types. Ultimately, the duality of a character sketch gives fictional characters flesh; it makes them real.
But there is a flipside to the credibility, the realness, with which we endow fictional characters. And this is the license granted to so-called real characters, the entertainment value that excuses immorality, buffoonery, incompetence in our political characters—from Boris Johnson to Donald Trump.
The early characters that made claims to individualism often did so in forms that asserted their authenticity. In 1740 Pamela was presented to readers as an edited edition of real letters, not as Samuel Richardson’s first novel. In 1719, the life and strange adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published as if “written by himself” rather than by Daniel Defoe. Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel, the tragic tale of Oroonoko, was published not as a fiction, but as a “true history.” The twenty-first century has brought us alternative facts and scripted reality. The difference is that in the long eighteenth century, fiction-writers were claiming the legitimacy of news for their novels in order to imbue their fictions with credibility, with depth. Now, we have news-makers as entertainment, looking for novelty. From Strictly Come Dancing to Have I Got News For You, we are encouraged to see our politicians as light entertainment.
Enter Boris Johnson, whose continuing political relevance and popularity can only be understood once we accept that he is not a real person, but a beloved fictional character.
Johnson performs the character of the upper-class twit. This character is as dangerous as he is disarming. We know the upper-class twit through a series of popular characters, from P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster to Blackadder’s Prince Regent (not coincidentally both realized in popular culture by Hugh Laurie). The twit presents himself as a hapless victim and, therefore, someone to be pitied rather than feared or hated. He has status, but he appears too incompetent to employ it to oppress others. Jeeves manages Wooster; Laurie’s Prince Regent is an idiot. This character encourages us to laugh at rather than with him. We enjoy watching the upper-class twit make an ass of himself; it gives us a sense of superiority over the character whose class status outranks that of the implied bourgeois viewer.
But the upper-class twit is not a devastating attack on privilege. He is a weapon deployed to maintain that privilege. The normal rules of engagement do not apply to the upper-class twit. His buffoonery is not just accepted but expected; it is part of his charm. This emotional investment in the character—we love him not despite, but because of his incompetence—has been dextrously exploited by Johnson. His media stunts, such as his zip wire fiasco, his hair, his gaffes, and especially his appearances on panel shows like Have I Got News For You all exaggerate his character. He uses the media to exploit the paradoxes of character. He appears both bumbling and unflappable, non-threatening yet newsworthy.
The brilliance of the Johnsonian twit is that his performative incompetence disarms both envy and criticism. The feeling of superiority that he engenders (as we watch him dangling on a zip line, as he says impossibly stupid things) protects him from actual critique. He seems beneath our notice at the very moment our attention is completely fixated on him. We can’t look away, but he doesn’t deserve our attention. His status, his power, is never challenged, in part because those watching assume he will crash and burn on his own: that he never does should remind us that his twittishness is performative. The danger of character is that the hallmarks that make it recognizable also make it imitable: it can be put on for effect. So in the eighteenth-century, moralists and cynics responded to the run-away success of Pamela, the supposedly true story of a girl whose incorruptible virtue paved the way for her advancement from servant to mistress, with parodies and imitations. Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741) and Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela (1741) suggested that Pamela’s virtue was not innate, but a performance designed to achieve status and power. We would do well to remember this now, and to recognize that incompetence can also be feigned and can be a successful tactic in obtaining and maintaining power.
The twit’s stunts are assertions of power. Only a man supremely confident of his status can afford to look foolish. The twit can laugh at himself, because he knows laughter cannot hurt him. By joining in and directing the laughter directed at him, the twit always gets the last laugh. He cannot be shamed out his position, he cannot be seriously challenged, he cannot but be admired.
So where does this leave us? If the twit’s armor is so impenetrable, how do we challenge him? The twit, in his twittishness, is perfect. The chink in the armor is the gap between seeming and being: in the fact of its performability, rather than the performance itself. Boris Johnson may (technically) be a real person, but that does not mean he is not performing a character: we do not have to believe in him.
Interestingly, Fielding, who was so convinced of the fictional Pamela’s real hypocrisy, was equally convinced by his rival Colley Cibber’s performance of foolishness in his autobiography, published in the same year as Pamela. Cibber, like Johnson, performed the upper-class twit as a technique to retain power. Fielding thought both the fictional Pamela and the real Colley Cibber were dangerous characters, but he missed the connection between them. He feared Pamela because he believed she taught readers how to fake goodness. He hated Cibber because he believed that Cibber was powerful despite appearing foolish; he should have hated Cibber for being powerful by faking foolishness.
Colley Cibber ruled the English stage for over thirty years. If we want to avoid a similar fate with the “total Colley Cibber” of the present moment, we need to challenge Johnson’s adopted character and offer a Shamela-like reading of his political stunts. Rather than write commentaries on Boris Johnson’s new haircut, we must expose the hypocrisy of his pretended incompetence. Rather than laugh with or at Johnson’s stunts and power stances, we need to remind ourselves and others that Johnson is only acting. It takes brains to create and maintain a character sketch as successful and long-lasting as “Boris Johnson.” It’s time to force Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to take center stage.
Elaine McGirr is a Reader in Theatre and Performance Histories at the University of Bristol. She works on celebrity, gender and performances on-stage and off. Her books, Eighteenth-Century Characters and Partial Histories: a Reappraisal of Colley Cibber, are both available from Palgrave. You can find her on Twitter @emmcgirr.