Boris Johnson, the man who will succeed Theresa May as U.K. prime minister, likes to enter a room as if he were a substitute high-school math teacher — running late, socks inside out, shirt untucked and stained. His platinum-blond bowl cut is famously always mussed, as if he’s been swept up in the wind like Dilbert by way of Mary Poppins.
Now here’s a fun exercise: Imagine a female politician who gets to be a slob. A woman who walks into a hearing with runs in her stockings or lipstick on her teeth. It’s very hard to do; if there has ever been a truly slovenly, sloppy, shambolic female elected official, I can’t think of her.
Johnson’s personal and professional lives are as messy as his look, described by one person on Twitter as “a mop that’s been rammed through a ham.” He has fathered several children out of wedlock, the products of a few affairs; he was fired as a journalist for lying; he has made numerous racist comments about foreign leaders and countries. Only in June the police were called to the home he shared with his girlfriend, “Apples,” when neighbors heard a violent disturbance. Then there’s the historic shitshow that is Brexit, which he has gleefully championed.
And yet Johnson has somehow parlayed his buffoonery into pseudo-populist appeal. Despite having the middle name “de Pfeffel” and having studied the classics at Balliol College, Johnson has been able to style himself and his Tory Party as the champions of regular Englishmen, even while being as entrenched as anyone in the country’s ruling elite. His clownish tendencies then become very calculated, or what Vanessa Friedman calls “badges of credibility that bridged the class gap.” His hair isn’t ruffled; it’s going rogue (there are rumors he messes it up on purpose).
Women simply aren’t allowed the same freedom of self-determination. A female politician would be laughed out of Parliament for exhibiting the qualities that some deem relatable or eccentric in Johnson. Clothing and appearance are considered in the realm of the personal, the quasi-domestic, and women are subject to frustratingly narrow aesthetic boundaries as opposed to their male counterparts (is there any stronger evidence of this than Donald Trump’s presidency?). The standard for how women look and act is so much higher even to be taken seriously in the political arena, let alone to make wacky choices once they get there. Hillary Clinton literally had to adopt the pantsuit as the symbol of her presidential campaign.
Even self-styled populist women, pseudo and genuine alike, don’t get to strategically dress down. Johnson’s predecessor, May, was mocked for her dowdiness but never had a hair out of place. Recall Sarah Palin’s careful Bump-It bouffant. Elizabeth Warren has her practical haircut and tasteful, academic glasses. Marianne Williamson, who seems as though she should be wearing caftans and going barefoot, wears designer suits. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has always been immaculately comported, even when she was running from her bartending shifts to campaign events pre-election. Or she’s too put together in her designer coat. The expectation is that women candidates will look like what we want them to look like, and if they don’t, it’s not because it’s deliberate. She’s made a mistake.
If the newest leaders of the U.S. and the U.K. are any indication, slovenly buffoonery is a new hallmark of power. If we, as a country, can’t bring ourselves to elect a competent and put-together woman, will we ever be able to choose one who looks like shit?