Monday, 13 April 2015

Cut Boris Johnson's Hair

By Jonas Berthod (with help from Andrew Brash)

One of Boris Johnson's most deceiving political moves resides in plain sight: it is his hair.

Presented to the public like a pledge of friendliness and good-heartedness, his dishevelled hair—that he half-jokingly assures cutting himself 'with nail scissors'—is a constant source of public and media obsession (the thatch extraordinaire even earned its own Twitter handle, @Boris_Hair).

Perhaps Johnson isn't unlike Samson, his strength residing in his hair. (On a side note, the mayor seems to share Samson's unabashed interest in women.) I wonder if is is the case of all politicians, considering all that talk around Cameron's bald patch and Osborne's new haircut.

In any case, what Johnson really wants is for people to focus on his logo-like hair extravaganza. It is just one facet of 'Brand Boris', a persona he reportedly started developing at Oxford University. His disorderly look is a careful construct, shaped with wax, ruffled before rushing on stage, rumpled as he gets on TV sets.

That the seemingly innocuous tuffet is in fact nothing more than a PR toupee should come as no surprise. After all, in our times of constant exposure, there are not many politicians who would dare speaking a word—let alone grow a moustache—without consulting at least their press secretary. And English hair politics it is nothing new: they have a precedent with the Roundheads of the English Civil War.

What is perhaps more revealing of our times of constant PC is the strategy Johnson decides to embrace. By appearing bumbling, he is insinuating that he is too busy to take care of his look: he has a city to run, after all, and the tousled do turns into a proof of his efficiency.

Simultaneously, with his forwardness, Johnson is distancing himself from the politicians of the establishment, whose Photoshopped appearance and polished stances are now perceived as untrustworthy.

The straight-talking, normal-acting middle class white man character is also embraced by Nigel Farage: his sempiternal pint is to be taken as a token for his supposed normality, breaking away from the accepted image of the well-meaning politician, who neither drinks nor smokes. (Take that, NHS: the politician who had a rant about 'HIV tourists' bases his political campaign on promoting a lifestyle that costs you billions.)

Perhaps this approach is modelled after Jeremy Clarkson, who benefits from massive popularity. After all, not that many public figures can boast as supporters the (albeit shortly) hunger-striking daughter of a Prime Minister. His personality perhaps appeals to the public because of a continuous refusal to conform to political correctness. And when he retreats behind humour and temper to justify actions which would be inexcusable for any other public figure, he might only be putting forward the fact that he is just 'a normal person' prone to making mistakes—just like his audience is made of 'normal', 'average' people who also make mistakes, drink pints and have bad hair days.

Similarly, by acting a buffoon, Johnson is coming across as a friendly human—perhaps even the kind one would enjoy as having as neighbour. In any case, he seems charmingly harmless: his apparent detachment from the establishment and rapprochement with figures of 'normalcy' is reassuring to the 'normal' voter.

Another interesting aspect about Johnson's approach is how he manages to turn the usually bland PR manoeuvre into a joke—which simultaneously allows him to take distance from it, thus taking ownership of the usually perilous operation. This is evident not only with his look, but also in his interviews and speeches. For example, when asked by Guardian journalist Elizabeth Day whether he cried easily, Johnson cleverly juxtaposed his forced exposition with the neutralisation of the interviewer's agenda—all thanks to irony:

“Sorry, should I be more emotional?” He calls out to his press secretary on the other side of the room. “Camilla, is it good to be more of a blubber or less of a blubber? What are the readers of the Observer going to want?”

However, behind the peacock-like public persona hides a charged agenda. In that sense, Johnson uses his hair like a screen masking his ambitions, a tactic he constantly comes back to—with his ministerial ambitions, for example, or when he masquerades his real interests behind seemingly patriotic public positions.

In a sense, Boris Johnson has perfectly understood how our 140 characters long approach of understanding the world works. By using his hair as a shortcut for his persona, he takes advantage of the media and the public's little interest in the subtlety of the world, giving them panem et circenses instead.

Jonas Berthod is a designer and researcher working between London and Switzerland. He runs an independent practice dealing with his overlapping interests in design, research and teaching. He is a lecturer in Critical History of Design at ECAL, Lausanne.


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