A Few Thoughts On…Boris Johnson, the LRB and Sexism


There is an estimated 3,750,000 women living in London, a city under the mayoral leadership of a man who has recently been accused of flagrant sexism. Boris Johnson made the headlines again after saying that the rise in Malaysian women attending university was due to their desire to find a husband. While the comment has since been relegated as a misjudged joke Boris is yet to apologise, deeming the ensuing charges of sexism “utterly ludicrous and infuriating”. The truth is that Boris’ derisory wisecrack is indicative of more than the mayor’s poor sense of judgement and buffoonish posturing; it is a sign of Boris’ antediluvian views of women and their place in society.

City Hall source, quoted in The Daily Telegraph, attempted to dismiss the comment as “off the cuff” and “clearly intended as a joke” which neither justifies nor pardons it. In fact it does the opposite, exposing the mayor of one of the leading cities in the world as a mumbling misogynist with a proclivity to expectorate offensive nonsense. Insidiously, the problem with Boris’ gaffe is that this sort of attitude toward women remains part of the largely accepted landscape of our everyday lives. While feminism has undoubtedly facilitated considerable gains for women’s rights over the last century, in reality the struggle against individual and institutional sexism continues.

A perfect example of the latter emerged recently when the illustrious London Review of Books (LRB) declared it was having difficulty finding women reviewers. This is both surprising and entirely implausible, namely because we live in an age when women’s writing is as ubiquitous and abundant as men’s – except apparently in the LRB. Even more surprising are the statistics, which surfaced thanks to the latest VIDA report and Kathryn Heyman’s epistolary exchange with the paper’s staff.

It is hard to believe that 74 per cent of the LRB’s reviews are dedicated to books by men, even harder to understand why 78 per cent of them are written by men too. There is no viable excuse for this. NONE. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the publication is keeping schtum, failing to coherently address either the problem or the critics. Deborah Friedell’s attempt to placate the online outrage – published in full on the Salon web site – evades the issue in its entirety, emphasising instead the LRB’s “painstaking editing” processes and her own academic credentials. Baffling.

This is unquestionably the time for the paper’s long-time editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, to step in and initiate change. Or at least to try to explain her consummately biased editorial policy; and the reported “efforts” that have been undertaken to rectify this mind-cripplingly disproportionate gender ratio inherent in the LRB’s practices. Sadly, however, the “presiding genius” at the helm of one of the most influential literary publications remains resolutely taciturn.

Wilmers’ ostensible lack of concern about the gender inequality under her famously vigilante editorship is something of a puzzle; her recent remarks stating that women have “a tendency to be either a bit jargony, or a bit breathless” in their wiring even more so. It is difficult to understand why as a woman of considerable intelligence, standing and power she would propagate such spumous mullock. Because not only does it betray a certain sense of ignorance of the talent pool that’s out there, it also undermines and vitiates the feminist legacy.

Both Boris’ putatively innocent outburst and the LRB’s inherently discriminatory editorial policy highlight the fact that sexism and gender inequality remain firmly in place and largely in the open. Worse still is the fact that we live in a more liberal and conscientiously broad-minded society than any of our predecessors AND yet continue to face the same old social prejudices and gender biases…