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31 January 2019

Why I created the parody Twitter account Bougie London Literary Woman

When my friend and I started a Twitter account called Bougie London Literary Woman one cold Sunday in November, I underestimated how far our joke would travel.

By Imogen West-Knights

One Sunday night a few months ago, my friend and I started a Twitter account called Bougie London Literary Woman. We’d been thinking about doing it on and off for a while, but November was cold and boring enough to actually spur us into action – plus I was going over for dinner anyway. My friend roasts a chicken every Sunday for her housemates because she’s a mean cook and also a saint.

I’d been living abroad, but before that my friend and I used to spend our evenings staying up too late drinking tea, and inventing characters for fun. It’s difficult to explain why we do this, but we do. I guess that’s the nature of close friendship: you do odd things together. One such character was born out of the question: “What if the essence of the band Belle and Sebastian was incarnated into male human form, and what would it be like if that man was your boyfriend?” The answer is: awful, in short. He would do things like turn up an hour late to dinner with your parents because he was upset about seeing a dead bird, or claim to be learning Catalan. Bougie London Literary Woman, or Clarissa as she was originally called, was this character’s best friend, a woman on whom he had an extremely obvious crush that made you, as his girlfriend, uncomfortable.

The more we spoke about her the more she took on a life of her own, and we realised that she was embodying a particular way of talking and section of interests, seen particularly widely on Twitter, that we began to refer to as that of a bougie London literary woman. She was inspired in part by our own more pretentious instincts, and in part by whatever was culturally trendy in the London literary world at the time. And so it made us think that other people had surely recognised these trends, too, and would find a Twitter account sending them up funny.

So that Sunday we looked through some Vanessa Bell paintings to pick a header photo, put together a bio for her while the food was in the oven, followed a load of literary-type people more or less at random, and posted a handful of tweets. Things like, “Leonora Carrington, a bit of long overdue piano practice and a tarot reading: Sunday, I adore you”, and “Thrilled with a little purchase I’ve just made for a special one’s birthday: something jewelled and precious, soon to wrapped in this week’s copy of the TLS (in which I have a piece on wild swimming!)”. Then we sat down to eat, assuming that we’d had our fun, and that nobody would even look at it.

The following morning, when I blearily stopped my phone alarm and saw a flood of notifications from Twitter, I had the first inkling that we might have underestimated things. Over the next few days and weeks, interest in the account snowballed, partly because people did find it funny, but almost more so because people wanted to work out who was running it. I have my own Twitter account with a modest following, but was not prepared for the level of attention BLLW (the full name is a bit of a mouthful) received. Being a young freelance journalist is excellent training in expecting people to pay little attention to you. My friend was also unprepared, slipping off to the toilets at her publishing job to collude with me on draft tweets and hyperventilate a little, in the time-honoured tradition of work toilet visits.

We also had no idea just how many people would identify with this persona. We knew that there were shades of ourselves in it, and shades of people we knew, but this turned out to be true for thousands of other people, too.

After the first week I tried to explain that I had started a viral Twitter account to my family, who reacted very much like that meme of the two lizards that look like grandparents who love you but don’t really understand what you’re on about. My dad in particular, like many fathers of millennials before him, said that it looked fun but he didn’t understand how I make money from it, at which I laughed the rueful laugh of many millennials before me.

But it did beg the question, what was the point of BLLW? It wasn’t something we thought about much before making the account. It would have been ridiculous then to have serious discussions about what we hoped to achieve by posting a few daft tweets we thought would probably sink without trace. Our “intention”, to get a bit pompous about it, was really just to make people laugh, and to poke some fun at ourselves and our social circle. And if other people saw themselves in her, and laughed at themselves too, then great.

It was fun, there’s no doubt about that. I called my friend in excitement and disbelief one night about the reaction, and she said, jokingly, “I feel like The Monkees!” Then there was a pause and she said quietly, more to herself than to me, “Why didn’t I just say The Beatles?” But actually, I reckon The Monkees is about right: it felt like being famous but in a goofy, second-or-even-third-tier, novelty pop song sort of way. With all due respect to The Monkees.

Aside from it being exciting to keep this thing going in secret, and to hear people refer to our private character out in the real world, the response to her online was fascinating to us. People recognised BLLW’s way of talking to the extent that they began to parody themselves in her voice. Overwhelmingly, these people were women. Being female on the internet, and being female in comedy spaces, is generally comparable to nosing into a church on holiday while there’s a mass on; the message tends to be: “yes, technically you are allowed to be here, but nobody wants to hear too much out of you and you aren’t going to feel welcome”. So it was nice, as two women, to have created something about women that other women found funny.

Then there was the less cosy, more sombrely intellectual side of the response: what is sometimes referred to on Twitter as The Discourse. It’s inevitable that if anything gets big enough online, people start to analyse it for deeper meaning. People began to speculate about the various possible “targets” of the satire. Were we making a point about class? About pleasure? About femininity, even? There was something extremely surreal in sitting at my desk in my dressing gown, trying to make myself work instead of watching yet more Gilmore Girls, and reading people online argue about the class-critical implications of some ultimately quite tame tweets about scented candles and coots. There’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about satirical intent, who is laughing at whom and why, although it wasn’t one we thought we were having when we started the account. Sure, though, class was on our minds; the clue was in the name. But we always thought of it as a gentle ribbing rather than some kind of online savaging of a slightly performative enjoyment of certain middle-class, high-cultural things.

And it’s a slightly performative enjoyment that is very easy and very popular to do on Twitter. We’re all doing it, and yes, especially those of us who are white and middle-class, and nobody really lives like that. We don’t swan from a long shakshuka brunch to a quiet perusal of a favourite chapbook by the river, and then a waft through a ceramics workshop: at least not all the time in the way social media allows us to suggest. Most of the time we have to do things like plough through emails, go to the post office, call our energy supplier, cut our toenails and stop compulsively watching the Gilmore girls and do some work, for the love of God.

But the problem is that you can’t tell people how to take things, and you especially can’t do it if you’re anonymous. How people reacted to BLLW being an anonymous account was where it was most interesting to me. You lose control over what things mean when they’re out in the world and being interpreted by whoever wants to look at them, and especially so if people don’t know where they’ve come from. We didn’t initially put our names to it when we started the account, simply because there was no reason to think anyone would care who we were. When we realised we’d created a mystery people wanted to solve, it seemed right to stay anonymous: partly because of my friend’s job, and partly because mysteries are fun. But this anonymity meant that we could have been quite literally anyone. I had a friend tell me at a party about a new Twitter profile that had been set up by a scorned ex-boyfriend to take his revenge on literary women he knew, and my heart flipped over when I realised that she was talking about our own account. Neither of us have any literary ex-girlfriends to scorn, for the record. Other people from various corners of Twitter even speculated that the account might be some kind of targeted bullying of a specific person they had in mind.

Fair enough, though. In the early days especially, I suppose we could well have been Dave So-and-So, some notorious misogynist and bitter internet troll. And it would have felt very icky for everyone who’d interacted with the account if it had come out that that is who we were. Or what if we had been big important editors at a publishing house; somebody’s boss, punching down? Or, like, Justin Lee Collins?

All this made some people self-conscious about how to engage with it. If the parody is affectionate, identifying yourself with it feels safe, but if it’s malicious, identifying yourself with it might end up making you look like the butt of a joke in the long run. And gender definitely came into it. It seemed important to us, right at the beginning, to say outright that we were not men, sneering at women on the internet.

I feel a pressure to have learned something deep from this experience, which sort of took over our lives for a few months. One big takeaway is that suddenly developing a Twitter addiction will drain your ability to engage with your real-life loved ones, and also your phone battery, very quickly. I think my boyfriend, in his heart of hearts, would probably like never to hear the words “Bougie London Literary Woman” again. Another is that both my friend and I are very bad liars who go pink-cheeked and sweaty at the prospect of secret keeping. But actually, I think it’s fine not to have some profound insight from running a viral comedy Twitter account. It’s probably not a good idea to take a joke too seriously, after all.