Modern Britain deserves a more representative model of cleverness
Stephen Fry is a figure not without controversy. Having risen to fame as one of the funniest Brits to grace our screens in the 1980s, he’s had a long and happy career presenting TV shows, writing books, and generally seeming like a decent chap. He’s been an important figure in raising awareness of mental ill-health, and a stalwart champion of LGBT rights. He has however had some rather troubling things to say about women and sex, trigger warnings, and most recently historic abuse cases. It’s hard to reconcile these views with his ‘national treasure’ status, and with the witty, supportive, and insightful persona he otherwise puts across.
But his individual views aren’t really what I want to write about. They’re not the real reason I’m disappointed by him. I have grown used to public figures saying questionable, ill-informed, or downright unpleasant things (we all know about the idea of and probably have our own ‘problematic fave’); it has become part of modern life to accept this new way of discovering the failings of our heroes. It’s upsetting and damaging when people in the public eye disseminate these opinions. But my real problem isn’t exactly with Fry himself, more with the ‘idea’ of Fry.
I, like many people my age, have been watching Fry on TV my whole life. As a child I used to love watching him save the day as Jeeves, then I discovered A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie, and who can say they haven’t watched hours of him keeping Alan Davies in check on QI? I’ve read his autobiography (admittedly only the first one) and several of his novels, all of which I’ve enjoyed. He has, arguably, earned his national treasure status. But what is it he’s treasured for? Being funny? Partly, yes. But ultimately he is treasured for ‘being clever’. Wherever he goes he is introduced as ‘clever, ‘intelligent’ or ‘brainy’.
So why does this bother me? The issue lies in the image of ‘cleverness’ that Fry propagates. He is an old, tweedy white man, whose knowledge of the English language, Greek mythology, and history has allowed him to settle perfectly into the classic image of a ‘clever person’ in the UK. He is the go-to modern definition of a public intellectual, and yet he looks, sounds, and behaves just like every other one we’ve ever had. He may have taken an unconventional route to get there (having been convicted of credit card fraud), but he still went to the University of Cambridge, and he continues to get-by on the kind of Oxbridge caricatures most people leave behind at undergrad.
This is not to say that he doesn’t bring a lot to the table. I don’t want to get into the question of whether he really is ‘that clever’. Because that’s not the point. The point is that in the 21st century we deserve someone better than Fry to stand for ‘cleverness’ in the public eye. Why should our popular ideal of intelligence be one equally recognisable to the Victorians as it is to us today? Children from all backgrounds deserve to see an image of intelligence that reflects them. As we fight for wider access to higher education in general, and elite institutions in particular, can we really be satisfied by an image of intellect which embodies all the stereotypes we are seeking to break through? Fry’s position as brain of Britain also makes it more galling when he uses his platform to spread damaging ideas; an endorsement from him gives these ways of thinking an undeserved credence.
So Stephen Fry himself doesn’t really disappoint me, even though his actions might. What really disappoints me is the fact that we still can’t move beyond an idea of intelligence that is old, white, Oxbridge educated and male. We should champion new figures who represent our true diversity, and who better fit the meritocratic ideals of our time (my vote is for Maggie Aderin-Pocock). Great though Fry sometimes is, it’s time to put aside tweed jackets and Greek mythology as our markers of intellect – there’ so much more out there, and we’re missing out if we don’t find it.