Story Time With Titania McGrath

Life in 2021 is a bit like the 17th century: plague sweeping the land and marauding Puritans destroying statues, except the Puritans had cooler hats. Much of what is sometimes called “The Great Awokening” discloses the same deeply Protestant tendency to be so anxious about the strength of a belief one must continually declaim it from the rooftops. And there is no better chronicler of this new religion—where what you do doesn’t matter so much as what you believe—than Titania McGrath, a radical intersectional feminist and slam poet who, perhaps fittingly, does not exist.

Titania is the work of British comedian Andrew Doyle, and represents the second time a Doyle creation has become more famous than its inventor. His first effort—better known in the UK than the US—was fake journalist Jonathan Pie. A political correspondent, Pie appears in videos where he rants and explodes in anger about the state of British politics; the videos are presented as though he were a real reporter speaking to camera before or after filming a regular news segment. Pie, however, was from the beginning played by an actor, Tom Walker. Walker is an individual with considerable comedic talent of his own, and his magnetic stage presence made the character into a YouTube and touring sensation. In the early days, Doyle would often appear as Pie’s understudy in Walker’s live performances without audiences appreciating the extent to which the two men collaborated.

Titania, by contrast, isn’t just made up out of whole cloth. She is an Extremely Online phenomenon possible only because Twitter exists, and makes no sense absent this most toxic and censorious of social media platforms. By way of background, Twitter has always had parody accounts, especially of politicians. There are fake Boris Johnsons, Theresa Mays, Jeremy Corbyns, Keir Starmers, and Donald Trumps. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris don’t yet have multiple fake homage/sendup accounts trailing them, they soon will.

Parody accounts so acutely constructed as to be indistinguishable from the real thing were one of the reasons Twitter developed its contentious “blue check” verification system. A few years ago, enterprising persons—most of them Brits—started taking parodies a step further. Their new method involved making mocking accounts that satirised a personality type rather than an identifiable public figure. Doyle has been clear that Titania McGrath is a composite, and does not take aim at a real individual. She was by no means the first, and the fact that Twitter as a corporate entity resents this sort of humour finished up enhancing her popularity.

For reasons that remain obscure (Twitter’s internal procedures are of quite outstanding opacity), the “type” accounts were (and are) nearly always banned. It’s significant, I think, that the comedienne behind one of the banned type accounts, “Godfrey Elfwick, designed Titania’s current Twitter profile picture. It almost seems as though there can be only one, with Twitter peremptorily decapitating any and all imitators. At time of writing, Titania has north of six-hundred-thousand followers and her two books have made Doyle a moderately wealthy man.

That those books (Woke: A Guide to Social Justice and My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism) are written entirely in character reflects Doyle’s original plan to keep his role in Titania’s output under wraps. “If people believed she was real,” he says, “the satirical impact would not be restricted to what Titania said, but how others reacted to her. Her tweets are designed to ridicule the excesses of the social justice left, but her interactions tend to expose the folly of those on the right who take her at face value and lose their temper.”

Titania’s anonymity did not last, however, and as someone who once engaged in a similar character-based attempt at literary pseudonymity when my first novel was published, I could have told Doyle this would happen. Hoaxes are almost inevitably discovered not at a time of the hoaxer’s choosing, and the people pranked don’t thank you for poo-footing them, either. A magazine uncovered Doyle’s role in Titania’s creation when his publisher was careless with lodging copyright notices at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair, and something Doyle thought was an amusing if somewhat trivial adjunct to his more conventional stand-up work and scriptwriting for Jonathan Pie proceeded to blow up all over him.

Titania, like most of the social justice left, is haute bourgeoisie. She lives in Kensington and her family has a country estate in the Cotswolds. Everything she wants (and she wants a lot) is paid for by the Bank of Mummy and Daddy. But, you understand, she is also a wretched victim. She spends her time on Twitter and at slam poetry events “punching up” at “male privilege” (even when the males in question are, among other things, homeless).

Her obvious wealth and cultural capital shocks Americans, but for Britons is part of the joke. One of the reasons Black Lives Matter face-planted so spectacularly this side of the pond is prosaically Marxian: in the UK, divisions at the population level with discriminatory implications have almost nothing to do with race and nearly everything to do with class. And when racism does emerge, it is entangled with socio-economic status. The most recent (and egregious) manifestation of racism in this country was directed at Jews, for example, who are white. It came from figures on the Labour left, and it has roots in resentment of Jews for their status as a “model” or “market-dominant” minority.  

…there is no ridiculously fake, too-woke-to-function-idea you can invent as a joke that cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the real thing. Even worse, said too-woke-to-function-idea often exists, typically in article form but sometimes, too, at book length.

Just as Americans can utterly fail to grasp one of the most obvious and distinctive aspects of British society—and thus be milked for comedic value—the reverse also obtains. Doyle, wearing his Titania mask, gets this. “Taking a walk around my family’s estate today,” she tweeted at one point, “I am harshly reminded how privileged white people are. When I inherit this land, I will make damn sure I employ only people of colour to maintain it.” Brits, reading that, get an image of a posh bird who’s a bit clueless. Americans, by contrast, see a Southern Belle outside a Georgian “Big House” fronted with marble columns while slaves pick cotton in the background.

Most of the time, however, Titania’s “joke” turns on what has become an iron law. That is, there is no ridiculously fake, too-woke-to-function-idea you can invent as a joke that cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the real thing. Even worse, said too-woke-to-function-idea often exists, typically in article form but sometimes, too, at book length.

In preparation for writing this piece, I read My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism. And I admit—when “Titania McGrath” quoted from various named works—I assumed Doyle was having a laugh and both books and authors were about as genuine as a pile of three-dollar bills. Until, on a whim, I started looking up titles in Waterstones, Blackwell’s, and on Amazon. There, I discovered that Antiracist Baby, Feminist Baby, C is for Consent, and The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks are all real. Meanwhile, the cover of Titania’s First Little Book of Intersectional Activism spoofs Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Go on, take a look. You know you want to.

“And now, in spite of the patriarchal forces that would see me vanquished,” Titania explains, she has followed in their footsteps. “Needless to say, my book is even better. In a series of groundbreaking and poignant chapters, I shall take you on a journey with the most inspiring individuals in history, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Stalin.”

Doyle’s profit on his bestsellers, once outed as Titania, was little short of venomous. “The extent of the abuse was often unfathomable, and some even went so far as to send direct threats of violence,” he says. He has nonetheless been honest in multiple interviews that his Titania-based paycheque eases the pain.

Apart from abuse, comics he’d known and venues he’d performed in for decades variously cold-shouldered him, sacked him, attacked him in the press, trolled him on social media, or accused him of taking Russian “dark money.” He also lost most of his friends, something that may seem passing strange to Law & Liberty readers but makes sense once one knows Doyle has always been left-leaning and until recently never moved in Conservative (or conservative) social circles. As late as 2017, he voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Lefties drop people like hot rocks based on political disagreement. Doyle, perhaps naïvely, was unaware of this.  

There’s a tendency, these days, to recast social media trolling and pile-ons as the justified rage of the disenfranchised and voiceless, a noble kickback against power. If nothing else, Doyle’s elaborate and beautifully executed joke/hoax suggests that people who engage in this sort of behaviour are moral dwarfs, the type my father used to describe as “of bad character,” Whether they are victims or not is neither here nor there. After I’d finished First Little Book, I remember thinking that telling a woman who’s suffered domestic abuse that she should “suck your ladycock” does not make you Rosa Parks. This happened (repeatedly) to J. K. Rowling when the transcult took a set against her.

And this is going on, of course, in the midst of a pandemic. Andrew Doyle is genuinely keeping us amused in plague time. He does have competition, but mainly from Boris Johnson. Of all the politicians to issue a stay-at-home order, it had to be the least serious man the UK’s political system has produced in recent decades. It’s like being conscripted by Groucho Marx. You half expect to hear a ba-dum-tss at the end of each sentence.