Vernon's book cover. Photo: Hodder and Stoughton.
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Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist attacks cartoonish, bra-burning caricatures of feminism

Feminists: it’s OK to be hot. But you knew that already, right? 

Last week, I found myself shrinking uncomfortably in my chair as women around me chanted: “I AM HOT”.  I was at the Grazia launch party for Hot Feminist, a book authored by their star columnist Polly Vernon. There was hair-braiding, and questions from the audience about why “women attack other women more than men do”. Vernon was joined by Telegraph journalist Bryony Gordon, who remarked at one point that once the book was released, “I thought the feminists would come and attack you for liking the way you look”.

Both the event, and the book itself, have left me feeling confused. Because back in the Nineties, Naomi Wolf demanded from the patriarchy “the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished”. And, now, a mere twenty years later, Vernon is begging the same of feminists, through a book her publishers call a “brave new perspective on feminism” which dismisses the “rules on ‘good’ feminism”. No more bra burning! No more body hair! Let us have pink back!

Are you confused yet? Did you misplace your rulebook? Because I, for one, never got the memo. I’ve never thought very hard about shaving, or about wearing high heels. I don’t think anyone should be forced to wear them, but then I don’t think anyone should be forced not to, either. The collective reaction to the book among women I know was nonplussed: did we miss some feminist-wide missive about body hair? Are there anti-hotness rules we don’t know about?

Vernon clearly did receive the memo, or thinks she did. She starts the book by outlining her passions for fashion and beauty, then remarks:

I know this isn’t strictly in the rules. Classic feminism is a bit ‘whoa’ about all of the above. A bit ‘bleurgh’, and ‘nah’, and ‘tut’ and ‘srsly?’ about looks-oriented thinking.

As you might have guessed, those quotes aren't attributed to anyone. From here on out, the book continues on this theme: it takes on a cartoonish, unattributed, bra-burning caricature of feminism and sets Vernon’s (sometimes silly, but largely commonsensical) points at odds with it. 

The book suffers, too, from inconsistencies in its argument. Vernon is, by her own account, trying to clear out the judginess from feminism and society; to remove the “fear of getting it wrong”. Yet she can’t seem to resist jumping on actions she doesn’t deem feminist or acceptable. Selfies, for example, are bad: “only sadness and madness can possibly result”, she remarks. In fact, almost every other chapter is laid out as a set of rules on fashion, or on what to call your partner (Vernon calls hers the “man in my flat”).

She devotes several pages to poking holes in “whataboutery”, whereby people lambast your focus on Page 3 or rape culture on the basis that people are having a terrible time in Syria, or that wars exist. Yet when I saw her speak, she criticised the Everyday Sexism project for carping on about an issue she sees as unimportant – she’s a fan of catcalling, as long as the man doing it is attractive enough. Then, in the book, she frames the No More Page 3 campaign as a bit silly, compared to her own feminist priorities. Oh, the irony. 

At times, lending an ear to Vernon’s complaints feels charitable, a like nodding along while someone lectures you about men’s rights or the economic struggle of very rich people. Vernon is not a particularly oppressed person: she is a woman with the body, money and choices to conform to a certain stereotype of female appearance, and at some points in her life has felt victimised for it.

To discount her argument on the basis that, for example, feminism’s white privilege is a more pressing problem, would be to fall into the trap of “whataboutery”. I’m happy to believe there are those out there who strongly relate to what Vernon says about feminism’s apparently anti-hot agenda. But the book seems aimed at a very niche group who feel victimised by outdated feminist ideas which are no longer widespread, if they ever were in the first place. 

Beyond that, the book is harmless, and occasionally funny and clever. A section on WAGs, for example, makes the good point that being interested in a group of women for their fashion and lifestyle is no less silly than watching men kicking a ball around. Vernon has a no-nonsense approach to abortion and governmental attempts to limit it, and could effectively take on politicians on issues like this with her sharp tongue.

Yet the endless jibes at what Vernon calls “trad” or “classic” feminism left me exhausted. Her stance implies that we’ll forever ping-pong between Wolfs and Vernons, without ever settling on the idea that people can dress and be a feminist in whichever way they choose.  Vernon and I, and, I think, most feminists, do agree on this – but you don’t sell books by agreeing with people, so it was necessary for Vernon conjure up a snaggle-toothed feminist demon as her opponent.

As we all know by now, there are as many versions of feminism as there are women. But if this is Vernon’s broader point, then she contradicts it in her very form, by calling what would be better written as a straight memoir “Hot Feminist”, a title which squashes a large, amorphous idea about equality into stilettos, and then markets it. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Photo: Getty
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Slowly but surely, the patriotism question is making its way into Labour

John Denham observes a strange but happy outbreak at Labour party conference.

It’s a measure of Labour’s distress that it managed to settle the leadership while resolving so few of the challenges it faces. Over the past two years, the party’s electoral base has been torn apart by identity politics. Huge numbers of Scottish Labour voters abandoned party loyalty to vote for separation and then to dump the party itself. In England, voters feared SNP support for a minority Labour government; many others turned to Ukip. In the final blow, millions of former Labour voters, particularly those who felt mostly sharply English, backed Brexit. Many of the party’s MPs wonder how many will ever be coming back.

Faced with this tsunami of political rejection, the issue was simply airbrushed out of the leadership campaigns. Over four months neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Owen Smith even acknowledged, let alone addressed, the potent power of identity. Both cleaved to the belief that the complex weave of hope, fear, powerlessness, aspiration, community and security that are bound up in our sense of ‘who we are’ could all be stilled by the promise of ‘anti-austerity’.

One of the left’s less appealing habits is believing that it understands what voters really want better than voters do themselves. (You tell me you are worried about how quickly migration is changing your community, I tell you’re really worried about spending cuts).  Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that “we are not concerned about numbers” is probably enough to lose Labour the 2020 election on its own. No comprise here with voters on the issue that has dominated public concern for 15 years. To be fair, Owen Smith never offered a radically different perspective. It was never part of the debate.

Yet reality has a fortunate habit of intruding into the debate. In early, sometimes stumbling ways, identity politics is beginning to concern people right across the party. At Liverpool, most of the think-tanks held meetings addressing national identity in England, Scotland and the Union. Most attracted healthy audiences who, by and large, did not think identity was the property of the far right. (Declaration of interest: I was a speaker at some of these). Policy Network, IPPR, LabourList and the Fabians were amongst those taking the debate forward. Much of the New Statesman’s “New Times” edition is preoccupied with the same issues. Newer organisations from different parts of the party are engaging. The Red Shift group of Liam Byrne, Shabana Mahmood and Nic Dakin called for an explicitly English Socialism. Veteran Brexiteer John Mills, is supporting a new Labour Future organisation. Both are exploring how radical national policy and national identity fit together.

More surprising was the overt insertion of patriotic themes into the speeches of Corbyn’s front bench and the leadership itself. Military service sits as easily with the socialism of Clive Lewis as it does with Dan Jarvis. Rebecca Long-Bailey told the conference  Patriotism is not just about waving a flag during the World Cup. It is a real, life-long commitment to the people around you….When you pay your taxes, you are investing in the British people..This commitment to British people should be woven into every aspect of the British economy,

This is a potentially powerful and unifying theme for Labour. National identity and patriotism may still be a minority interest, yet it attracts people from all the party’s wings.  Tristram Hunt, Lisa Nandy, Owen Jones and some of Corbyn’s key supporters are all engaged.

These are early days. National identity was hardly the dominant issue of the conference, let alone Momentum’s parallel event. Too often the tone is narrow and defensive, as though people on the left don’t have identities but we need to understand those who do. There’s a temptation to believe that Labour simply needs some St George flags to unveil on council estates and put away elsewhere. At its best, progressive patriotism can uniting disparate interests and communities. It opens up conversations with people who would reject a political label. It can be a foundation for holding the powerful to account.

In his speech, John McDonnell praised Christians on the Left for promoting the hashtag “patriots pay their taxes”; a message that was reinforced in Corbyn’s own speech: “there is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes”.  As Hillary Clinton exposed this week, patriotism can separate those who accept their obligations to a wider society, and those who think it is clever to avoid them. In English radical history, the notion of the common weal held that the measure of the powerful was how well they looked after the commons. It has a powerful resonance today and Labour needs to mine it more.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University