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 was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric in 2014-16.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.