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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.