Wednesday 13 December 2017

'I was cyberbullied for being a 'bad' feminist'

Yesterday was International Women's Day, but after being attacked by her 'sisters', Polly Vernon remains wary of the way women are policing each other's thoughts

Abuse: Polly Vernon was called 'moronic' and 'stupid' on social media after she released a book called 'Hot Feminist'.
Abuse: Polly Vernon was called 'moronic' and 'stupid' on social media after she released a book called 'Hot Feminist'.
Chrissie Hynde was trolled on social media after her comments about sexual assaults went viral.
Free speech?: Feminist writer Germaine Greer was ‘noplatformed’ for expressing unpopular view.

Polly Vernon

International Women's Day was yesterday. We all joined in celebrating women's achievements, acknowledging our ongoing struggles, and grabbing the chance to express some general love and respect for the ladies!

I'm all for it - honestly I am. Only this weekend, I participated in a Women of the World event in Cambridge - it's just a shame that, right now, you also find me profoundly disillusioned by the modern feminist movement.

I never doubted feminism before. I grew up surrounded by women who might not have explicitly identified as feminists, but whose attitude of entitled empowerment left me in no doubt as to my gender's place on the planet.

Thatcher ruled Britain and Madonna ruled everything else that mattered. I grew older, fought personal battles along the gender line - one literal one, when I was attacked on a canal path as I walked home from the pub one night when I was 18.

I became a journalist, and started writing about many of the things women want to read about (fashion, sex, love, celebrity), railing against the cultural sexism that often declares these subjects lesser, more shallow, vacuous and daft than, oh, I don't know, football, for example.

Then, last year, I published a book about feminism - and everything changed. I wrote Hot Feminist for a lot of reasons; one of which was that I'd begun to get a sense that the online incarnation of feminism - that was expressed via social media and especially Twitter - was becoming dominated by one narrow, rather puritanical script.

I'd noticed that, once every few days, a new topic of discussion would blow up into a social media storm: men catcalling women on the street; "manspreading" on public transport; or the "beach body ready" Protein World poster campaign on the London Underground.

Quickly, a consensus would be reached about what the "good" feminist response was - at which point, no one was allowed to deviate from the party line. If anyone did dare to think differently, they risked inciting the wrath of Twitter, being denounced as bad, or wrong, or stupid and unenlightened, conditioned into an attitude of woman-on-woman misogyny, et cetera.

I did not think this was very cool. So I dedicated an early section of Hot Feminist to calling for a more inclusive, less judgemental attitude, and an acceptance that other feminists will not necessarily share a precise opinion on anything at all, other than equal rights, and that representation across the genders is necessary, fair and, according to all research, rather good for business.

It should not have surprised me that while the critics were divided about my book - it was savaged by one, awarded five stars by another - social media was united in hating it. If you tell people off for being mean on social media, there is a good chance they'll respond by being mean to you on social media.

Although most of those online critics hadn't actually read Hot Feminist. They said they didn't need to read it to know how bad it was, how stupid, how inane, insane, irrelevant, wrong. They could tell by the title, by the cover image (my face), and by everyone else who was already having a go at it.

"Moronic book, moronic woman."

"Stupid, stupid cow."

And on. And on. Hundreds and hundreds of comments, over days, which became weeks; all of them from women, all of whom identified as feminists. I'd become a legitimate target, one of those women it's just completely okay for other women to slag off - even if you think of yourself as a feminist.

This was crushing.

I'd poured my heart and my history into the book, I'd shared deep, dark secrets; I'd risked a lot to write it. It is heartfelt. When it all quietened down, when those voices moved on to condemn the feminist activities of others - the actress Emma Watson, for her "He For She" campaign, among them - I found myself deeply destabilised.

I developed anxiety issues. I became depressed - functionally, and mildly, but distinctly. I felt overwhelmed by shame; I felt the way I haven't felt since I was 10-years-old and bullied by the mean girls at school.

It took me a while to right myself - several months - during which time I watched that curious, furious expression of feminism turn its attention toward other subjects. In August last year, two months after my book came out, the singer Chrissie Hynde published an autobiography in which she talked about her experiences of sexual assault. Hynde said she considered herself responsible for what happened to her at the hands of a biker gang when she was 21; she went on to write that women who dress provocatively and get drunk shouldn't be surprised if it happens to them, too.

In response to this, social media leapt on Hynde quite as if she were the perpetrator of sexual assault, rather than a victim. The sneering, vitriolic overtones of this wave of online aggression were familiar to me.

I marvelled at the extraordinary combination of self-congratulation, narcissism and bile in evidence, all masquerading as feminist commentary.

I didn't agree with Hynde - only one person bears the responsibility for rape, and that's the one doing the raping - but I absolutely defended her right to remember her own assault as she chose, and to speak honestly on the subject, without being lambasted for it.

Elsewhere, the culture of "no-platforming" was beginning to flourish. University student bodies started raising online petitions, and launching related social media trashing campaigns, the aim of which was to ban certain speakers from campus debates. Among them was Germaine Greer - godmother of second-wave feminism - and Julie Bindel, mighty feminist activist. Both women were no-platformed for holding what were seen as non-acceptable "transphobic" views - allegations that may or may not have been legitimate, but since when has shutting up a brilliant woman with a truckload of experience, academic rigour and opinions to her name ever been the smartest move to make?

It would be arrogant of me to compare my experience to that of Greer, Bindel and Hynde - but I do think there's at least a small relation.

This new incarnation of feminism seems as occupied with shutting down any voices it finds uncomfortable as it is with proactive change. That's bad. It's bad because ideas and ideologies need to be tested.

How do you know you still believe in the things you're so sure you believe in, if you never have to argue in their favour? If you interact only with people who see the world precisely as you do, how on earth do you evolve your beliefs, move them forward, adapt them and, in doing so, make them more resilient? How will you ever have that incredibly important, incredibly humbling experience of realising you're just wrong about something? You won't.

You can't.

So that's where I am, on International Women's Day 2016. I'm wary. I'm wary, for the first time in my life, about calling myself a feminist. Not because I don't believe women deserve equal rights - of course I do, and I will continue to fight for them.

I'm wary of calling myself a feminist, because a lot of women who also call themselves feminists have told me I couldn't, and I shouldn't.

They told me that my kind of feminism, and my experiences of being a woman, weren't welcome.

Check in with me this time next year to see if I've perked up. If not, my next book will be called Despondent Feminist. © Daily Telegraph

Irish Independent

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