Wednesday 13 December 2017

You can be a 'hot' feminist, but there's no such thing as a perfect one

Writer Polly Vernon tells why being sexy and a feminist aren't mutually exclusive...

Chick lit: Polly Vernon's book is the latest addition to the canon of modern feminism
Chick lit: Polly Vernon's book is the latest addition to the canon of modern feminism
Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon
Amy Poehler
Caitlin Moran
Lena Dunham in Girls
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

The F word is getting a lot of press lately. Not that F word, I'm talking about feminism. Every interview I read with a female personality contains their take on it, with as many high-profile women disowning the term as embracing it.

In today's world, although so many women believe in equal treatment for men and women, equal wages and the right to dress and act how they want without being "slut shamed", they still often balk at the term feminist, and avoid using it to describe themselves.

Beyoncé has done a 180, going from being "skittish" about using the word to using it as a backdrop for her performances.

This week, Taylor Swift was named number one the Maxim Hot 100 List, an award that you might think a feminist would disown. However, Swift called it a "nice compliment".

"I didn't have an accurate definition of feminism when I was younger," she told the magazine. "I didn't quite see all the ways that feminism is vital to growing up in the world we live in... when I used to say, 'Oh, feminism's not really on my radar', it was because when I was just seen as a kid, I wasn't as threatening."

Now though, as an adult, Swift sees the imbalance.

"A man writing about his feelings from a vulnerable place is brave; a woman writing about her feelings from a vulnerable place is oversharing or whining. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it's just basically another word for equality."

Up until a few years ago, I avoided using the word - that is, until I read the work of journalist and author Caitlin Moran. Her book How To Be A Woman resonated with me, and with millions of women around the word. Moran says that feminism is a broad term, but at its core is simply about wanting equal rights to any man. While I was all for women's liberation, and felt disgusted about the things happening to women simply because they were female, I didn't want to group myself with old-fashioned women who eschewed shaving and screeched about 'The Man'. I didn't realise that it was possible to embrace femininity and all it entails (short skirts, high heels, mascara et al), and still be a feminist.

Enter Polly Vernon. The London Times and Grazia columnist has added to the modern canon of popular feminist literature with her own tome, Hot Feminist, which is out tomorrow.

In the opening chapter, she states: "Feminism's gone a bit weird." By her account, the way has been lost, point diverted, and the end game?

"Diffused to the point of being extremely confusing... corrupted and mutated into something joyless and dour and tail-chasey and nowhere-going." Thus, she argues, feminism has become counterproductive.

Vernon is 43, and has been working as a journalist since her teens. In the book, she discusses "feminism fatigue" and the mixed messages as to what is and isn't feminist.

She understands that in a world where pithy, 140-character statements can be taken as seriously as 7,000-word books, and where anyone can butt in with their opinion and shout somebody else down, it's not surprising that confusion abounds.

"Hot Feminist is the culmination of me feeling a lot of things over a long period of time, particularly relating to the prescriptive notion of feminism," Vernon tells me.

"Over time, as a rejection of all these societal ideals, feminism seemed to take up the position that it doesn't matter what we look like. But I disagree. As human beings, we look at each other, both men and women. We have a dialogue with one another about how we look, and that doesn't make you stupid or shallow. So being a 'hot' feminist is about owning that."

The other side of the coin is what Vernon calls FOGIW, or Fear Of Getting It Wrong. This is when a woman who self-identifies as a feminist worries that she is not quite feminist enough, and in fact hindering the cause instead of helping it. It's not all about looks though. Through her research, Vernon found that women feel like they're bad at being feminist because they took their husband's last name, haven't yet learned to drive, or felt good about looking hot. Vernon tells me that she wanted to debunk the myths that we have to be a certain way at all.

"I felt like there was a huge amount of dishonesty surrounding feminism," she explains.

"In this day and age, thanks in part to things like Twitter, we are always 'on', and broadcasting constantly, really scared of saying the wrong thing, reiterating other people's thoughts, or saying nothing at all. I often say social media is both the best and worst thing to ever happen to humanity. It gives you both a voice and a fear, and that fear can make us dishonest."

Vernon's book is not for the light-hearted, and it is sure to annoy many. It is risqué and absolutely hilarious.

In it, she describes how she is a "terminal letch", how she's bored silly of all of the outrage surrounding feminism (case in point, she doesn't have an issue with being called a 'chick'), and she doesn't really care about Photoshop or Page Three.

Her point is that you don't have to be a perfect feminist to be one, because there is no such thing. The hot element is important because Polly believes that feminists care how they look, and want to look good - they stress about their weight and care about make-up, and that is absolutely fine.

"We care about clothes and getting dressed because we're really good at it," she explains. "It's a skill, unbelievably creative fun, exciting and expressive. In fact to me, there's little difference between being good at getting dressed and being good at playing the piano."

Why, I ask her, is feminism so hot right now?

"In recent years I could feel waves building, and that gives you something to tap in to. Caitlin Moran magnificently kickstarted it, and I think there's a consciousness pushed forward with astonishing force by her on Twitter."

For Vernon though, it's a wave that's ebbed and flowed, and now is at a peak.

"In the 1990s when I was growing up, women were encouraged to be sexually predatory. I looked to Madonna, who was so empowered sexually - she was allowed to be a sexual being. Then in the early Noughties, it all got a bit 'sex object', and there's still evidence of that. We're now trying to filter through all that and work out where we stand."

Hot Feminist, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out tomorrow

Modern feminists' must-read list

Here are some of the well-known women weighing in on the debate through the medium of popular literature.

Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

Best known for writing, directing and starring in HBO's Girls, Dunham is something of a feminist prodigy, publishing her book at the age of 28. The subtitle is "a young woman tells you what she's 'learned'" and is perhaps a better title for a book that's been described as "thin" and "narcissistic". What Dunham is doing though, is putting a perspective out there that's rarely seen, that of the 20-something woman, and it's a touching read.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

Similar to Vernon's in message, this is another book about how there is no such thing as a "good" or perfect feminist. It lists all the reasons Gay sees herself as a "bad" one. Although Gay goes a little bit further in dissecting politics and pop culture through the feminist lens.

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

Like Dunham, being in the public eye means Poehler's book has a particular inflection brought on by her celebrity. There's some autobiographical detail here, but overall it's a feminist book because it's about a woman's experiences in the world, and unafraid to discuss sex, rights or how tough it is to balance work and being a mother.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

A frequent collaborator of Poehler's, Fey is another woman known for talking about feminism in an accessible way. However, she was victim of a backlash when viewers decided the show she co-wrote, 30 Rock, wasn't feminist enough. In this book though, she talks about inherent, institutionalised sexism in the TV industry, and what can be done to change it.

How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran

The book that kickstarted a conversation about feminism once again in the UK and Ireland in 2011, this is no-holds-barred description of what it's like to deal with things that only women deal with. Everything from periods to pregnancy to abortion and body image is discussed in Moran's own relatable style, and even if you don't entirely agree with her, you'll be left with a new take on what it's really like to be female.

Irish Independent

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