Hot Feminist by Polly Vernon

19th Jun 2015

Grazia columnist Polly Vernon's new book promises modern feminism with style - and without judgement; but does it cut the mustard?


Take one white, female, middle class, heterosexual, London-based journalist. Add a clutch of anecdotes from the 90s; some cultural commentary about gender; a pinch of insight: a splash of irreverence; a generous helping of jokes; a sprinkling of exclamation marks; and a clickbait-style title. Et voila! You’ve got yourself a guide to contemporary feminism. Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist is the latest in a line of provocative handbooks constructed using this template.

The Grazia columnist’s début is a mish-mash of rants, reported conversations, hints and tips and descriptions of her experiences (from her induction into the fashion world and being sexually assaulted at 18, to her 3 abortions). And, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, the tone is chatty and over familiar.

Hot Feminism’s central tenets are 1) thou shalt assert your right to care about your looks as well issues of importance to feminism, and 2) thou shalt be non-judgemental about opinions you don’t share.

It’s borne of two of Vernon’s personal bugbears. First up is second wave feminism’s demonisation of women who prettify themselves for men (and the fourth wave’s concerns about the omnipresence of narrow and unrealistic beauty ideals). Second on Vernon’s hit list is the fourth wave’s call out culture. She despairs of what she views as a toxic, McCarthyesque, social media-facilitated environment, where everyone is gleefully judging everyone else from their vantage points on the moral high ground.

But feminism isn’t anti looking good per se. It’s anti the idea that women’s sole value lies in how they measure up to externally defined, Eurocentric and male-centred notions of sexual attractiveness. (As opposed to their ability to run the country, be decent human beings, or find a cure for cancer.)

And yes, finger wagging and shouting others down isn’t helpful or constructive. But there are some things which need to challenged. Discrimination and exclusionary language, for example, just aren’t OK. So maybe what’s in order is: championing intersectionality, cutting out the vitriol and replacing judging with measured and nuanced discussion focused on understanding the rationale for others’ positions. Which, granted, is impossible to  do in 140 characters or less.

For someone advocating turning down our internal judgeometers, she issues an awful lot of diktats ('Do spend shitloads on jeans' and 'Do aspire to looking cool') or maybe it's just 'advice.'Vernon advocates treating feminism like a buffet. Not fussed about Page 3? No worries! There’s loads of other stuff to choose from! Who has the time, energy or inclination to get their knickers in a knot about all of the many and varied crimes against womanhood? Save your wrath for whatever it is that you feel most strongly about. But, despite arguing for a non-hierarchical, individualist, pick ‘n’ mix type of approach, she does seem to imply that Photoshopping and wolf whistling (‘the small stuff’), aren’t as worthy of attention as the gender pay gap, rape and sexual assault and attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights.

The suggestions about how to be fancied are very much tongue in cheek, and Vernon’s fashion, exercise and weight loss tips are mainstays of any self respecting lifestyle blog. For someone advocating turning down our internal judgeometers, she issues an awful lot of diktats (‘Do spend shitloads on jeans’ and ‘Do aspire to looking cool’) or maybe it’s just ‘advice.’ She’s much stronger when it comes to making serious observations about issues like ageing, modern motherhood and porn.

Vernon’s pleas for tolerance and the right to make mistakes are eminently sensible. And some parts of Hot Feminist will have readers nodding in agreement (she’s spot on about the astoundingly low domestic bar for men). But, for the most part, it’s a frothy read that’s not really bringing anything substantial to the feminist party.