Feminism has been judgy over the years. We can probably all agree on that. For a long time, entering into any kind of discourse about what being a feminist really means has felt a bit like a Tough Mudder course—take a "wrong" turn, and you'll end up face-down in the dirt, surrounded by people hell-bent on setting you "right"—either for your own good, or so you don't get in their way.
Only, there has been a shift. Again, we can probably agree on that. With people like Roxane Gay and her brilliant Bad Feminist manifesto now out there, spreading the "do what you want, we've all got the same goal here" gospel, we—I—no longer believe there is a right or wrong way to be a feminist. If you believe in social and political equality, you sort of just… are.
In 2015, you'd like to believe that the F-word has been beckoned from its ivory tower and flattened, steamrolled like tarmac so everyone and anyone can walk on it. You're pretty much buzzing to not have to talk about hair removal, skinniness, men, and the color pink in the same conversations about equality all that often. You'd like to believe the hairy, plaid-wearing dyke caricature of feminism had collapsed and been carted off to the morgue.
But has it?
According to a new book out today by Times writer Polly Vernon, maybe not. Hot Feminist is, its foreword says, an "eight-chapter trip through feminism, fashion, the righteous pursuit of a sexy vibe, and what it means to be a woman when you're on the receiving end of modern media's hilariously/bizarrely/insanely contradictory/restrictive/reductive/sometimes just straightforwardly revolting notions of ladyhood, delivered from the hopelessly biased, grudge-inclined, wayward, party-line-eschewing, gratuitously naughty perspective of Britain's most provocative columnists."
Phew. Vernon and her friends have a problem with modern feminism, see. Crippled with guilt, they are, whenever they part their legs for a bikini waxer or tuck into a nice Caesar salad ("feminists don't eat salad"). "Feminism is increasingly defined by what you can't do, shouldn't say," Vernon writes, before basing her entire thesis on an exhaustive list of negatives, on things she's not offended by, including: wolf-whistling, being called "babe" by a boss, women being photoshopped in magazines, all-male panels on TV shows, and bitchy media headlines about what female politicians are wearing in public.
"Hot Feminist," as a title, sounds quite hot. It does. The "righteous pursuit of a sexy vibe" sounds like it should be purred with an arched eyebrow over dinner-party-volume David Guetta and a naughty bottle of Mr. Grigio. It's nice. But the book's "revolutionary" roar is so silent it's deafening.
Why? Because these things just haven't been at the forefront of feminist debate in years. No one gives a shit.
Today, positioning a book about feminism within the confines of stereotypes your old dad might have once held feels baffling. Literally no one— no one—says you can't shave your legs, have bald a labia, be thin, diet sometimes or—Jesus fucking Christ—"fancy men" and not be a feminist any more. Where are those conversations happening? Who is having those arguments?
Feminism has, as others have pointed out, never really been about making women feel good or getting behind every single thing they do between waking up and going to sleep. There are no hidden networks of CCTV cameras spying on our salad eating; there is no plain-clothes policeman ready to peer up our skirts and say, "Oh, you shit! You've done it again! That's another six points on your feminist license!!!!" every time we decide to remove some pubic hair.
It all reminds me a bit of "Squeeze," an episode of The X Files that scared me shitless as a teenager and revolved around a very nasty person crawling through ventilation shafts and spying on Scully in the shower. Yes, Hot Feminist isn't talking about mutant serial killers, but its undertone speaks of—warns of, even—a pernicious kind of surveillance that isn't really there. Except, perhaps, in the author's head.
"What kind of feminist am I now?" Vernon asks. "The shavy-leggy, fashion-fixated, wrinkle-averse, weight-conscious kind of feminist. The kind who, at 43, likes hot pink and men." This would be such a great message if the word "feminist" was simply replaced by "woman."
If the book were positioned as a woman wondering if she should remove all the color and lust from her life as she moves through her 40s, it would be quite powerful. But it's not. It's framed around feminism, a social and political movement for equality. It's telling us that caring about being hot and thin and flirting with hot men is a revolutionary political statement.
Vernon's overwhelming message is that it's not worth getting angry about being sexy, or, as the foreword continues, having an "ongoing pursuit of hotness." She's right when she says we're "flesh creatures" and are therefore "dealing with an inside/outside continuum situation where existence is concerned; one informs the other, they're on a loop" and that "pretending anything else is just unmitigated bat shit." Of course it's bat shit. But being image-conscious is not written anywhere as a Deadly Sin of Feminism. And when Vernon says she's saving her rage for "real" issues like rape, abortion, and wage inequality, is it not a dangerous message, in a highly-publicized book aimed at other women, to remove the link between the issues she thinks are silly and those that are "important"?
The soft, airbrushed hips of women in magazines might not piss everyone off, but those hyper-real images are—whether we like it or not—presenting women as some sort of uniform creature. A herd of peach pixels. They're part of a wider culture that positions women as pleasure objects and ignoring that is, to borrow Vernon's words, bat shit. If female politicians are far more likely than their male counterparts to push pro-choice politics to the fore, do we really want them overwhelmingly judged on their skirts throughout the media? Do we really not care about how women are—or are not—represented on political television panels? Do millions and millions of people across the world not watch television?
So often we're led to believe that any discussion about feminism and inequality is a good one, that any debate is a good debate, and that might be true. But it all feels quite exhausting and, increasingly, like semantics are spoiling the good conversations. They're whittling things down into tinier and tinier boxes until, one day, there'll just be individuals with their own "movements."
More plainly, though: how, in 2015, did we get to the point where we're once again talking about lettuce and feminism in the same breath?
Follow Eleanor on Twitter.