Feminism: it’s basically all about being a dickhead

I love to hate the Evening Standard magazine. It’s like the boiled-down essence of a glossy “style” magazine. Most of those are long, expensive and (the attraction for me) mind-blowingly stupid. However, don’t worry if you, like me, are a thrifty cynic who enjoys laughing at absurd pretension but doesn’t want to hand over big bucks to Conde Nast so their advertisers can vainly try to persuade you to buy watches at £4,000 a pop. With ES, you can get your idiocy for free, at the price of ignoring adverts for mass-market skin-cream and washing machines that no-one cares about anyway.

And last Friday, with an epic face-off between a couple of hackettes over whether it is more feminist to behave in a traditionally male or traditionally female way, the mag really outdid itself. The women in question were Polly Vernon and Elizabeth Day, and setting out the subject of their “debate” that way skates over the fact that, like everything written in a glossy mag ever, this article was really about shifting product. In this case, it was the books Vernon and Day have just written.

For Vernon, in the feminism is feminine corner, that meant her new book, Hot Feminist. Happily, calling it that allows me to legitimately address the question “Is she?”  without looking like a complete pervert (or more of one than I do in a natural light). On the evidence of her photo in the article, the answer is yes, although I would bet cash that the vision of her in leather trousers do not, in reality, have quite the mesmeric powers that she attributes to it. But more of those trews anon.

Vernon’s part of the article was essentially her boasting about her skills at using flirtation for interviewing and other career-related purposes, telling stories of other women doing the same that are about as reliable evidence as any other stories about nameless people told by someone you’ve never met and recommending this as the way forward for other women. The major problem with this is that (a) it’s more a recommendation to borderline sexual harassment than to feminism and (b) if you are a woman and work anywhere outside the wacky La-la land  of style journalism, that is exactly how it is likely to be treated. That may sound strong, but imagine the reaction if a man came out with the reverse version of these quotes, with reference to his work:

I have no trouble flirting amenable male interviewees into submission.”

“How boss woman loiters, standing over them in her neat shirt, skirt and heels, making a big deal of (sort of) averting her eyes from those Lycra-encased crotches.”

I find that leather trousers, worn in a male-dominated workspace, have a potent impact. There you’ll be, clad in perfectly respectable, incredibly practical, ultimately wearable…garments; there they’ll be, trying not to equate them with fetish sex, and quietly melting down as a consequence.”

(Seriously, who the hell wanders round their workplace in leather trousers anywhere other than in the sort of workplace where they’re just glad you turned up and are sober enough to do any kind of work? You know, like the music industry, fashion or style magazines. And “practical?” Good God. This is terrible, terrible advice.)

Day doesn’t come off as quite the weirdo that Vernon does, but then she is advocating that the way forward in the workplace is for women to act like the most unpleasant men you can imagine (“Blessed with a defiant sense of his own entitlement, he saw money, sex and power as his due. He took what he could, where he could get it.” That’s her fictional character, Howard Pink, by the way. I refuse to accept he wasn’t named while she was out shopping for shirts).

The fact that there are men who succeed whilst acting in this way is not something to encourage, but something to deplore. And I can’t see what it has to do with feminism either.Suggesting that women should do this ignores the fact that the whole “alpha male” routine only leads to career success for a minority of the men that try it anyway – mostly those who were really well-connected, really good at workplace politics or just genuinely good at their jobs in the first place. If you push yourself forward relentlessly and aren’t one of those three, you’ll wear out your welcome very quickly.

Day fetishizes self-confidence, like a lot of people who write about these things, and apart from assuming that you can just create it in yourself by acting like a wanker, instead of, say, by actually being good at your job or winning yourself useful allies amongst senior management or something, she ignores the fact that no-one has more self-confidence in what they do than those who are actually worse at it  – it’s the well-known “Dunning-Kruger effect” in psychology. You don’t necessarily want to encourage overly self-confident people to rise to the top. Was there ever a more self-confident group of men (chiefly) than the leadership of the major banks just before the financial crisis of 2008?

On a more personal level, Day also comes across as a bit sad by boasting about the viral success of an article she wrote in an online magazine. Cat pictures and videos of children crying get viral success  – and I’ve never heard of this article or the magazine, so we aren’t exactly talking about Ebola levels of virality here. The novel she’s promoting, by the way, is called Paradise City, so she even missed the chance to call a novel about an aggressive, amoral multi-millionaire Appetite for Destruction, which is cooler and keeps the Guns N’Roses reference. If Howard Pink had made his entrance in that book strumming a Fender Strat along to Welcome to the Jungle whilst performing pelvic thrusts towards his assembled (and horrified) employees, I would read it. I mean, you could even justify the leather trousers then.

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