At long last! Samantha “I’m Too Beautiful” Brick seems to have a rival: Laura Fernee, a science graduate who says she was hounded out of the laboratory because she was too good looking.
She appeared on ITV’s This Morning today to tell her tale of woe, and was told to “move forward” and get over it.
On the surface, Laura Fernee sounds narcissistic and ridiculous. Her claim is that she was hounded by sex pests on the one hand, and jealous female colleagues on the other. It got so bad she gave up work. Now she plans to write a book about it.
Why any woman would want to go on national television and expose herself to international mocking is beyond me.* She’s an intelligent woman – she must have seen it coming, particularly after the Samantha Brick debacle.
Plus, she must have known she has two attributes that are going to make the catcalls louder. The first is that her family is wealthy enough to fund her lifestyle in London’s ritzy Notting Hill, including paying all her bills and funding round-the-world trips. She doesn’t need to work. So there’s a Poor Little Rich Girl aspect right there.
The second problem is her cut-glass, upper class accent. She’s just signalled to acutely class-conscious Britain that she’s a toffy-nosed spoiled brat, who’s never done a hard day’s work in her life and has an incredible sense of entitlement.
And, really, she doesn’t show much gumption.* A science graduate who gets to PhD level is intelligent enough to come up with some strategies to deal with harassment. Learning self defence or assertiveness might be two to consider.
But here’s the thing – I believe her when she says she was harassed. Why wouldn’t I? It’s her life and I have no evidence that she’s lying about what took place. Also, I know that women who have something valuable about them – particularly scarcity value – are often the target of harassment, especially in work places dominated by men, or in remote areas where men make up the majority of the population.
Back in the heady days of the Internet boom, a friend-of-a-friend (this isn’t an apocryphal story, as I knew the F-o-F) went to work in Silicon Valley. She was one of the few females there. As in, one of the few females in Silicon Valley altogether. She was surrounded by lonely guys in the prime of life – who began competing for her attention.
She would get to work and find her desk piled with flowers. She had to change her email address and her mobile phone number at least once a week, because they got jammed with messages. If she went out, she had to be accompanied, because men would follow her down the street. Going out for a drink meant getting groped.
These were high-earning, educated, middle- to upper-middle class men – the sort that brought us Google and Facebook. In the absence of available women, they turned into a mob.
Eventually, F-o-F was driven out by the harassment, and moved away. She wasn’t as conventionally beautiful as Ms Fernee, either.
Did she get laughed at when she described the piles of flowers? Of course she did. She never heard the end of it. But to her, they weren’t a joke. They were a symptom of relentless, miserable harassment that she finally couldn’t stomach.
Someone else I know loves menopause. As a beautiful young woman, she had to put up with every face in the room swivelling towards her when she walked in. Every time. From a young and vulnerable age, she had constant, unwanted male attention – and, yes, unpleasantness from other women, who saw her as threatening.
Beauty brings an enormous payoff. That’s been established for a long time. Beautiful people earn more. Are luckier in love. Get lower custodial sentences. You name something desirable, beautiful people get it automatically. So it seems ridiculous that such a valued trait could have a downside.
But why wouldn’t it? We live in a world where the message is that physical beauty is the only thing that counts – beautiful women are held up as commodities, as trophies, as objects to scrutinise in magazines and on the Internet. They’re not treated as real people, but as products for general consumption. So why would it be a surprise that a beautiful woman in real life gets treated that way?
What’s troubling about the Fernee situation is that the reaction to the media reporting has all fallen into the trap of trying to evaluate her claim based on whether she is actually beautiful. There are already hundreds of comments along the lines of “she’s just vain” and “she’s kidding herself”. Her looks are not really the issue (though she does have the symmetrical face and glossy hair that makes her conventionally beautiful). The issue is whether she was harassed in the way she said she was.
Personally I think reacting to harassment by retreating to a posh pad in Notting Hill and sponging off your parents is the worst possible response, and doesn’t say much about her character.*
But I believe she was harassed, because I’ve got no evidence that she wasn’t. Harassment like this can and does happen. And we shouldn’t let people get away with it just because it’s an unusual type of harassment.
*UPDATE: I have made a number of judgemental remarks about her character in this piece when, of course, I know nothing about her. It’s been pointed out that she may be fragile, in which case it makes the Daily Mail’s use of her even worse. She may be extremely mentally robust, actually. I don’t know, and I shouldn’t have made a judgement on her character and I apologise. My point that her harassment may have been real and that it’s a claim that should be taken seriously stands.
**UPDATE UPDATE: The treament of Laura Fernee looks like classic bullying.