Review: The Vagenda, Holly Baxter & Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The Vagenda or to give its full name The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide To The Media started life as a blog which can be found here and the tone certainly carries over into its print spin-off.  Like Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project, the Vagenda forms part of the ‘Fourth Wave of Feminism’, much of which is being corralled on the Internet.  Kira Cochrane discusses in her excellent book All The Rebel Women how the goals of feminism have changed but also how the electronic age allows women to unite in an unprecedented way.  Since Caitlin Moran’s fantastic How to be a Woman, the market for feminist musings has really expanded.  I particularly liked Fifty Shades of Feminism last year, although when I reviewed it, I was repeatedly spammed by robots trying to promote Fifty Shades of Grey.  I am not joking.   The Vagenda and The Everyday Sexism Project spin-off came out at around the same time, but I picked this one because while I do strangely find it comforting to check E.S. Project from time to time to confirm that it’s not just me who finds this unacceptable, I still find it depressing to absorb in large doses.  So instead, I picked The Vagenda and I laughed, winced and finished it feeling heartened by its fierce-some battle cry against the media.

The Vagenda first sprang into being back in 2012 when Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Coslett began a blog, borrowing the term ‘vagenda’ from a broadsheet article about ‘women in the workplace with a hidden agenda’.  There are many, many, oh so many portmanteau terms which burst into life via the pages of magazine (my personal bugbear is staycation – why not just say you’re on holiday?) but Baxter & Coslett felt that ‘vagenda’ was ‘both pleasing to the ear [and] perfectly encapsulated the aims of the blog: to expose the silly, manipulative and sometimes damaging ulterior motives of women’s magazines.’  They quickly realised that they were not alone in this and two years on, they have produced this intelligent, quick-witted and highly readable book.

Baxter & Cosslett

The Vagenda offers few solutions and I have read some fairly middling to negative reviews elsewhere for its occasionally muddled sourcing but I think that those people really are failing to see what it is really offering.  Neither Baxter or Cosslett are trying to write a new Female Eunuch.  This is a chatty and humourous rant about what is going on in the world around us, it is similar in tone to Bridget Christie’s award-winning stand-up show A Bic for Her or indeed Rachel Held Evans’ excellent article Enough: Why We Should All Be Laughing Hysterically in the Magazine Aisle.  The Vagenda speaks to the women of Britain, it is not didactic, it does not lose itself in feminist theory; Baxter and Cosslett are writing for women who enjoy magazines but become bored and frustrated by how ridiculous they have become.

As a fellow-blogger, I felt it was unfair to read reviews which condemned this book for being superficial.  The authors admit in the introduction that they are ‘experts only insofar as we had consumed an awful lot of glossy trash over the years’.  It’s the same as the way that I was slightly wrong-footed when I was contacted by someone asking me for further details about the lives of Roald Dahl’s children simply because I had read and reviewed his biography.  Yes, I had written about my thoughts on the man but I had certainly never proclaimed myself an unimpeachable authority.  In the same way, Baxter & Coslett have chosen to speak out on their views, they are entertaining and well-reasoned and what they have to say is worth listening to.

A particularly snotty review came from Germaine Greer, but I think she fell into the trap which The Vagenda‘s authors warn us about.  Baxter & Coslett point out that feminism ‘gets one hell of a bad press for a mixture of reasons, not least because of the assumption that one woman, in the media, talking, should somehow represent everyone on the planet with a vulva’.  There are many kinds of women, there are many kinds of feminists.  I myself am a feminist who wears a lot of flowery dresses and likes to knit and I really enjoy baking.  The point is that I believe that I have the right to a voice, to make my own decisions about my career, education and body and that anybody who thinks differently is probably not worth talking to.

I myself am not much of a magazine reader.  My mother wasn’t either so it wasn’t something that I grew up with.  She used to order me a weekly Twinkle (RIP) until I was about eight which I read in the same spirit as my mother read the newspaper but other than that my inner Northern Irish penny-pincher kicked in.  I was in the habit of reading friends’ magazines while at university but after two years of living with boys even that has gone by the way-side.  According to several friends, I have a ‘frightening’ lack of awareness of popular culture and even when I do pay attention, I take a dim view.  My favourite ever celebrity story was the one a few years ago when Rihanna was told to ‘cover up’ by a Bangor farmer when she tried to use his field to shoot a video.  My reaction was a) to wonder how it was ever warm enough in Northern Ireland for someone to deliberately strip off, b) to snigger and then c) to try and work out if the farmer was a relative.  He wasn’t.  Still, although I lacked the outrage of the magazine-reader, I recognised all too clearly the media shapes our expectations of how a woman should behave.

(c) The Vagenda

It is easy to laugh at the 1950s-style guides to decorous womanly behaviour – having a drink ready for one’s husband as he comes through the door, cleaning, tidying and generally being a mindful wife.  But things haven’t changed.  If anything they’ve gotten worse.  As Baxter & Coslett point out, it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous sex and relationship advice doled out by magazines until you remember that it is what many women and young girls turn to as an authority.  The Vagenda quotes the infamous article from May 2013 when a Guardian reader wrote to Pamela Stephenson Connolly that her boyfriend found her vagina ‘repulsive’, rather than telling her to politely advise pathetic male to take running jump, Pamela S-C advised that said boyfriend should be treated sympathetically and the two of them should try watching educational DVDs together and that he should be ‘rewarded when he demonstrates maturity’.

The Vagenda points out again and again that women are being undermined, conditioned to believe that they have to please men in order to be happy and that in order to do so they need to buy whatever it is that the magazines are peddling that particular week.  You don’t have to be a genius to pick up that the magazine industry has been cuddled up to the companies who advertise with them for as long as there have been magazines in the first place.  These are the people who are trying to undermine you by making you feel that yes, this is the dress/ointment/pair of shoes that will change your life.  It won’t.  Still, although I did know all of this already, I have been eyeing adverts with a great deal more cynicism – I realised that I had trained myself to look past them, but they’re everywhere.

What I wish they had made clearer was how transient fashion is.  Recently, I was at a friend’s wedding.  The bride whispered to me that her new sister-in-law had spent three hundred pounds on getting her eyebrows done for the day.  Three.  Hundred.  Pounds.  Because back in the day, it was fashionable to pluck one’s eyebrows off.  This unfortunate woman had done so repeatedly and then they stopped growing back.  Then the fashion became to have huge eyebrows.  Fashion is ridiculous.  The ‘going up’ and ‘going down’ is meaningless – so why not just pick something that you like?  We don’t have to be ‘an angel in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom’.  Still, whenever someone breaks the rules laid down by the media, the Internet collectively loses its mind, as shown when Emer O’Toole announced to the world that she was no longer shaving her armpits.  She had to do interviews, Liz Jones tore into her over on the Daily Mail (really, Liz Jones should sort her own life out before laying into other people) – it was ridiculous.  I do shave my armpits, that is my choice but frankly I couldn’t care less what other people do.

Simply stripping off one’s clothes does not make something actually seductive.  A few nights ago I ended up watching a Kate Bush documentary with my mother (a life-long Hounds of Love fan).  I became an accidental Kate Bush fan because Babooshka came on with my radio alarm every day for five weeks when I was living in France (they spoke too fast on that particular radio station for me to ever figure out why that was).  Anyway, watching the Kate Bush videos, I couldn’t help but think – she is a very attractive, highly sensual performer and yet she gets to keep all of her clothes on!  Similarly, the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell video for Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is a very flirtatious and even suggestive performance – Tammi Terrell manages all this while wearing an overcoat and a hat!  Compare that to the Kanye West/Kim Kardashian Bound video.  A friend showed me it a few months ago – I ran to the other side of the room screaming within a few seconds and it genuinely made me feel quite nauseous.

What disturbs me most though about our wonderful media is what it tries to convince us about relationships.  Yes, the sex advice is howlingly ridiculous … but some people think it isn’t.  It is frightening how women and girls are allowing themselves to be pressured into doing things – a few years ago I was working in a secondary school and ended up mentoring a fifteen year-old girl going through a rough time.  It was fairly common every few weeks for the staff to hear that one of the pupils had taken naked photos of themselves and then either uploaded them to the internet or texted them to their friends.  What shocked me was how my mentee seemed to regard it as something that was expected of her – she didn’t really want to but she felt like she had to.  I very firmly told her that it was not something that she had to do and that she needed to remember that when putting pictures like that into a public space there was no way of ever getting them back.  My speaking firmly seemed to strengthen her resistance to the idea but I couldn’t help but think that I was but one voice and if there were boys (or even her friends) telling her equally strongly that this was something she should do, so many girls like her lack the self-belief to resist.

The Vagenda‘s main strength comes from its passionate argument for improved sex education, particularly surrounding consent.  I navigate the internet with the objective of avoiding the pornography but even I recognise that that is becoming harder to do and our society is in real trouble if a generation is using it for instructional purposes.  Children are curious.  It’s natural.  While I was at school, I was one of the ‘Senior Librarians’ and I remember walking in on two of the male ‘Junior Librarians’ (aged around fourteen) looking at the infamous ‘Woman’ encyclopaedia because it included a naked woman on its centrefold.  That was an encyclopaedia and it was the most that they had access to.  Today’s fourteen year-old  boys have the entire internet.  What they are seeing is not love and bears little relation to actual sex.

One of the lines that really made me cackled (albeit slightly ruefully) came on p282, when Baxter & Coslett remarked that ‘the man who wilfully ignores female concerns about the current state of the porn industry is essentially saying “But … MY PENIS!” which is the same old justification […] which has been wheeled out since time immemorial’.  It’s this whole idea that what women think doesn’t matter.  Girls at the University of Glasgow were shouted at to shut up at a national debating competition, a comedian sniggered at a woman who had objected to his rape jokes and commented that it would be hilarious if ‘five guys raped her right now’.  Er … no.  It would be a crime.  And yet, if women object, then they’re po-faced killjoys.  A few years ago, I was at a party where the friend of a friend tried to put his hand up my skirt.  My reaction was to poke him in the eye.  I was the one who was told that I had over-reacted.

About a year later, my best friend was out for the evening with two of our other male friends.  During the course of events they met a young man who was rather taken with my friend (who we’ll call Laura, it’s not her name).  Laura was not interested but that didn’t matter.  This boy grabbed her and stuck his tongue down her throat.  He only desisted because he was given the impression that Laura was in fact ‘with’ one of the other boys who had accompanied her to the pub.  Rather than apologising to Laura, this delightful gent apologised to the boy for, you know, infringing on his territory rather than for having slobbered all over Laura’s face without her consent.  The same summer, I was at a staff drinks event and was told I needed to ‘loosen up’ by a male colleague who then seized hold of my mammaries.  Predictably, I screamed and dropped my drink.  There was a lot of pressure in that workplace for the girls to provide certain ‘services’ to the boys but I managed to escape it when I started making it clear that I was a Christian.  Suddenly I was completely off-limits.  I thought that this was brilliant until a non-Christian friend pointed out that it didn’t really help the actual problem at the root of the place – that as an organisation, sexual harassment was endemic and consent was not a priority.  You shouldn’t have to plead chastity to get out of sleeping with someone you don’t want to.

In the words of Caitlin Moran

The Vagenda gave me a lot to think about.  It is not a wide-scoping look at the media – it is an opinion piece.  It is the world as seen by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.  It applies best to women who are British and of a middling-income and it doesn’t have a lot to say about other ethnicities except to acknowledge that the media doesn’t represent them very well.  But the whole point of The Vagenda is that our media is not representing us.  Magazines are patronising, deliberately depressing, shamelessly manipulative and yet people are still buying them!  The Vagenda is feminism-lite – it is a gateway book for the girl who doesn’t want to use the F-word (feminist, not the rude one) but is ready to acknowledge that magazines are a bit … off.  The Vagenda is a blog – it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is and what it does offer is passion and angry and an alternative option.  Rather than subscribing to what the magazines are trying to make you become – why not actually try being yourself?  The Vagenda invites us to think about our own likes, dislikes, tastes, proclivities and all the rest because no matter what the media thinks, there is not just one kind of woman.

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The Vagenda by Holly BaxterRhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Published by Random House on May 1st 2014
Genres: Social Science, Feminism & Feminist Theory, Popular Culture
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9781448161720

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