When I was offered a review copy of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, I was initially hesitant for a couple of reasons. The first is that I had already unfollowed Vagenda on Twitter because I was no longer interested in what they had to say. Sounds harsh but I don’t have much time in my day for social media these days, so I keep my follow list as small as I can. As I no longer read magazines (other than freebies Stylist and Boots’ Health & Beauty), I like to keep my feed full of tweets about a wider variety of feminist comment. The second reason was that I am working full-time and studying part-time (which involves a lot of reading), so I wasn’t sure if I’d have time to read the book. However, once I’d considered the wider significance of a feminist book aimed at young women, I decided that I really did need to find the time to read it. So, I accepted the offer and… two and a half months have now passed, which I think proves that my initial worry about not finding the time to read the book was not entirely without foundation! However, I have managed to fit in a bit of reading and now have some opinions to share with you.
The book starts with a summary of why the authors set up their blog and how it became a book, which is then followed by a pretty interesting history of women’s magazines. From the first magazine aimed at women, via the 1925 issue of Modern Woman which “puts forward a vision of womanhood that’s altogether much more multifaceted” and the 1950s mags aimed specifically at housewives, through to She and Nova in the 1960s who aimed at an intentionally wide readership, this chapter leads us up to the relaunch of Cosmopolitan in 1965 as “the gal’s handbag companion that we might recognise today.” Once Spare Rib ceased production in 1993, fashion and ‘raunch’ had pretty much taken over in magazine land, and then the celeb mags came along to help keep the insecurity flowing – as I pretty much stopped buying magazines a year after Heat launched, it was interesting to read about what the market is like now. Holly and Rhiannon ponder why we continue to buy them and, I have to say, I like their conclusion: newspapers don’t talk about women, so we like these magazines purely because they do. “For many women, magazines offered a rare glimpse into the world of the feminine, and for that reason they gained a disproportionate level of importance. It’s not as though anyone else took women’s interests seriously.”
The chapters which follow delve into some of the main aspects of modern women’s magazines more deeply – women’s bodies, the lies of the beauty industry, sex, fashion, relationships, careers, food, and even the language the journalists use – and they finish with a discussion on lad culture (“or, how men’s magazines are ruining your life”) and a chapter on their ideal magazine. I got stuck in to it all with enthusiasm after the first chapter but, what I realised after three more was… this book is not for me. This is for the version of me who realised, 15 or so years ago, that the vast majority of women’s magazines just churn out the same soul destroying content over and over again. This is for the twenty-something Lori who was then left searching around for something she did want to read (later finding The F-Word and writing my first article for them). This book is for people who are only just discovering that feminism is relevant to them… so I skipped to the end.
When I read The Vagenda’s final chapter, on the ideal magazine, I was saddened to see the sentence “we don’t all act the same just because we have two X chromosomes.” Although the point about how feminism, and any woman speaking about it in the media, is not speaking for all women is a fair one, I would have hoped they’d realise that not all women have two X chromosomes. However, when they do start talking about their ideal magazine, it sounds a bit like Stylist but with added sex tips and celeb talk. There should be no heavy handed use of Photoshop, “the diversity of the models’ ethnicities and body types would directly reflect those of the population”, and there should be more inspiring and global suggestions of ‘what to wear’. There’d be no cosmetic surgery ads, no diets, no circle of shame, “a shift towards the use of plain English”, nothing to scare women about health issues or the right time to have kids, and more female-focused sex tips. No body shaming, no suggestions that some types of sex are ‘normal’, no relationship rules, and no accepting everyday sexism as something we cant change. It all sounds pretty good to me.
Sadly, this was a conclusion that could have been arrived at by reading The Vagenda blog and not bothering with the book at all. In fact, the book felt a bit pointless because, aside from the snippets on the history of women’s magazines, it told me nothing new. I have to agree with Bryony Gordon who said in her review for The Telegraph that “the whole thing reads like a media studies dissertation rather than a book.” In an article entitled ‘everything you wanted to know about sexism, except how to fight it‘ in The Guardian, Rachel Cooke describes the book as “offensively puerile”, stating that “it seems to me to be beyond outrageous to have a go at the glossies for all their daft, reductive, sexist lingo – babymoon, tanorexia, vajayjay – when your own writing is replete with terms such as “bum crack”, “boobage”, “cum-back” and worse.” The Sunday Express, however, loved it. As I said before, this book isn’t really aimed it me. I like to think that it will encourage the young women who are trying to look beyond mainstream women’s magazines to find something better to read. However, not only is this book most definitely not better, it doesn’t tell you where else to look either.
DISCLOSURE: I was sent The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media free to review by Random House.