Book Review: The Vagenda

The Vagenda deals with the hidden agenda of the magazine industry primarily, but then branches out into work place sexism, lad culture, the way society deals with rape, and also the porn industry. Sounds heavy, but the tone of the book is such that this was my bedtime reading. It’s powerful, but accessible and humorous, delivering a clear message that the way things are is not acceptable. I feel as if this is a perfect starting point for anyone looking to get into feminist literature, as not only is it well informed, down to earth, and eye-opening, but it name-drops other feminist texts you may want to give a read.

So, what did I learn from this book? Well…

1. The magazine industry is the paper equivalent of Regina George.
It will tell you one thing to your face…whilst whispering about your “cankles” behind your back. A magazine will have an article on how to ‘Be Even MORE Beautiful”, assuring you that you are already perfect at X weight….but follow that up with an article on how to lose 10lb. And then an advertisement for diet pills. Until I read The Vagenda I genuinely didn’t see this, but now its the first thing I notice when flicking through a glossy, or even gazing at the front cover. You’ll have a celebrity looking bright eyed and bushy tailed, and a few lines on how they’ve found their “body peace” and you can too- undercut with an article on how to get the “perfect” bikini body.

2. Our bodies will never be perfect, because perfect keeps changing.
Perfect through the ages. In the 50’s women wanted to gain a few pounds to bag a man (and have you ever noticed how so much of the “perfect” figure is dictated by the goal of bagging Prince Charming?), yet now the thigh gap is the model’s goal on many a catwalk. Why should we sacrifice enjoying a meal out when next week the ideal will change? (Want more proof- if aren’t much of a reader- that the ideal keeps changing? Check out this video on the ideal body type for a woman to have throughout history I found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xrp0zJZu0a4) Basically, work with what you have, enjoy life, and eat the damn cake.

3. Purity isn’t a real thing.
‘Purity isn’t even a real thing, rooted as it is in the idea that female desire is unnatural, dirty, and corrupting’ (p.91). As an English student this one struck me: how many Shakespeare plays revolve around the loss of a female character’s supposed purity? Anyone who had to buy Shakespeare’s collected works will know that Hero, Hermione, Desdemona fell fowl of this one…and even if this isn’t a pivotal plot point, then the woman is defined first and foremost by her chastity. Think of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, who loses her voice (and hands) after being raped and so losing her purity (Sparknote it if you have no idea what I’m on about). On the complete flipside, think about how many porn films include the idea of someone being “deflowered” ,to put it delicately (we’ll get to porn later). But why do we have this idea that a woman loses part of herself once she’s had sex? Where does that come from, and why is it made such a big deal of? Why is it still valid even in contemporary culture, where a guy who has slept with many women is often known as a bit of a ladies man- yet a woman is called a slut? As The Vagenda puts it: ‘what is “sluttishness” other than a woman simply showing consent and agency in her own sex life?’ (p.91).

4. Adverts make up the majority of the glossy you’re reading
Magazines on their most basic level generate money from a) you buying the magazine, and b) revenue from advertisers, who pay to have their product placed in prime of place between those glossy leaves. Be aware that when you’re lying in the bath with the latest issue of your favourite rag, it is trying to sell you something. Something it will make you believe you need/ will improve your life. For example: you have spots. Because it is that time of the month, and something your skin naturally does from time to time, no matter how healthy you are. You read an article that made you choose the goddam magazine in the first place, saying “10 Ways To Get Flawless Skin NOW” (perhaps not so crudely), and are told you should invest in a good quality serum. Lo and behold, three pages after said article…an advertisement for a new night time serum. That costs as much as having your dog/cat neutered.

5. Careers advice for women is underdeveloped
Careers advice revolves primarily around what you should wear/what makeup your should apply/which perfume contains enough pheromones to send your new employer wild but doesn’t scream “this floosy just robbed The Perfume Shop”. Not actual careers advice than can help you, you know, maybe get a job. And the majority of stories about successful careers women speaks of their 4am workout, before an acai smoothie bowl, taking the little darlings to Hogwarts day school for extremely gifted brats, a hot yoga session, light lunch of freeze dried sea cucumber etc.- maybe with a business meeting in there. If you’re lucky. It must be frustrating for the women who are actually making successful careers for themselves to be asked questions that have nothing to do with their careers.

6. The media creates ideals we can never hope to achieve- and then markets them as “inspiration”
Remember that article you were really looking forward to reading, about that inspiring female figure you really admire? And how, instead of finding more of a reason to love them, you actually ended up, for some completely inexplicable reason, hating them a little bit? Perhaps you fell into the “inspiration” trap. As Baxter and Cosslett say ‘they’re supposed to be inspiring, but really these tales of abnormal success just make you sad’ (p.194). Somehow magazines think we will admire our idols even more if they are completely inaccessible. Hence, that down-to-earth actress you liked suddenly juggles all of their acting projects, whilst attending 6am HIIT workouts with a PT, campaigning for *insert appropriate* rights, surviving off of a juice diet because they’re so “delicate”, knitting mittens for rabbits, meeting friends for a light lunch, picking up their sprogs from nursery, and cooking something that sounds like a yoga move with their fabulous husband. It doesn’t make us admire them more, it makes us feel like shit. It convinces us we need a juice detox, and a PT- and the same magazine will provide us with the best option in another advert two pages later.

7. Violence against women is still considered acceptable as stand-up comedy fodder
When did this become funny? Can any man honestly say they would find it funny if their mother/sister/niece/daughter was subjected to the actions that feature in so many rape jokes comedians use to try and get a laugh? How about those hil-ar-ious misogynistic Oxford chants about banging a pregnant woman “until the foetus gives you head”? As The Vagenda so succinctly puts it ‘this from men who, in all probability, will be running the country one day’ (p.271). Why are racist and homophobic jokes now not politically correct- but rape jokes are? If you asked the audience listening to such jokes whether they think it funny that until 1994 in the UK it was still legal for a man to rape his wife- and this is still legal in some countries- how do you think they would respond? Well unfortunately, as the people opting to watch these comedic gems are probably heavily involved in the wolf pack culture of “lad”, they would probably still laugh.

8. Why is there no porn for women?
Believe it or not, women can enjoy porn. Wow, I know, your mind is blown (no pun intended). But porn is pretty much ritual humiliation for women. As the book points out ‘why not make porn where the woman enjoys it? Or actually participates?!’ (p.28). In most normal relationships I get this feeling that sex is more enjoyable when consensual on both sides. And, you know, no one is subjected to ritual humiliation. Not in porn apparently. This year at uni (whoa, where is this going?!) I took the Victorian Passions and Values module (oh.), and one thing that stood out for me was the angel/whore dichotomy that defined women. The idea that women masturbate and have sexual desire is, somewhat, still a taboo. Any magazine articles you read are about how to please your man (notice it doesn’t even take into account bi or gay relationships), not yourself. Sensual tips include lighting some candles and running a bubble bath. Guys are spoken to openly about masturbation, and its kind of expected that they watch porn at some point- but girls? This brings me to sex education surrounding porn: young adults and teens go to it because sex education is crap. My sex education was basically akin to Mean Girls. Porn is an accessible place to “learn” about sex. But what sort of a generation is going to come out of an industry that is so one-sided? What sort of adults will be produced from watching sex that is pretty much centred around mistreatment and disrespect? If 36% of the internet is porn (p.276) then surely there is space for something to titillate the ladies as well (I really am sorry about the puns). I have nothing against porn, but I do take issue with abusive “fantasies” making up for the shit sex education of the British school system.

9) Diet = Control
This book contained some pretty startling statistics, one such being that ‘1/2 of three to five year old girls worry about being fat, and that by the age of 9, half of them have already been on a diet’ (p.33). Pair that with the stat on page 36, that ‘we once counted 45 ‘body terms’ used in a single issue of Cosmo […] compared to 9 ‘mind terms’. “Body terms” are words such as bum, thighs, curves, figure etc. and “mind terms” include mind, brain, think, and thought. Although I won’t completely blame media, the two have a strong correlation. Our bodies are seen as things to be constantly moulded, improved, and whittled away. Losing control and eating, say, a bagel, is seen as a reflection of your entire life. How on earth could you be so sloppy as to enjoy a bagel with peanut butter on?!  Why couldn’t you be eating a salad with fat free dressing- which would, of course, indicate you were a much more capable individual. Who could hold down a decent job whilst looking fabulous and being a domestic goddess. Not like that bagel-wielding slob over there. The message, however subtly, being sent out is that as a female your diet is a reflection of your work and life ethic. Think about how a recently single woman is portrayed as a mess of snotty tissues and empty Ben & Jerry’s tubs- whereas a woman with her shit together is eating a homemade paleo/gluten free/clean/organic/baked-that-morning muffin. Compare this to men, who are seen as gods for completing eating challenges. Although I won’t pretend diet is a specifically female issue now (think Men’s Health cover models and “What To Eat For The Best Abs EVER!”), it is something that has been thrown at us from every angle for quite some time. Think Special K, Slim Fast, and all of those “detox” diets advertised in every glossy magazine- think right back to the 50’s and the products marketed to make us gain Monroe-esque curves.

‘We are in no way a post-feminist society’. These words come from page 206 of this book, and although Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett provide ample proof of this, that line hits hard. Hands up, I love this book. I absolutely love it- but the topics it deals with produced more than a little bit of disgust for the society we currently live in. And it also shattered any illusions I had about the magazine industry. I mentioned that I was reading this book in another post quite a while back, where I attended a talk given by Anna Jones, CEO of Hearst Magazines UK. I can only hope that Jones has more sense than her predecessors when it comes to women’s magazines, which, as someone pushing the “Empowering Women” movement, I imagine she does.

To end: would I recommend this book? If you are a feminist, looking to get into feminist writing and need a place to start, or are interested in working in/making a difference in the media world then get your hands on this. After reading The Vagenda I can now take the media with a pinch of salt, and appreciate the individuality I have. Celebrating that individuality is pretty much like giving the magazine editorials of all major women’s magazines the V-sign. Baxter and Cosslett have written something that is eye opening and inspiring.

In the final few pages they list a handful of helpful mantras to counter the media world’s influence. I won’t give all of these away, as they’re a lovely touch to the end of a great read. But the last was particularly brilliant:

 

‘No matter how many magazines imply that I should, I refuse to disappear.’ (p.294)
Having written this book, I’m certainly glad Baxter and Cosslett are planning on sticking around…
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