The new Vagenda book has put me in a real quandary. I dislike feminists having a go at each other rather than working together but, in all honesty, I cannot recommend this book. It's narrow in scope, outdated in its subject matter and patronising at best, offensive at worst.
So what to do? I have thought about not writing this review, returning the book to sender, fearful of the backlash I fully expect to be the response to criticism of a popular blog. But I have persevered because I believe, simply, that as feminists and as people, we deserve more than this.
So before you throw your bricks at me, please at least read the rest of my review.
In The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media (to give the book's full title), Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter take on beauty magazines, an idea marketed as "agenda-setting", which was the original idea behind their very successful blog that first appeared online in 2012.
What follows is a rather box-ticking attack on all the areas beauty magazines screw us over: pushing male satisfaction over female - check; distorting images of women - check; cultivating low self-esteem in readers - check; pushing the agenda of the fashion industry - check.
The book is written very much in the style of the Vagenda blog - chatty, colloquial - only for me it all got a bit ladette in parts. "Vag" "blowie" "shitmuncher" "or as we prefer to call male partners, 'him indoors.'" I felt I was being lectured to by Zoe Ball c. 1993.
But anyway, whatever floats your boat.
More worryingly for me was not how they wrote but what they wrote.
There is less than two pages set aside for discussing non-white women in this book (I counted the paragraphs). Two pages out of 300. And even less than that for discussing non-heterosexuality. And absolutely no mention whatsoever of the absence of transsexual women from the pages of beauty magazines.
Vagenda set aside more pages for discussing celebrity nutritionists than those for all of the above. This level of exclusion is glaring. How hard can it be to read beauty magazines avidly - as Vagenda do - and not be hit by how white and how straight beauty magazines are?
Rightly Vagenda point out the puerile content of beauty magazines, more focused on how readers should satisfy their man rather than providing interview tips for a new job. But even when you think the book is making headway, such as tackling the patronising reflection of women in the workplace, Vagenda add to the problem with comments such as the following:
"Granted, most successful anythings are men (with the possible exception of burlesque dancers)."
Just take the full impact of that sentence in, just for a moment.
Just take it down, that a feminist would make such a comment. And, of course, the now-seemingly obligatory diss at burlesque dancers, just for good measure.
And too often the authors put a 'fact' in the text, but without any footnote on the source. "Cosmopolitan, a magazine which 90% of young women in America reportedly look to as a significant source of sexual education" is just one of way, way too many examples where the source of this data is omitted.
And then when these 'facts' are elusive, Vagenda just stated their own opinions as facts instead. "Women aren't staying away from porn in 2014 because they don't care for sex... they're staying away from it because it's just another tiring male-dominated sphere that has absolutely nothing to do with female pleasure."
Really?? Where did this fact come from? I've not heard of a single report which proves women are staying away from porn - for whatever reason - let alone for the reasons stated.
And despite running an incredibly popular blog, there are scant contributions from readers. You can count on one-hand the number of readers' experiences that are mentioned. It seems bizarre that given Vagenda have a great opportunity to get feedback from their readers, they have chosen not to do so. Instead it's 300 pages of opinions - their own.
This absence of quality data, contributions from the wider public and its narrow focus on white, straight women born with a vagina reflect the extent to which this book really just is a few blog posts stretched out very, very, very thin.
There simply isn't enough quality content in this book to justify it being made at all, let alone marketed as "agenda-setting". I feel embarrassed for Naomi Wolf in even mentioning the mighty The Beauty Myth in the same article but her book is miles, miles, miles better.
The Beauty Myth was truly an agenda-setting book. Twenty years later, this book brings absolutely nothing new to the table, which brings me on to my other main concern about this book - the central subject matter simply isn't relevant.
The Vagenda website received 7million hits in its first year, a readership which simply dwarfs the dwindling circulation of beauty magazines (here's an actual fact for you - Cosmo's readership dwindled to about 300,000 per month in 2012).
We're ditching the beauty magazines and heading online. This book isn't relevant by about 10 years. It's tackling an archaic subject matter. And as the folding of Nuts has proved, even when the beauty magazines collapse, the issue doesn't go away. The real battleground for the Vagenda generation is the internet.
But there's also another way to analyse the popularity of Vagenda.
In their really quite patronising style, Vagenda think their book is riding to the rescue of a population of naïve women too stupid to realise how the magazines are chipping away at their self-esteem. "Girlfriend, trust us - you are so much more than a spare willy with a comedy face painted on the end" being a stand-out example.
But actually we're not that stupid and indeed, the popularity of their blog should've proved to Vagenda that their generation is fully aware that they are being peddled patronising and insulting crap by these magazines.
They too are looking for alternatives to feed their interest in fashion and entertainment without having their self-esteem crushed in the process.
Then there's the slagging off of other women in this book that makes me very uneasy.
"As Kim Kardashian has regularly demonstrated to us, simply being a female with an arse has become a noteworthy occupation." Any feminist worth their salt shouldn't be criticising another woman for making a career the best way she knows how in a patriarchal structure which has distorted her value system - blame the game, not the player.
And if it's not Kim, it's women who actually like pretty knickers. "Who exactly is this lacy lingerie actually intended for. Not us, surely? Oh, that's right, it's for men." And then a few pages later, in a swipe at corsets "Undergarments have always existed for the benefit of men."
These judgmental and naïve comments undermine the confidence of every young woman who's at home thinking, I really love my lacy knickers, as well as completely insulting pretty much the whole of Vivienne Westwood's fashion history.
Then in a section on working women, there's an eye-watering dismiss of mumpreneurs as "a mother who also sometimes sells stuff" and an observation that "no wonder so many women are setting up their own patchwork oven glove companies and becoming their own bosses." What??!! Are you serious?!!!
So anyway, if Vagenda hate beauty magazines so much (and actually I do too), what do they want us to do about it?
I was at least hoping for a rallying call to arms, a demand we boycott these destructive publications. That would be in line with the title of "zero tolerance." Only that's not actually what Vagenda want.
In an interview distributed with the book, Cosslett backed away from calling for a complete boycott. "I don't think it's about destroying the whole magazine industry. It's about demanding more from magazines. Demanding more, because we deserve more."
I couldn't believe it. Where's the "zero tolerance" so wilfully flagged in the title? Because zero tolerance means radical action. And what on earth does "demanding more" actually mean, in practice?
Vagenda's response is frustrating as if magazines are battling to stay afloat, then readers have immense power. Radical action such as a full boycott of one or all magazines for a period of time would force the hand of magazine editors very, very, very quickly.
I just couldn't fathom why Vagenda would be so compromising. Then I saw it, in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book. "To everyone at Elle who, despite being a women's magazine, were chilled enough to still want to work with us on a brilliant feminist campaign."
Oh, Vagenda. What is there to say to that?
And I've gone way, way over my word count and there's so much I didn't touch on, like the cover for example. I think Vagenda think they're being subversive by using such a tired image of a slim, white women's vagina torn out. I think that level of naivety pretty much sums up what's going on between the book covers too.
I wish Vagenda luck in all their work going forward but this is not an agenda-setting text for fourth-wave feminism. We all deserve and need more than this - much more.
Image credit: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media, Cover Image © Random House
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