Category Archives: Non-fiction

Hay Festival 2014: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media – Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter

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I don’t read non-fiction books very often, which is something I need to rectify, pronto. They’re often very informative and make for compulsive reads, but novels are more up my street. With this one, however, I had a bit of a personal tie. The Vagenda book sprang from the blogzine of the same name, which has been running for a couple of years. I’m a big fan of the blog and often engage with the team on Twitter, and last July I wrote an article for it, which is something I’d love to do again. I was invited to the book launch of The Vagenda, which was a barmy experience involving a basement bar in Shoreditch and cakes that looked like VERY realistic vaginas, so I snapped up a copy very quickly – and noticed that Cosslett and Baxter were talking at Hay, so got tickets for that, too. But first, let’s talk about the book.

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media looks at what was originally the focus of the blog: women’s magazines. These magazines are made by, marketed for and bought by women, but does that mean they have our best interests at heart? Not necessarily, say Holly and Rhiannon (the editorial team behind The Vagenda blog and co-authors of the book). Instead they tend to focus on scrutinising women’s looks so they fall into their advertisers’ laps, put a harsh focus on women in the public eye, or simply make you hate your body. The feature content doesn’t focus on culture or business but again, looks at relatively trivial things or how best to please your man. Of course, this is generalising; women’s magazines can be quite diverse (depending on how much money you’re willing to spend) but the main glossies have the same opinion about you: you need to, or at least want to, change yourself.

I like women’s magazines, though I have noticed a dip in quality over recent years and am less inclined to read them as I once was. There are still a few I don’t mind spending a few bob on, but the vast majority of the rags I devoured as a teenager I wouldn’t look twice at now. I don’t hold them up to the same light as the Vagenda team do, but instead feel frustrated by the lack of intelligent content these days, as opposed to the messages they are communicating. I’d much rather get my magazine fill from The Saturday Times instead (seriously, read the supplement. It’s amazing.) When reading The Vagenda: AZTGM, I found myself nodding in agreement fairly often. But the overall book? I’m not so sure about it.

The problem, of course, is that I’m comparing it to the blog. In 500-word, unedited articles, the Vagenda writers really shine, and the sheer amount of contributions they receive means that the blog always makes for an interesting read, with fresh perspectives daily and a variety of topics covered by those who won’t have another outlet. They look at everything from miscarrying to masturbation, or syphillis to sexism in the film industry. I click on it everyday and thoroughly enjoy almost every article on there (if enjoy is the right word when it comes to the more painfully honest or tragic pieces), and when it’s evident that Holly or Rhiannon has written the article (usually noticeable when it’s about Grazia or if the piece isn’t credited to another writer), you know it’s going to be a fantastic read. They’re quippy and witty and downright hilarious, but that might be because they’re holding the power, with no editors or publishers to pander to.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I got the impression that with the book, the editor was stopping them from really letting loose; the sentences lack the usual snarky bite that feature so prominently in the blog. Generally speaking the book has received unfavourable reviews – that wasn’t hard to predict, given that a lot of the reviews came from women’s journalists, but I think feminist critics have looked on it with an unnecessarily harsh eye. It makes plenty of valid arguments and indeed, sections of the book are laugh-out-loud hysterical – one of my favourite bits was when they highlighted the most ridiculous sex tips they could find from women’s magazines and put their own witty commentary alongside it. It would have made a neat article, actually (coincidence? Probably not). That said, it did feel a bit fast and loose with its statistics, and I would have liked interviews with those who worked in the industry or even counter arguments with women’s journos to get a sense of the bigger picture. Opinion pieces work well in small chunks, but maybe not over 300 pages or so. There’s a reason Caitin Moran turned half of her feminist bible How to Be a Woman into a memoir to keep the pages fresh. The Vagenda ran on observation alone and it felt that anyone who was given the right amount of money and time could probably write the same thing.

Cosslett wasn’t at Hay Festival but Baxter made an appearance, speaking to a packed-out audience (it looked like the talk had to be upgraded to a bigger stage). I was hoping the discussion might focus more on the book and even address some of its unfavourable reviews, but it turned out to be more about the subject matter, similar to Laura Bates’ talk. Indeed, there was a pretty big crossover. Baxter spoke about how women’s magazines had started off as fairly influential but had rapidly gone downhill – and that’s what inspired the blog. She mentioned that young girls are groomed into this fixation on beauty and appearance from a young age, with their own publications marketing make-up and handing out freebie lipstick. Ultimately, what I found most interesting about the book and the talk was the exposure of exactly how women’s magazines work. When an editor tells you the latest handbag is right at the top of their wishlist and is simply a MUST-have, do they genuinely mean it or are they being paid generous amounts from a top fashion company for such an endorsement? Who knows, but it’s more likely the latter. Can the editor in questions even afford the handbag on a journalist’s salary? Probably not. Similarly, the ever popular ‘what we wear to work’ features aren’t as accurate as they’d have us believe – it’s much more likely that they raided the fashion cupboard 5 minutes before the shoot as opposed to owning and strutting around Central London in such elaborate outfits.

Overall, the book was good, but based on my long-running affection for the blog, I’m a little disappointed; either they stripped a lot away to please the publishers or their writing style is simply better-suited to articles. That said, as a seasoned feminist who’s heard almost every argument out there, I’m not sure I’m the ideal target audience. If I had a young teenage relative or friend, I’d certainly put it in their direction, and it’s nice that these kind of books exist for the young, impressionable audiences who are making the dangerous transition from the Beano to Cosmo.

Goodreads, then: three stars from me. A great read, but I’m sticking to the blog.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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