The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: The book of the blog, this is an attack on women's magazines and female targeted marketing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784700430

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I love magazines more than is socially acceptable, and I invariably read the women’s ones, or the fitness ones, but yes, mainly those ones for females which insist on telling me how to dress and act, how to style hair in some areas and remove it in others, how to have it all but still let men open doors for me. I don’t really object to any of this – after all, I choose to keep subscribing – but I was still keen to read this book. And not just to check I hadn’t been indoctrinated into forgetting it was all a ruse to make me buy stuff.

Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett have a blog I must confess to not knowing much about. Though with a name like the Vagenda, it’s kind of clear what their, erm, agenda is. This is the book inspired by their online presence, and it’s a pretty nifty read. I don’t often subscribe to the idea of items being only for some people (despite the boyish claims, I do love a nice Yorkie) but I’ll suspend this view for a moment to tell you this really is a book for the girls. The sisterhood. From tampon tax to hair removal, this book shows the at times crazy way in which these issues affect us, both in magazines and the wider marketing world.

This is a young book with lots of youthful energy bubbling through, a chatty read with funny comments and sniping comments, not too serious, quite airy and flirty. A bit like, dare I say it, a women’s magazine, in fact. I liked the style, but I can see why others might not. It’s a bit too colloquial in places, and there’s some swearing which, while failing to offend me, always seems a tad lazy and unimaginative. Also, the low key approach detracted from the at times serious messages - I almost felt like the book was underselling itself, being a bit too blasé, at the expense of some well-made points.

It’s not always obvious which of the statements are researched and verified facts and which are opinions, so if that sort of thing matters to you, take note. There are some things I believe to be true, but others I’m less sure about, and sometimes things aren’t entirely clear. For example they speak about US Glamour without highlighting that it’s the overseas (to us) version – I have subscribed to that magazine for years and I like it so much more than the UK version…because they are very different, so despite the matching monikers you really do need to make clear which side of the pond you’re bashing.

You can expect the usual objections in this book. Adverts are too airbrushed, celebs are the subject of fat-shaming, there’s too much focus on being the perfect woman for your man, Kate Middleton’s grey hair should really not be such of a scandal and so on and so on. I read magazines for what they are. I do not mind if the pictures are airbrushed, because I like looking at pretty things. I don’t expect that all the models look just like that in real life, and I don’t expect that I should look just like that in real life, not least because I have a job and that job is not to walk up and down wearing clothes and looking pretty. I find it odd that people object so strongly to airbrushing but are ok with heavy make up and contouring which can radically change an appearance. If you really think people should be au naturel, why not include slap-free in that too? Are articles full of make up tricks to change the way you look really any better? Because they’re still implying you need to change/improve yourself just in a less radical way. Another example? Hop over to the Vagenda website and you’ll see a photo of the girls with the caption Outtake from our covershoot…Having a female photographer was ace because she understood how girls are taught to worry about having their photograph taken and allowed you to look at the shots as you went along, so you could conceal all your bad angles. Bad angles, eh? Pretty sure some airbrushing could sort that out…

I object slightly to the notion that marketing is so strong you have no choice but to be influenced by it. Along these lines is also the notion that because they exist, you have to read these magazines. If you don’t want to read them, don’t buy them or flick through them in the doctor’s waiting room. You always have a choice. Magazines have advertisers. That’s how they remain cheap – often in the US you can get a year’s subscription for $5 or less, delivered, thanks to the revenue from advertising. And those advertisers want to sell things. In Glamour it might be boob jobs and botox, but in Men’s Health it might be protein powders and in the Sunday Times Style supplement it’s often conservatories and exotic holidays. Turn down the sponsors and you lose income. And if those advertisers found they were getting little return on their investments by advertising where they do, they would change who and how they were pitching. It’s a little unfair to have a go at the marketing people who have a product, and an image, to sell, because you still have the choice whether to buy in to it. It’s like blaming fast food companies for making yummy treats that get you fat rather than blaming yourself for scoffing the lot.

Magazines are ridiculous at times, but that’s what makes them such a down-time treat. Taken with a pinch of salt I think they’re pretty harmless, and feel sad for the way they come out of this attack on their very being. For a book that starts off with a feel about women power, we shouldn’t forget that the editorial team of most women’s magazines are heavily female, so in supporting one arm of the sisterhood, you’re effectively amputating another.

I feel like this book lost its purpose a little along the way. It started well but as the arguments grew, so did my confusion about what the book was really trying to say. The bubbly, chary nature does little to hide the negativity and snide comments, making it a Mean Girls type of book. I think it was supposed to leave me feeling powerful and bursting with feminist principles, but instead I felt a bit guilty for still liking magazines and having no intention of boycotting them. It might not be fat-shaming, but read-shaming is just as sad.

Thanks go to the publishers for sending us a copy to review.

Part of the argument in this book is that the indoctrination starts early. If you have tweens who you think are taking magazines as gospel, not having yet worked out that a cynical approach is better, you might like to break up their reading with something like the positive Think Pink by Lisa Clark.

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