On the Vagenda: a satire of women’s mags turns into something bigger
Bloggers Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett didn’t intend to get involved in the fourth wave of feminism, but two years after launching Vagenda, they are on a mission
‘Every time we talk to teenage girls they say they don’t want to get involved in feminism because it’s too scary’: Vagenda’s Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. Photograph: Alfie Hope
In the past three years, largely due to the internet and social media, feminism has had a shot in the arm. Journalist Caitlin Moran gave us How to Be a Woman, while Laura Bates catalogued incidents of Everyday Sexism and Caroline Criado-Perez started a campaign to get a woman depicted on British banknotes.
In the midst of all this, two twentysomething London-based flatmates had their own feminist awakening. Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett met through friends at university and spent their Friday nights drinking wine and reading women’s magazines. From sex tips to diet advice, what started out as a bit of laugh soon started to make them uncomfortable.
“We would read aloud to each other in silly voices,” says Baxter, “but began to notice how repetitive and stereotypical the content was, and how critical it was of women, and we wondered if we could do something about it.”
In 2012 they set up Vagenda, a blog critiquing women’s magazines, to vent their frustration and to encourage others to get involved. It attracted huge traffic with its light but acerbic targeting of women’s media. Last year they landed a six-figure book deal, and The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media has just been published.
Not long after the blog started, Baxter and Cossett found themselves being assimilated into broader discussions of feminism. Suddenly, huge expectations were being foisted upon them, even though neither had set out to be the next Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan.
“We were both brought up by single mothers,” says Baxter. “Rhiannon’s mum was very involved in the feminist movement and my mum believed in equality. Neither of us had read all of the feminist texts and theory, but we had a shared idea of examining how women are being portrayed in the media. It was never mean to be about the fourth wave of feminism – we wanted to set up a funny, satirical magazine for women, not a feminist manifesto for 2014 – but we kept being told we were part of it.”
For Cosslett, it was a lot of pressure. “Neither of us was very familiar with the theoretical elements of feminism, so it was difficult, as we hadn’t positioned ourselves that way. It’s said that once a woman in the public eye has a voice, she is then expected to represent all women, and it’s been quite a lot of pressure.”
The book is written in the style of the website: irreverent and sweary – something Cosslett says “may grate on people” – but remains true to the accessible voice that the blog always had. Using the framing technique of media and women’s magazines also allows them to comment on issues outside of their own experiences, like motherhood and childbirth.
“Just because you have no experience of an issue doesn’t mean that your opinion is not valid. That’s quite an anti-intellectual idea,” says Cosslett.
Vagenda is not (much as some want it to be) a clarion call for how feminism should evolve, and it will not become a go-to text for academic feminists, for the reasons both women outline. Instead, it is a lighthearted look at how women are represented in media.
The blog has been criticised for being written from a position of privilege. The two women have been accused of not addressing intersectionality (examining feminism where race, class, ethnicity, sexuality meet), which has become one of the most strongly debated aspects of feminism, leading to infighting and factionalism.
Writer Laurie Penny was lambasted for an article about cutting her hair to deflect unwanted male attention. Women of colour (and others) accused her of not acknowledging their issues with Afro-Caribbean hair.
“Lived experience” has often clashed with intersectionality, to the point where some women feel they can’t write about their own experiences without being accused of ignoring the views of non-white, lesbian, disabled or transgender women.
“We weren’t aware of intersectionality until we started talking to feminists online. We wanted to steer clear of speaking for all women, so the book focuses on our own experience, but by holding up a mirror to the media that exists, we can all see that diversity is lacking.”
Both women have worked in journalism. We discuss the ongoing issue of women occupying fewer positions in print and broadcasting than men, as well as gendered criticism of female writers. Cosslett cites an article by activist Laurie Penny, headlined “An opinion is the short skirt of the internet”.
“There is a sense that a woman with an opinion is inviting people to destroy her, just as a male journalist won’t be called a ‘slapper’ for giving his opinion on Ukraine or Syria.”
They have encountered a lot of online abuse, and feel that much of it is linked to their feminist views. How bad is it?
“Oh, being called a c**t, getting rape threats, people googling aspects of your personal life with a view to using them against you, ad hominem attacks that have nothing to with what you’re actually saying. I’ve never encountered the level of personal abuse that I have since becoming involved in feminism. It’s made me have a huge respect for any woman in the public eye who sticks her neck out and says, ‘I believe this, and this is my opinion,’ ” says Cosslett.
One man contacted Baxter to say he had trawled through all the school records in her area and accused her of lying about where she was a pupil. “A lot of time we get the ‘you’re white, middle class, straight’,” she says, “which is making a lot of assumptions about our sexuality and class.”
They are undeterred by these attacks, and feel more determined to get the message about feminism across to young women. Both went to state schools and had never been introduced to feminism as a way of thinking. Through the blog, they have had a lot of contact with young girls, and some teachers have contacted them to say they will use the book to talk to students.
“Every time we talk to teenage girls they say they don’t want to get involved in feminism because it’s too scary, too academic and too alienating, and we want to change that,” says Baxter.
“We get emails from girls who read the blog and say, ‘I don’t feel so alone.’ Teenage years can be very lonely and isolating when you don’t fit into that media ideal of being a woman. We want to tell girls that there are places for them, for diverse kinds of women, and that they don’t have to squash themselves into this tiny ideal.”
The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media is published by Square Peg
THE BIGGEST ISSUE: VAGENDA ON WOMEN’S MAGS
What issue are you most concerned with when it comes to women’s magazines?
BAXTER: “The normalisation of plastic surgery, where an article about body confidence appears alongside an ad for nose jobs or breast implants. Messages of self-esteem are wrapped up in endless advertorials about surgery. In Cosmo there are about 20 pages of ads at the back, and this bleed of advertorial into editorial makes me angry.”
COSSLETT: “Weight-loss tips that wouldn’t be out of place on pro-anorexia websites. One high-profile UK women’s magazine suggested leaving a window open at night because ‘shivering helps burn calories’.”