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Responses to The Vagenda

The Vagenda, Cosslett and Baxter’s interrogation of how the media pressures women to look and behave a certain way, has been causing a stir recently.  Sarah McCorqodale offers this executive summary of the book’s position on women’s magazines:

They’re bad. They make women feel rubbish. Reading them is stupid.

I haven’t bought a woman’s magazine this millennium, but such a sweeping dismissal does indeed seem a bit exaggerated.  However McCorqodale (who is herself the editor of an online women’s magazine) doesn’t do a very good job at defending them.  In fact when I first skimmed the piece, I thought it was satirical.

Hurrah! Is there no value in that window to something dreamier than the mundane, shuffling everyday? Who cares if your job’s rubbish? So what if you can only afford Topshop? You can forget bills, bad news and boredom when reading a good glossy.

Escapism is fine up to a point, but one might hope a good woman’s magazine would encourage women’s aspirations and offer some advice for career enhancement rather than act as a kind of opiate to suppress dissatisfaction.

2. They start or make conversations better. My friends and I still do it when talking about men, jobs, houses, everything. One of us pours out all our woes about an idiot boyfriend or boss, and another one pipes up with, “well, I read inGlamour/Cosmopolitan/Grazia…” You can always count on women’s mags to have a relatable story that makes you believe a) things might turn out okay or b) things could be so much worse.

Both ways in which women’s magazines are supposed to offer solace seem potentially dangerous, encouraging either misplaced fairytale fantasies, or a willingness to accept one’s lot simply because others are having an even worse time.

3. They genuinely provide style and beauty inspiration (even when you’ve got no money and a terrible wardrobe). Look, learning how to dress perfectly is a lifelong process.

Most women (most people) don’t have the money or time to ‘dress perfectly’ and in any case probably think other issues better worth attending to.

But Glosswitch, arguing that women’s magazines are dangerously oppressive, makes her case no better.  She is responding to this piece by David Aaronovitch in the Times.

Here’s what he has to say on the fact that women – silly, self-destructive women – are the ones who purchase the likes of Glamour and Cosmo:

Men don’t buy or read these publications and certainly don’t insist their wives, daughters, sisters or girl-friends do. The woman is a victim of the magazine that she herself chooses. If these are as damaging as Baxter and Cosslett say they are, then why don’t women buy something else?

While I’m very glad that men don’t “insist” we read the glossies it’s not clear to me why Aaranovitch stops there. Following this logic, pretty much everything that causes women anguish, they bring on themselves.

Make-up – what’s that all about? It’s not as though men force you to wear it! And diets! Don’t you know every red-blooded male likes a woman with a healthy appetite and a bit of meat on her bones (as long as that “bit of meat” = tits)? And pornography, sex work and page three – don’t look at the men, you’re the ones choosing to do all that! And that low-paid and unpaid work you’re so keen on undertaking – I mean, men appreciate it, but it’s not as though they’re holding a gun to your head! And staying with abusive partners, and not reporting rapes, and by the way, did you know that most FGM practitioners are women? JUST WHAT IS YOUR FUCKING PROBLEM, LADIES?

It’s not quite accurate to compare buying women’s magazines with social pressure to diet or wear make up. Media/culture is full of signals which may make women anxious about their appearance.  We can’t avoid these completely, and may internalize them.   But there doesn’t seem to be any comparable direct pressure to buy women’s magazines.

Although McCorqodale is an advocate for the magazines and Glosswitch a critic, both seem to offer similarly distorted views of the women who enjoy them. McCorqodale implies that readers take what they read to heart, study lifestyle and beauty tips with anxious seriousness, and use the magazines as a means to escape, rather than tackle, the real world. Glosswitch’s rhetoric suggests that readers are angst-ridden victims of the most horrible oppression, driven to buy these terrible publications as some kind of survival mechanism.  She does concede that they aren’t quite comparable to domestic violence, but goes on:

Nonetheless, the enforced complicity, illusion of choice and resultant victim-blaming follow much the same pattern. Because they know the rules. They know the consequences of asking for more are not going to be getting more. They know that without real social, economic and political change – and genuine support from the men who currently watch them in bafflement – they might as well make the best of what they’ve got.

I suspect most readers of women’s magazines take them a good deal less seriously than either Glosswitch or McCorqodale would lead us to believe.