Today I read a review of Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Vagenda. I have not yet read the book itself, which is aimed primarily at young women. I probably will read it at some point, but for the time being I’ve decided I don’t have to. A man has read the book and offered his own view on womankind’s relationship with popular culture. This has got to be better than anything some stupid Grazia subscriber might think.
David Aaranovitch is not a young woman. He does, however, have daughters. What’s more, he is known to have existed in the proximity of women for most of his life. He walks amongst them, observing their curious ways and idiosyncrasies. Who better, then, to report back to the rational masses on the enigma that is Women Who Do Stupid Things That Facilitate Their Own Oppression?
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 must be hard for the rational ones to understand why women are such fucking idiots. Take me, for instance. I am in my late thirties and until a year ago I had a subscription to Glamour, even though I knew it was complete and utter shite (except for the Hey, It’s Okay… page, which goes so far beyond shite I haven’t the words to describe it). I knew it and yet I bought it. Because, briefly, it made me feel better. I’d flick through the fashion and beauty pages and feel vaguely hopeful that I might yet attain full, beautiful womanhood, providing I lost some more weight and bought yet more stuff. The less there was of me and the more there was of stuff, the closer I’d be to blossoming.
Let’s be clear: I didn’t formally approve this plan. I knew it was nonsense. But the sense that I would eventually blossom – this feeling that what I look like isn’t really what I look like, just a temporary state of pre-womanhood – has always been with me. I’ve got it from fairy tales, from TV, from going to weddings, from listening to the way boys talk about girls, from the ways I’d win approval from friends and relatives, from adverts, from books, from cartoons, from the difference between what I see in the mirror and what I know I ought to be. I’ve also learned not to talk about it too much because that is vain, weak and shameful. The trick is to go forth and empower yourself with clothes you don’t wear, make-up that fails to transform you and magazines that lie to you. The trick is to wait and wait. Then you never blossom and it’s all your own fault for being so foolish and self-indulgent.
If you are David Aaranovitch this probably sounds idiotic (or maybe you’d just say “think you’ve got problems? I’m still recovering from the Diet Coke Break man in the 1990s”). Sexism is the air we breathe. Complicity in the perpetuation of sexism is as necessary as inhaling and exhaling. You can’t shut yourself off. Buy Glamour or don’t buy Glamour, you’ll still have a body and it will be judged and nothing – absolutely nothing – you wear will ever fail to be placed into some kind of gendered context. Women have to find a way of living a life from within all this. It’s not possible to jump onto the outside and say “the rules don’t apply to me!” You could argue that if all women refused to comply then we’d have a chance to overturn it all, but what about the here and now – the jobs we need, the relationships we form, the basic need for approval, even if we suspect such approval is based on spurious grounds?
Some women feel this more keenly than others. The impact of Glamour is pitiful compared to threats to women’s sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic self-determination. Nonetheless, the enforced complicity, illusion of choice and resultant victim-blaming follow much the same pattern. Why does she read them / stay with him / not demand better? Why do women do that? 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. Hence I find it galling that when women who are in the thick of this dare to comment on the absurdity of the messages they receive, the response is “well, why do you buy into it?” As if it isn’t obvious. As if women don’t have the right to critique their own flawed survival strategies without apologising and exonerating men beforehand.