On Vagenda, David Aaranovitch and women’s complicity in their own oppression

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.

17 thoughts on “On Vagenda, David Aaranovitch and women’s complicity in their own oppression

  1. Well he is Jewish. Why do you think most feminists are Jewish? Because they have to live with mesh men like Aaronivich.

  2. I hate those magazines with a passion and have refused to buy them since I was about 16, but even so, I still feel the temptation to buy them. I still glance at them in the newsagents or the supermarket and think that maybe if I bought them they’d unlock some kind of secrets that’d allow me to become the beautiful woman I should be. Because of course I don’t look like the women in adverts or magazines, so I must be missing something.

  3. I’m with you Muder of Goths and find myself buying in to it even though I’m consciously trying to reject ‘femininity’ at the moment. I also recognise how privileged I am in being able to do so without too much “punishment”.

    I get angrier with women and even angrier with men (yes David Aaronvitch I’m talking about you) who blame women for buying into this than those women who embrace it. It is incredibly difficult to overcome conditioning even without the penalties involved for doing so.

  4. Here is the context for the quotation from my review. Readers can decide whether Glosswitch’s precis and conclusions are fair. I am afraid I can’t trust myself to respond to Jamie’s point above:
    “…this stuff goes on for 300-plus pages. And after a while its own underlying assumption becomes almost oppressive. This is that magazines “make” the reader do or be something. They “target” you, they “point accusingly at you from behind the page, primed to deliver you a hefty shot of insecurity to complement your morning Botox”. They “expect” women “to live up to some form of arbitrarily decided ‘ideal body’.” They “insert their caustic world view into your mind”.
    Why? What’s in it for them? “Magazines seemed to want to provoke insecurities in their readers”. Or, “it’s as though the media wants us in a constant battle with the processes of our bodies”. Because? Because “the fact of the matter is that ever since women became a target for those shadowy suits known as advertising executives, the media have been creating a lack of body confidence and then using the resultant anxiety as a marketing tactic”.
    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?
    This is no whatabouting query. It is, in fact, the most important question, because it takes you to the heart of how women’s chronic insecurity is transmitted. And The Vagenda devotes just 500 words out of about 100,000 to posing it and then not answering it at all.
    It is a deeply frustrating failure. A six-figure advance should have offered the authors the chance to talk to anthropologists, a psychotherapist or two, to ring round the best sociologists in the field, maybe even take some feminist intellectuals out to lunch.
    Instead what may be part of the answer appears almost accidentally on page 170 in a discussion of fashion in general and disco knickers in particular. Holly, we’re told, had bought some. And her mother’s rather candid response — “I like them. I mean, I like the fact that they’d look great if you had longer legs, a tan and no fat on your thighs” — was pretty much par for the course (and marginally nicer than the follow-up, a few months later: “I was beautiful at your age. I looked just like your cousin.”).
    Isn’t this the real voice of the women’s magazine? The voice of the mother who the little girl wanted to emulate? The mother who judged her and who she learned to make judgments from? Well, it’s a theory and it didn’t cost 100 grand.”

    Of course what also distinguishes this discussion is the fact that I’ve read the book and Glosswitch hasn’t.

    1. I don’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone else but you seem to have spectacularly missed the point here. You would have saved yourself all this trouble if you had edited the sentence; ‘Men don’t buy or read these magazines and certainly don’t insist their wives, daughters, sisters or girl-friends do’ out of the article. As it is, Glosswitch was perfectly right to, rather wittily, take you to task over your risibly patriarchal, paternalistic befuddlement with the fact that women might choose to do something that men had not ordered them to do. You are probably right that Cosslett and Baxter have not had the final word, or provided a coherent theory, on women’s continued internalisation of a narcissistic, self-hating preoccupation with bodily perfection. Or, for that matter, why there is such a pull of something like pleasure towards things that do us no good. There are plenty of other books on the subject, but the complexity of such feminist theories on the construction of gendered identity and it’s assimilation into the constant desire for products that offer impossible outcomes that is such a feature of a late capitalist, neo-liberal society might be a tad heavy going for you. However, I must absolutely insist that you read them. Really, you must, it’s an order.

    2. You don’t understand concepts like socialization or the problems with the notion of free choice. You either didn’t read glosswitch’s post or failed to parse the important parts of it, or maybe deliberately ignored the point.

    3. No, what distinguishes this discussion is that you are blaming women for the pressures they are under to buy into this stuff despite not actually experiencing it for yourself and are then dismissing the voices of women who have (and still do) experience it, somehow assuming your privileged position gives you greater insight.

      1. I am not “blaming” anyone. I don’t accept either the parody of my argument that this is “all women’s fault” or the suggestion that women have no agency. What interested me was the psychological question of why, when choice is so possible, this is the choice that is made. That exploration would have made the book something more than a constant reiteration over 300 pages of the same basic point – that womens’ magazines (and the world that nurtures them) are shit.

        1. I have to say I think I understand what you mean, David. The really interesting thing to talk about is not that this situation exists, but to examine what coincidence of culture, psychology, society, conditioning, history and other factors have brought it about. And it doesn’t sound like this book examines those factors at all (I haven’t read it, so can’t comment).

          I also don’t buy Susanna’s idea that David hasn’t read any of the literature that does examine those themes – more that he’s asking why none of it is represented in the book.

    4. Maybe magazines are the voices of our mothers and that’s why women buy them. Or here’s another theory:

      Women buy magazines to find out the latest new and expensive ways of augmenting their appearance. They do this because there is an economic premium on women’s fuckability that does not exist for men. The high value placed on women’s appearances over their skills is what we would expect of a male-dominated society in which women are, first and foremost, sexual commodities.

      So, yes. Women choose the magazines themselves, and what those magazines prescribe is bad for those women. But they are driven by a set of material, economic parameters that mean beauty/fuckability has survival value for women. This doesn’t mean women lack agency, it is simply asking why so many women converge on the same strategy.

  5. this was fucking hilarious. ‘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?’ I might get this on a T-shirt. Brilliant article, thank you.

  6. It’s such a simplistic and ignorant way of looking at things, though sadly not surprising. I can fully understand how destructive and nonsensical the pressures put on women about their appearance are and rail against them, while at the same time feeling insecure about my own body. That’s the complexity we’re dealing with and not just something we choose to embrace of our own accord.

  7. Maybe magazines are the voices of our mothers and that’s why women buy them. Or here’s another theory:

    Women buy magazines to find out the latest new and expensive ways of augmenting their appearance. They do this because there is an economic premium on women’s fuckability that does not exist for men. The high value placed on women’s appearances over their skills is what we would expect of a male-dominated society in which women are, first and foremost, sexual commodities.

    So, yes. Women choose the magazines themselves, and what those magazines prescribe is bad for those women. But they are driven by a set of material, economic parameters that mean beauty/fuckability has survival value for women.

  8. It’s not convincing to say that women aren’t to blame for buying oppressive magazines because the conditioning is too strong. That’s like saying that men have no responsibility for buying lad’s mags or page threes because they are conditioned to do so. I don’t like what lad’s mag and red tops generally represent so I hardly ever buy them.
    The other issue you’re overlooking is that the newspaper & magazines act together in terms of distribution of the hard copy product. All the titles (except Murdochs) arrive on the same van. Distribution is the main overhead for the paper editions, so the “respectable” publications are in bed with the others on this to cut costs. It would be interesting to know the explanation of The Guardian (and its feminist columnists) and The Indy (Aaronovitch) and The New Statesman as to why they collude with the lad mag and page three publishers on this.

  9. Yes, women buying magazines that show them what latest flavor of capitalistic masochism is both expected of them to survive in an overwhelmingly misogynistic culture AND is simultaneously held always out of reach (thus the guilty pleasure of the short/fat/awkward/pimply/poor etc girl buying said mags) — is exactly the same as men buying magazines that cater to their every penis. It’s not like we’re trained FROM BIRTH to aspire to pretty princess status IN ORDER TO EVER BE LOVED SHEESH. And OF COURSE Glossy is in charge of the mass distribution of all media in the UK – all she has to do is withhold her woman-centric analysis and et voila, the trucks will stop! Power analysis is for chumps, feeling vaguely superior by denouncing everyone is for winners!

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