Under the Covers: An Interview with Vagenda

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Features Editor Ruby Lott-Lavigna talks to Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, the brains behind the hugely successful feminist website, the Vagenda, and authors of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Not wanting to mess up this opportunity to interview the Vagenda editors, I arrive at Rhiannon’s house (one half of the Vagenda) embarrassingly early. This leaves me with two options. Either knock on the door and just hope my extreme punctuality doesn’t make me look uncool, or stand outside like a stalker. Naturally, I opt for the latter.

I’ve wanted to meet the two editors, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter, for a number of years now. Not only because I love the Vagenda, a witty website designed to call bullshit on magazine culture and beyond. Or because they published a great book in 2013 entitled The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media. But because, back in the summer of 2012, I sent tentatively sent an email asking if I could write for them. They were one of the first websites that ever agreed to publish any of my work, and since then I’ve been eternally thankful for the presence of the Vagenda in a world full of GQ, 50 Shades of Grey and Bic pens.

Vagenda-coverTwo things struck me when I began talking to Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. The first thing was the emphasis they put on the website being funny. It is funny, and I’ve never laughed at anything like quite like the Vagenda, yet somehow I had labeled the website as simply ‘feminist’, a pit fall that many of their critics fall into. (Of course, it’s a comedy website, I think. Damn sexist brain.) The second thing was that the Vagenda didn’t intend to start as a feminist website. “We set it up for media criticism and stuff. We were talking about the portrayal of women and things but we didn’t attach the label ‘feminist’ to it consciously.

“We never thought of it as a feminist website, we thought of it just like a funny website. But then the media did this whole ‘the fourth wave of feminism’ thing, and said ours and some other people were at the forefront of it and it was obviously feminist. When they said that we were like ‘yeah, sure’ but it wasn’t consciously set up using feminism.”

The website was set up in 2010 by the two university friends and a group of other journalists, and unexpectedly blew up overnight. “We didn’t even really know what going viral was,” says Rhiannon. They then found themselves thrown into the media limelight, suddenly heading the online movement of online feminism. “It was really strange, we didn’t have a twitter, we didn’t have any social media presence. We had no idea where it had come from.

“One minute I was just literally living in that cupboard there [Holly points to a small room-cum-storing cupboard next to the living room in Rhiannon’s flat], and the next, people were coming in with photographers and were taking pictures of us and being like ‘this is where it all began!’.“

The Vagenda hit a niche. It pioneered a style that was hilarious and clever, speaking to thousands of young women who had a lot of things to be pissed off about.  I remember it well: their articles would circle around my Facebook, from one friend to another. As a result, we (without realising) began critiquing and analyzing the world around us as feminists. My friends and I would read it, thinking it was hilarious, and then would realise “oh, all these ideas align with feminism. Huh.” It was a glorious online Trojan horse of feminism, right when we needed it.
“We tried to be a bit more populist about it and be more open and accessible and I think accessible feminism hadn’t really existed before this did for very long.

“…we set up the blog for girls like us, and for the kind of girls that we went to school with, and our mates. We weren’t necessarily embroiled in that kind of academic discussion.”

It was for women, “who weren’t doing a masters in Gender Studies,” Holly adds.

“We wanted it to be for everybody, for every woman on the street, not kind of some exclusive thing where you need proper terminology.”

In 2012, after the success of website, and the development of the pair’s journalism careers, they got offered a book deal with publishing house Square Peg. There was a big demand for a book, and they were able to be selective with who they were published by. It marked a clear change in the zeitgeist: post-How To Be A Woman. Feminism had become financially worthwhile. Feminism had become mainstream.

The book released a mixed response, which is essentially a euphemism for: the press thought it was far too light, and not rigorous enough in its fact checking. Germaine Greer, in one of her madder moments, wrote a review which the New Statesman titled “The Failures of New Feminism.” Notable moments of the review include the brutal deconstruction of the name which, according to Greer, “like much of the wordplay on the blog and in the book… doesn’t really work, being neither amusing nor informative.” Ouch. It goes completely bizarre toward the end as Greer writes the sentence, “The human breast, like the bovine udder, will not squirt unless compressed.” It’s got to be the strangest review I’ve read.

Germainecrop“Poor Germaine,” says Rhiannon.

None the less, Greer is an important figure, if a little out of date, and understandably the review would have been a blow to the authors. “It was a real low point for me” says Holly, “because…when they said ‘Germaine Greer’s going to do it’ we were like ‘God, Germaine Greer!’ She’s such a feminist powerhouse. I thought, well, there are going to be things  – because she’s so much more experienced and she’s been writing for so much longer – that she’ll pick up on and she won’t like or she won’t get on with; but ultimately I’m sure she’ll see it as something really positive that the younger generation are doing. And the fact that there really wasn’t a single positive word in there and that she ended on ‘pouring bile into a blood won’t change anything.’… It felt, actually, nasty.”

“There were journalists who had been sharpening their pencils for two years just waiting to get back at us [for critiquing their work in magazines like Grazia] because it’s embarrassing to be ridiculed, especially to be held up for doing something hurtful and sexist.”

Rhiannon manages to put a positive spin on it. “Well, I sort of saw it as par for the course because Germaine Greer has insulted pretty much every young feminist that’s come out in the last twenty years. She did it to Suzanne Moore, she did it to Naomi Walsh, she’s done it to everybody.”

Much like my ignorant paraphrasing of the Vagenda blog that overlooked its clear comedy element, the reviews similarly ignored or overlooked the fact that the book was a piece of satire and humour. I’ve read it, and I knew it wasn’t going to be an academic discussion on the discourse of cis heteronormativity. What the Vagenda did, is write a feminist book that I read by the pool on holiday. And that is a space where the discussion of gender and oppressive beauty norms has almost certainly never reached. That’s exactly where the book succeeded; it brought feminism into a place where it hadn’t been previously.

“Unfortunately, if you’re writing, and you’re conscious that part of your audience are teenagers who have been fed a lot of shit from the Daily Mail about how evil ugly disgusting feminists are going to destroy little boys’ lives, you have to reel them in a bit.”

There was something upsetting in the way most (often, female) reviewers had cut into the Vagenda book, succumbing to the almost sexist stereotype that all women were just out to get each other. The reviews were pedantic, picking up on bizarrely small parts of the book, as if they were looking for something to critique. “There were journalists who had been sharpening their pencils for two years just waiting to get back at us [for critiquing their work in magazines like Grazia] because it’s embarrassing to be ridiculed, especially to be held up for doing something hurtful and sexist. It was like, you know, little giDSC_0094rls getting too big for their boots, I think that was a factor as well.”

Just like the website, the book gave an entry to feminist for those who felt alienated by it. They avoid using terms like ‘the patriarchy’ until the end, attempting to create a tone and style that hadn’t been blacklisted by the Daily Mail. They’ve been doing this their whole career: In a slightly controversial move in 2013, the Vagenda started a campaign to “rebrand feminism,” with Elle magazine. Depending on how look at it, it was either democratising feminism, or giving into the idea that feminism was a dirty word.

They dealt with this issue when writing the book. “If we opened up with ‘this is why you should hate the patriarchy’, I think a lot of people would put the book down.” Says Holly. “Unfortunately, if you’re writing, and you’re conscious that part of your audience are teenagers who have been fed a lot of shit from the Daily Mail about how evil ugly disgusting feminists are going to destroy little boys’ lives, you have to reel them in a bit, before you start explaining those words and talking about them because they are very loaded terms now. It’s a shame, and I don’t think the answer is renaming feminism to ‘Equalism’, I really feel we should hold onto the word feminism. It has a rich history that doesn’t need editing out.”

This will always be the central debate around the Vagenda. By using humour, and a style that’s limited but easily accessible, does the Vagenda reach out to a new audience, or does it generalise feminism by ‘dumbing down’? As Rhiannon points out, “It’s got teenagers into these kinds of issues, and we know that because they’ve said that to us.”

I know that, for one, I can’t wait to give the book to my twelve-year-old sister. That’s always been the place for the Vagenda – not the London intelligentsia of journalists, but the young girls who spend their evenings watching make-up tutorials on YouTube for hours. That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws to this style, and they’re aware of the criticism they’ve received. Ultimately though, you have to take the Vagenda on its own terms, and that’s to reach people like my little sister, who are just beginning to understand what a sexist world they live in.

Saying that, there’s a fair amount of blow job-based humour in the book. So I might wait a few years before passing it over.

Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Photographs: vagendamagazine.com, @Vagendamagazine, ideastap.com, Graham Turner/Guardian, artrix.com

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