By now, you’ve probably read (or at least heard of) Louise O’Neill‘s compelling YA dystopia Only Ever Yours. If you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and buy it at once. An updated The Handmaid’s Tale, it tells the story of a world in which women are artificially created, and raised for use by men, whether as companions or concubines. The girls are conditioned to be obsessed with their looks, and to judge each other for failing to fit a narrow beauty ideal. Their purpose in life is to please men, and they will be terminated when they reach an undesirable age. Their interactions with men must be strictly on the men’s terms: they are not allowed to say “no” to a man, and yet they are slut-shamed for having sex. The parallels with real life are powerful, but obviously exaggerated. Right?
That’s what I thought when I first read it in December—but then I read The Vagenda. And slowly, a skin-prickling nausea started to creep in. Because I realised that Only Ever Yours isn’t as far off from our world as it seems.
I read Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Vagenda for Cattitude & Co’s feminist book club, so my review is over there, but in the two weeks since I finished it, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
Perhaps it’s because it’s repetitive, deliberately so. The book is packed with examples of the patriarchal brainwashing that we’ve been facing our entire lives, but instead of subtly slipped onto glossy magazine pages and wrapped in shiny pink packaging, it’s in your face, and it’s all at once. And laid out like that, it becomes obvious what women really are to the world: a collection of body parts with a value attached.
The book starts with the history of women’s magazines, highlighting the way advertising shaped the editorial: in order to sell beauty products, the magazines first had to convince us that we weren’t good enough. Feeling like you want to wear a bag over your head this morning? Blame capitalism.
Chapter by chapter, The Vagenda explores in painful detail the different ways that media portrayal of women has affected our lives. There’s the way we see ourselves, of course, but there’s also what we wear, what we eat, the language we use and the way we have sex. There’s the way we are treated in the workplace. There’s the way we treat each other, and the way we are treated by men.
The last chapter of the book is on “lad culture”—a charming, harmless name for raping and abusing women before passing it off as a hilarious joke. I reached the end of this chapter with tears rolling down my face. I felt utterly desperate; how are we ever going to make a change when this misogyny is so ingrained in our culture that we can’t even see it?
The morning after finishing The Vagenda, I was still feeling incredibly wound up—so I threw the book at my unsuspecting husband’s face and stormed out of the room. That may not have been the most rational response, but I really want him to read it. I really want everyone to read it. Everyone who’s ever told me that the patriarchy isn’t real, everyone who’s ever told me that we don’t need consent classes, everyone who’s ever suggested that it’s in women’s biology to obsess over their appearance, and not the product of this sick money-grabbing power struggle.
The only thing that could crack a smile from my tear-streaked face was the book’s parting page: a series of resolutions for how to make the world better. It’s a tall order, but I do believe one day we’ll get there. I have to believe it, otherwise it’s a pretty bleak future. Otherwise I might as well send any future daughters I may have straight to “The School” from Only Ever Yours.
And so, in the final words of Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, “we need to confront those people who still claim that we don’t live in a man’s world, that we don’t need feminism any more, and we need to laugh them right out of the fucking park.”
Add me on Snapchat (eggplantvlog) for more 3am book rants. This week, I’m trying to read My Life on the Road in time for Emma Watson’s book club.