Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Cosslett: Vagenda at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Review by Heather McDaid
“There’s got to be traction in making fun of this,” remembers Holly Baxter, one half of Vagenda Magazine. Graduating in the recession, sitting with two cheap bottles of wine and a pile of women’s mags, she and Rhiannon Cosslett got bored of the repetition, or famed Cosmo articles like ‘Step Away From The Penis’.
Now, they’re at the forefront of fourth wave feminism. “We better find out what that means,” she jokes, as Rhiannon laughs, “We’re it!” They join the likes of Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project, or as Holly interprets, “feminism taking on different fronts, but in a positive manner.”
A year in they were 8 million views deep; it’s largely their sense of humour that clicks with people. Because they didn’t set out with a view to people actually reading or scrutinising it they had the liberty to be a bit more extreme.
But they’ve not always been so stridently set on this path, with Rhiannon recalling a time years ago where she was watching Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirty’ on TV. Her mother appeared, saying, “This is not what I fought for.” She thinks that it’s the humour of the situation that made it stand out, despite her teenage defiance at the time.
Talk moves on from the site’s beginnings and their younger years onto the magazines that they feel attack women’s insecurities. From marketing studies highlighting when women are most vulnerable and calling them prime opportunities to advertise, to the dichotomy of a double page spread – one side had a feature to love yourself, the other a plastic surgery ad – they have strong opinions.
“Are there any magazines you can actually read and enjoy?” one audience member laughs. Elle, for one, asked for their advice on how to be better for their readers, so there’s that at least.
It’s not always been this way, they hasten to add. In researching their book they noticed that there was progression every few decades that slowly dipped. The internet is the opportunity for a resurgence in demanding a better product than the famed sidebar of shame.
Audience questions move onto darker territory – through rape culture and FGM, to lack of education on how to conduct yourself safely with technology – but the pair both deliver strong points without losing their upbeat tone, reference points with their satirical twist and a call to arms vibe underpinning it.
The event is a physical representation of that phenomenon they talk of often: a comfortable place to talk about feminism frankly. As one attendee tells of his views that people are people, rather than citing one sex over the other, it’s met not with feisty put downs but the opportunity to start a dialogue.
Vagenda comes from a serious place, but still asks, “Why is she in her pants, but Robin Thicke isn’t?”
Going to the Edinburgh Festival?
• Unsure what to see? Read all The Scotsman reviews
• What’s hot (or not): Browse the reviews by star rating
• Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to our daily email newsletter
• Join the conversation with #WOWFEST and follow it live