This is the first in a series of blog posts which will share some of my research on Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club and discussion forum established by Emma Watson. This post provides a brief introduction to the group and my research.
Emma Watson may be one of the most recognisable women in the world right now. She is, at the very least, one of the highest paid actors of 2017 (excluding, y’know, men). Best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the eight Harry Potter films and more recently as Belle in the stunningly successful remake of Beauty and the Beast, you have probably also seen her talking about gender inequality. Emma Watson is interesting to me as a celebrity whose activism takes multiple forms. Since 2014 she has been a UN Women goodwill ambassador, and the public face of their HeforShe campaign. On her social media accounts advocacy sits side by side with, and is often integrated into, promotion for her films and fashion shoots. The audience she can attract through these forms of activism is impressive; her speech to launch HeforShe at the UN in 2016 has been viewed online millions of times and received international media attention, while she also has one of the most-followed Instagram accounts in the world.
What interests me the most are Watson’s slightly more unconventional methods of using her celebrity status to promote, and encourage engagement with, a political message. As part of my broader research on celebrity interventions in politics, I decided to take a closer look at Our Shared Shelf.
What is Our Shared Shelf?
Our Shared Shelf (OSS) is a feminist book group and discussion forum hosted by Goodreads. Watson founded the group in January 2016 as a next step to her UN role, telling potential members that she wanted to share what she was learning from reading ‘as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on’, and to ‘hear your thoughts too’. OSS rapidly became the Goodreads’ largest group, and currently has over 200,000 members. Every other month a book is selected (usually by Watson) for discussion, from memoirs by feminists to novels with feminist themes, but the forum allows members to discuss a broad range of topics related (and unrelated) to feminism. Watson also frequently interviews the authors of feminist books selected for OSS, often sourcing questions from members.
Why was I interested?
My interest in the many ways that politics and popular culture intersect has always been driven by curiosity over what this means for how people consume, discuss, and act upon political information. I wanted to say more about the people who engage with celebrity-led or assisted campaigns, why they do this, and what this means for their everyday engagement with politics.
I was also interested in OSS in the context of online spaces as a platform both for feminist discussion and activism, and for misogynist abuse. We’ve seen how Twitter can be used as a platform to share experiences of sexism and sexual violence, for example through the Everyday Sexism project. While social media may lower barriers to participation, Emma A. Jane’s Misogyny Online shows that sexist abuse through these same platforms leads some women to self-censor, while witnessing attacks may lead others not to speak out in the first place. I was interested in how OSS might complement engagement with political issues on social media, or attract people who don’t want to discuss feminism or sexism in this context.
What did I want to know?
- How does Emma Watson engage with and represent OSS? (Why) do members perceive her as a legitimate representative of OSS or of feminists more broadly?
- Why and how do OSS members engage with the group, and what does this mean for their everyday engagement with political issues?
How did I go about this?
I’ll spare you the details (unless you want to chat digital methods and research ethics, in which case marry me let me know). I used participant observation and fieldnotes to see which key themes would emerge and to answer questions about Watson’s representation of and engagement with the group (including through social and other media). I decided for a number of reasons (including ethical considerations) that it would be best to approach questions about OSS members primarily through interviews conducted online, but I also got to attend the Women’s March in London with a couple of participants. I came to digital ethnography clueless and left fascinated, and credit these books for helping.
What did I find?
Too much for one post! Here are the main questions I ended up addressing:
- Why do members participate in OSS? What is the role of Emma Watson in prompting and/or motivating members to join?
- (Why) is Emma Watson perceived as a legitimate representative for feminists?
- To what is extent is OSS perceived as a community, and what is it a community for?
- Do participants learn as a result of engaging with OSS, and what do they learn about?
- Does engagement with OSS increase political discussion, efficacy, and/or participation?
I think that this case can tell us a lot about a lot of things, from why some celebrities are seen as legitimate political actors while others are not, to why some people love to post on message forums and what they get out of their engagement (as well as those who prefer to just read, or ‘lurk’).
I’ll be sharing some of my findings on this blog as I work through these and other questions, and if any of this interests you I’d love, as Emma Watson says, to hear your thoughts too 🙂