Emma Watson and Everyday Feminism: new blog series on Our Shared Shelf

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?

Picture1

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?

Picture2I 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 🙂

Advertisements

‘Won’t Somebody Please Think of the (Contestants’) Children?’ Is criticism of Love Island legitimate concern or just snobbery?

So, like at least two million other people, I’ve been watching Love Island.

I try not to say this in a confessional tone, but it’s difficult not to see reality TV as a guilty pleasure when people are quick to display their ‘superior’ cultural tastes and intelligence by telling you what you like is trash. I know this. I love The Wire, I do, but I also think The Simple Life is amazing and wanted Nicole Richie to be my friend until I met Nikki Soo and thought, same difference.  

But beyond the snobbish dismissal of Love Island as television ‘for the hard of thinking’, there is criticism more worth entertaining. This generally falls into one of two arguments based on two separate concerns – that Love Island is bad for the people who watch it, or that it’s bad for the people we are watching.

Bad for the people who watch it

Panic on the screens of London, panic on the screens of Birmingham, there are people having sex on TV…

I’m not going to waste time arguing that Love Island doesn’t really show sex and isn’t really about sex (but it doesn’t, and it isn’t). A more convincing reason for worrying the show is a bad influence is based on what Love Island represents, rather than what it shows.

You won’t need to watch for more than two minutes to see that Love Island is for the young, fit and tanned. There goes my plan to try to get my thesis in before a stint of free Mallorcan sun with a side of constant paranoia next summer.  Love Island has also been criticised for being a straight person’s game, even if producers insist that contestants can do what they want. Boys pick girls, girls pick boys, repeat until contracts end. Clearly these problems are not unique to Love Island, but I understand what this exclusivity says about who is desirable and deserves to find love (or at least, to be seen doing so on telly).

There are also concerns that the show promotes an unhealthy view of relationships. Of course, your view on this will depend on how you think people should date and/or mate. It’s probably not for anyone who thinks Tinder is the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. The contestants may be beautiful, but Love Island has its ugly moments. The chief executive of Women’s Aid warned that Jonny’s behaviour toward Tyla was ‘possessive and controlling’, while Olivia was accused of bullying Chris for chastising him for crying.

The question here is whether these relationships are presented as the ideal, or as cautionary tales. On Love Island nothing goes unframed by the lovingly sarcastic tones of the narrator, quick to mock even if not condemn bad behaviour. Camilla spawned a thousand think pieces when she tried to educate Jonny about feminism, and watching people fumble their way through dating has led some to argue that Love Island could actually educate us. Caitlin Moran described watching the show with her teenage daughters as a ‘valuable life lesson’ because ‘it’s basically an hour of people just talking about their feelings’, where worrying behaviours become learning opportunities.

The argument that the show is educational errs on the side of taking it too seriously (she says, writing 1000 words about it), and may be a self-conscious justification for enjoying reality TV. But this does raise an important point on why fear that Love Island is a bad influence is misguided. Skeggs and Wood’s 2012 book Reacting to Reality Television demonstrates that audiences do not simply swallow what is put in front of them, instead interpreting programmes and the people in them differently according to their own life experiences.

While we’re not all watching Love Island with our mums, I’d bet that most of us are discussing the show with other people. The sex and the ridiculous slapstick games may raise eyebrows, but Love Island really is just a show where people talk, a lot, about relationships. The relationships forged and broken on accelerated Love-Island-time are not normal (and not necessarily ‘genuine’), but as you watch them unfold you will undoubtedly recognise behaviours from your own life and the lives of those around you (yes you, shouting at the screen for her to take his compliments, stop shouting at yourself). This can be interesting, it can certainly be worrying, and it could possibly be useful.

Bad for the people we’re watching 

Image result for love island

‘You’ll have plenty of time to ask more questions, when it’s all normal again’ – Camilla

‘Is it ever going to be normal again?’ – Camilla’s mum

I get the argument that contestants may one day be mortified by what other people have seen, but these days there are plenty of ways to publicly embarrass yourself in a way the internet will never forget. But shows like Love Island have also been accused of exploiting their mainly working class participants for the benefit of viewers’ amusement and producers’ pockets, paying them little-to-nothing then spitting them out to sink or swim.

Reality TV partly appeals because some really do swim. Professor Helen Wood discusses the success some Geordie Shore housemates have had turning their structured reality fame into long-term financial investments, but finds disparity even among the most popular. While the girls rely on appearance-based media work which will eventually fizzle out, the boys are better placed to make a long-term living. Clearly not all former reality TV contestants can make enough money from this exposure to support themselves, and it seems unlikely that a more conventional job search wouldn’t be complicated by their 15 minutes of fame.

While I would argue that appearing in these shows is work (even when it looks like a holiday) and contestants should receive their share of the profits, the jury is out on whether reality TV is always exploitative. Skeggs and Wood’s audience research showed that while middle class audiences were more likely to see contestants as being exploited, working class audiences instead saw them as exploiting an opportunity to escape economic insecurity.

The difficulty for reality TV stars once the show’s over stems partly from the snobbery against reality TV itself. Not only is it perceived as lowbrow entertainment but participants are not seen as having achieved their fame, and ‘being yourself’ is often not seen as ‘proper work’. This means even popular reality TV stars are rarely able to move into more legitimate and economically reliable work in entertainment. All I’m saying is, don’t hold your breath waiting for Amber to fulfil her West End ambitions.

Do you believe in life after Love (Island)? 

With this series coming to an end I’m interested to see what the Islanders will do following the surprising success of the show, and what this might tell us about change in celebrity culture.

Prefacing discussion between two Islanders about the future after Love Island, narrator Iain Stirling quipped that he expected this to comprise ‘an appearance on Loose Women and in Hello magazine’. But I’ll be interested to see whether Islanders are able to build a more sustainable career than interviews for gossip magazines and further stints on reality TV. Some may be able to make money promoting products to the social media audiences which have been growing without them while they’ve been offline. While this is hard work to sustain over time, the interests and work histories of many contestants in fitness and fashion translates well to Instagram, while others could perhaps use YouTube to continue to keep audiences interested in their daily lives and relationships.

Image result for love island i've got a textNever mind what Love Island contestants will do next. What will we do now there’s an hour long gap in our evenings?

Actually talk to our own partners?

Pfft. Quick, someone send me a text.

Celebrities4Corbyn: New Article in Election Analysis 2017

As mainstream media coverage of the campaign converged around the two main party leaders to the exclusion of smaller parties in 2017, you were also less likely to see celebrity faces. In 2015 Labour brought its often high profile celebrity supporters to the heart of their campaign, sometimes giving the impression these celebrities were standing in for Labour’s less telegenic leader.

But a closer look at the 2017 campaign shows that while celebrities were less likely to make headlines, they had far from abandoned Labour. Old faces such as Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard continued to canvass and make speeches to crowds at rallies. At the same time, celebrities outside of the mainstream in their own fields (most notably young grime artists) were attracted to the Corbyn for his outsider appeal. They were happy to share their newer media platforms with the leader, as well as appearing on television to argue that mainstream media was not giving him a fair hearing.

I’ve written a short piece for this for Election Analysis 2017, a great collection of articles on the election hastily and expertly compiled by Einar Thorsen, Dan Jackson, and Darren Lilliker at the University of Bournemouth.

You can take a look at my article here: http://www.electionanalysis.uk/uk-election-analysis-2017/section-8-personality-politics-and-popular-culture/celebrities4corbyn-continuity-and-change-in-labours-use-of-celebrities/

See the website for 92 great contributions on media and the 2017 General Election: http://www.electionanalysis.uk/  

Just don’t ask me to predict when we’re going to have another election.

 

Thoughts on Angelina Jolie’s keynote at World On The Move

This week the BBC held ‘World On The Move’, a day of special programming on migration issues, and I was lucky enough to to attend Angelina Jolie Pitt’s keynote speech. Jolie has worked with the UN for the past 15 years, becoming Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2012. During this time she has made 50 visits to the countries most affected by displacement. In her speech, Jolie warned that the international humanitarian system is breaking down and called on nations to work together, describing the crisis as a ‘major test of our values and our resolve’. While emphasising the need for countries to take responsibility for accepting many more refugees and putting transparent and efficient processes in place for this, Jolie argued that unless countries worked together to ‘address the root causes of the crisis’, the number of refugees crossing borders would continue to increase and the crisis worsen. Jolie’s speech and Q&A can be viewed in full here.

      The talk and brief question and answer session that followed gave an interesting insight into her role as a high profile ambassador for the UN, and what celebrity activists can, and perhaps cannot, contribute to important debates in this context. Here are a few thoughts:

Jolie’s role as celebrity activist and UN ambassador

PAY-Angelina-Jolie

From Mirror.co.uk

‘I know that no one can speak for 60 million displaced people, and I know that it is the democratic right of the citizens of each country to reach their own conclusions about the right way forward. I therefore put my thoughts before you with humility and respect, seeking to understand all points of view.’

– Angelina Jolie Pitt

While Jolie made no reference to her career, fame or wealth, the above quote struck me as an acknowledgement that not everyone will perceive her as a credible or authoritative voice on the refugee crisis. Jolie clearly sees it as part of her UN role to lobby leaders to engage with each other and the UN, and she said she would be ‘pressing my own government and speaking loudly about it’. However, given her ‘disappointment’ with the US government and acknowledgement of broader political barriers to a solution due to a ‘politics of fear and separation’, it is unsurprising that Jolie also directed her plea for action toward citizens, calling on us to  ‘demand our governments show the leadership necessary’.

Rational, unemotional, professional

I was interested to hear Jolie call for a ‘rational centre’, rejecting solutions driven by emotion or ‘naïve humanitarianism’ as well as arguing that countries need to prioritise tackling the ‘root causes’ of the crisis. This is a contrast with criticism of celebrity activists as promoting superficial, populist changes over long-term solutions. But with Jolie’s activism so strongly tied to the UN, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Her speech not only overtly reflected her UN position by criticising the underfunding of UN appeals and calling for international cooperation as the only viable option, but was also reflected in her advocacy of a ‘rational centre’ which rejected calls for open borders.

            Jolie’s rejection of ‘emotional’ responses went hand in hand with her tone during the speech. While she spoke of her anger, she did not really show it, presenting a very professional image both in her appearance and tone. Given Jolie’s experience, I was expecting more personal, emotive stories from her trips to convey her argument. Perhaps there is a perceived need as somebody who became famous as an actor but also as a ‘wildchild’ in gossip magazines to project a serious image, and as a UN envoy and a woman to appear ‘statesmanlike’.

            Jolie did take a more personal approach during the Q&A, but this did not always feel convincing. This was not necessarily Jolie’s fault; the use of stories about people you have met in response to audience questions now feels very reminiscent of how politicians deal with questions they don’t want to answer. One response, to a journalist who challenged Jolie’s distinction between economic migrants and refugees based on her experience of fleeing Afghanistan, did feel a little uncomfortable; her gushing over what great, self-sufficient people she met in Afghanistan brought Jolie’s privilege as a wealthy white celebrity back to the front of my mind. But in other ways it is her personal experience which makes her so compelling, as she has an ability to contrast the situation for refugees in different countries over the last 15 years that many politicians don’t.

Media response

Jolie Telegraph front pageWhen Angelina Jolie speaks people listen, but they don’t necessarily repeat her message. While her speech was covered widely by online news sources, Jolie’s plea for international cooperation and hope for a better tomorrow was overshadowed in the mainstream press by former MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove’s argument that allowing visa free access to the EU for Turkish citizens would be ‘like storing gasoline next to the fire one is trying to extinguish’. The BBC were criticised for pro-EU bias, and Jolie for allegedly ‘sticking her nose into’ the referendum debate despite not explicitly mentioning it, even though Dearlove has advocated Brexit. That his argument was given greater prominence than hers suggests that fame, even to the extent that Jolie possesses it, is not enough to rewrite news cycles rather than simply be written into them. Coverage of Jolie’s talk also frequently focused on her brief criticism of Donald Trump, an issue she was reluctant to address when asked.

How much of a difference can Angelina Jolie make?

Jolie’s talk left me impressed by her experience, eloquence and dedication, but also curious about what she might say about the refugee crisis in private, without her UN hat on. When asked whether she had hope, she responded that you ‘have to’, and that we have been through darker times and ‘risen from the ashes’.  But Jolie, in keeping with her argument against ‘naïve humanitarianism’, did not neglect discussion of the barriers to the international cooperation she argues is necessary to address the root causes of the crisis. In this context, can her lobbying of political leaders or efforts to persuade citizens to do the same make much difference? It would be fascinating to know whether and how she feels she can really do so, but I would never have the courage to ask and she is much too professional to tell.

 

Politics in entertainment: Claire Dunphy for Council?

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of the porous boundaries between politics and entertainment. Political information is presented in entertainment formats from Buzzfeed lists to satirical news shows, Russell Brand is calling on us to ditch capitalism, and David Cameron wants you to know that he like, totally loves Game Of Thrones.

The way that politics is represented in fiction is something I’ve been thinking about since reading Stephen Fielding’s A State of Play (2014). Fielding looks at representations of politics and democracy in British novels, plays, TV and film, and how these have changed over time. He argues that fiction has played an under-appreciated part in constructing people’s understanding of politics, and should therefore be taken seriously.

The first shows which spring to mind are those which revolve around politicians and their advisors, such as The Thick of It, The West Wing, or House of Cards. But politics can be found in all our favourite shows; sometimes I think I studied politics just so I’d understand the many political jokes in The Simpsons which zoomed over my head as a child.

In 2014, Jonathan Freedland wrote a piece about how popular culture shapes US politics, citing a Republican strategist claiming after their 2012 defeat that they were ‘a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America’. According to Freedland, Modern Family has had a small but meaningful influence on attitudes toward equal marriage, by featuring characters Mitch and Cam as parents ‘as flawed and loving as any others’. Hillary Clinton is often namechecked as a role model by their niece, Lisa Simpson style overachieving middle child and feminist Alex Dunphy. But as well as tackling current political issues, one Modern Family storyline uses the process of politics as its backdrop.

Claire Dunphy takes on the Council

Frustrated by a dangerous intersection near her home, Claire Dunphy (Jack’s miracle) starts a petition to get a stop sign. When she goes to present the signatures to the local traffic committee, she is dismissed by smug long-time local councillor Duane Bailey (Tobias Fünke). When Claire runs into Bailey campaigning for re-election, he has already forgotten who she is. Frustrated at his arrogance, Claire is persuaded by husband Phil that she should run against him. When Bailey finds out he mocks Claire, telling her ‘I’ve won six straight elections and I don’t plan on losing to some bored housewife, so don’t quit your lack of a day job’. This, combined with trouble at home under Phil’s watch, makes Claire doubt that she has the experience to run for office or that she would be able to combine this with caring for her family. Convinced by her dad’s wife Gloria that her doubts are caused by fear of failure, Claire decides to go for it.

In two later episodes, the campaign unfolds. With a local newspaper reporting that voters find Claire ‘angry and unlikable’, her family hold a mock debate to prepare her to face her opponent on public access television. This quickly descends into chaos as her kids point out every unappealing facial expression and gesture Claire makes. At the real debate, Bailey tries to trip Claire up by referring to obscure council regulations, but she has done her homework. Unable to attack her for being inexperienced, Bailey brings up an embarrassing personal incident. Earlier in the season, Claire’s husband Phil had accidentally entered the wrong hotel room and posed naked, in a Valentine’s Day surprise gone very wrong which ended in his arrest. Phil stands up to defend himself, in a cringey outburst which is autotuned and uploaded to YouTube.

When election day finally rolls around Claire enlists her family to help get out the vote, but most screw up their tasks; her dad Jay doesn’t even manage to vote. Claire doesn’t have a much better day herself as her false tooth being knocked out by a microphone just before a radio interview, making her sound like a drunk Ed Miliband impersonator. She loses the election, but does get the stop sign she had wanted in the first place, left by her victorious opponent with a sarcastic note. This moment of regained pride is cut short, when a car speeds straight past the new sign.

Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t

There were a couple of things about this storyline which caught my attention. I loved the scene where Claire’s family host a mock debate and instantly start giving her grief about her facial expressions; even the Dunphy kids who don’t have any interest in politics have picked up that candidates are not necessarily judged on their statements. But the moral of this story is that normal people, particularly normal women, face an uphill battle for political power. Claire is constantly belittled and forced to prove herself by a long-standing incumbent who does not care about the people he is elected to represent. His arrogance goes unnoticed, but the local press report that her assertiveness is unattractive. Claire worries that if she wins she won’t be able to balance the role with caring for the family her male opponent mocks her for having and uses against her, and while her family support her they ultimately do her campaign far more harm than good.

For political leaders, family life can be a key way of ‘performing ordinariness’. In his book Intimate Politics, James Stanyer (2013) found that coverage of leaders’ family lives has increased over time, and that the extent to which a politician needs to bond with citizens to attract support is one of the factors which drives the extent to which they will willingly reveal personal details. However, this doesn’t work the same way for male and female politicians. Family life is seen as a laudable bonus for male politicians, but an insignificant necessity for women, whose families are more likely to be represented as suffering as a result of their ambitions. Liesbet van Zoonen (2005:91) argues that male politicians are presented as ‘living in an integrated world of public and private duties, while female politicians are presented as living in two conflicting worlds’.

The other side of this is something we see frequently in the media treatment of politicians who don’t have children, something which is emphasised and questioned for women but largely ignored for men. For women with political ambitions, family is both a necessity and a liability. Had the Claire Dunphy character not had children, rather than attacking her for being a housewife her opponent may have questioned her ability to represent local people. A woman without children is questioned about whether she is representative, a woman with children about whether she is up to the job.

did_someone_say_binders_full_of_women

While shows like The West Wing have (justifiably) been paid a lot of attention, representations of political issues and the political process can often be found in entertainment when you are not looking for them. Sometimes, even in a wacky family sitcom, these storylines can feel uncomfortably close to real political problems which we’d be better off consigning to history and fiction.


Jonathan Freedland (2014). Hillary Clinton needs Hollywood: Modern Family proves it. The Guardian, 16 May. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/16/hillary-clinton-needs-hollywood-modern-family-politics-tv

Steven Fielding (2014). A State of Play: British Politics on Stage, Screen and Page, from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. London: Bloomsbury.

James Stanyer (2013). Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media-Saturated Democracies. Cambridge: Polity.

Liesbet van Zoonen (2004). Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Joseph Foy (ed.) (2008) Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics Through Popular Culture. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

The storyline discussed here plays out over four episodes of ABC’s Modern Family: Season 3 episodes 4, 5, 13 and 19. Season 3 was first shown in the US in 2011-12, and they are now on Season 7. I haven’t made it past 5.

 

‘Bearded vegetarian socialist’: Jeremy Corbyn and the authenticity wars.

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric (although, in another sense, very slow) rise to become leader of the Labour party, there has been much debate over his ‘authenticity’.

      It’s unsurprising that Corbyn has been praised for being a more authentic politician. Corbyn appears to be an ‘ordinary outsider’, as whilst he has been an MP for more than 30 years he has never previously held a cabinet or shadow cabinet position and has been the most rebellious Labour MP. His political persona is a stark contrast to that of slick old Etonian David Cameron. While van Zoonen argues that each type of political performance (she proposes a typology with four categories) has its flaws, she also suggests that the success of these performances depends on the political context, with people preferring political personalities that contrast with their opponents and predecessors.[1] Corbyn also does well on another suggested measure of authenticity: consistency.[2] He stood to be Labour leader on a platform based on values and policies he has campaigned for for decades.

      But authenticity is a battleground: whilst those who support Corbyn praise his consistency and contrasting style to Cameron, his opponents have sought to find inconsistencies not only within Corbyn’s long public political history, but also perceived inconsistencies between Corbyn’s persona and what a political leader ‘should’ be like. In the process, they betray their perceptions of what sort of person is qualified for the top job.

from mirror.co.uk

from mirror.co.uk

   We’ve already seen several of Corbyn’s political opinions used to deem him ‘unsuitable’ for the role of prime minister or even leader of the opposition, such as his opposition to trident and his belief that the UK should be a republic. But personal traits have (unsurprisingly) also been used to imply that Corbyn is not leadership material, such as his age, his ‘scruffy’ appearance, and the fact that he rarely drinks alcohol and doesn’t eat meat.

        A Huffington Post blog joked that to endear himself to the right wing press Corbyn should, amongst other behavioural changes, eat some meat.[3] The right wing press have certainly noticed Corbyn’s eating habits; his vegetarianism has been mentioned frequently in negative pieces about the new Labour leader’s personality, history, and beliefs. Fox News delighted in calling Corbyn a ‘bearded vegetarian socialist’[4], but references to his vegetarianism are usually more subtly inserted into long lists of personal traits that mark Corbyn as too weird to be prime minister.

           But why is being a vegetarian used, alongside other traits and opinions, to portray Corbyn as ‘other’? Why is vegetarianism perceived as incompatible with leadership?

            To me, this is indicative of old-fashioned ideas that still pervade the ideal of what a leader ‘should’ be like. His vegetarianism is deemed relevant because it adds to the image of Corbyn as someone who challenges the status quo and therefore, to his opponents, someone who is dangerous. It is often mentioned alongside Corbyn’s pacifism, his long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons, and his supposed sympathy for terrorist organisations. Vegetarians, clearly, cannot be trusted.

v3-Sun-Miliband Vegetarianism is also considered by some to be ‘unbritish’. It doesn’t help that while our national identity is vague, our ‘national dishes’ are meaty. How can you be British if you don’t eat roast dinners, fish and chips, or chicken tikka masala?  A Telegraph writer living in Henley-on-Thames suggested that Russell Brand, also vegetarian, would struggle to move there because unlike (multicultural) Hackney, in (pale and stale) Henley ‘it is nigh-on a crime not to serve meat and two veg for dinner’.[5]

            I also think, bear with me, that to imply that vegetarianism is incompatible with leadership is to betray a sexist perception of what the ideal leader is like. The idea that leaders should be masculine includes, as media repeatedly noting Corbyn’s deviation demonstrates, that they should eat meat. British leaders ‘should’ eat meat to demonstrate that they are both masculine enough and British enough. When was the last time you ate a Cornish pasty? Can you eat a bacon sandwich properly? How are your barbeque management skills?

             Ed Miliband was ridiculed for not being able to eat a bacon sandwich ‘properly’, as if he’d failed a manliness test (what’s more interesting than him declaring ‘hell yes I’m tough enough’ during the campaign is the fact that Paxman asked him whether he was in the first place). Corbyn’s vegetarianism is used as yet another way to paint him as ‘other’, not an authentic potential Prime Minister when the role of Prime Minister is still perceived as something for overtly patriotic, stereotypically masculine men.

            Of course, this ridiculing of Corbyn’s vegetarianism, as well as other personal traits, may also stem from fear; fear that Corbyn wants to enact policies that threaten the lifestyles of the privileged. In this case, were Corbyn to actually become Prime Minister he could well be the first to acknowledge that we can’t solve the climate crisis unless we eat less meat.

            It will be interesting to see whether the Conservative-supporting press continue to imply that Corbyn, who became a vegetarian aged 20 after seeing cruelty on a pig farm,[6] has a strange relationship with animals, considering the rumours about what David Cameron did at a similar age.[7]

[1] van Zoonen, L., 2004. Entertaining the Citizen.

[2] See Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. And Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/louise-ridley/jeremy-corbyn_b_8133806.html

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/08/25/fox-news-attacks-jeremy-corbyn_n_8038340.html

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/news/11853595/What-Russell-Brand-can-expect-if-he-moves-to-my-Chiltern-village.html

[6] http://www.buzzfeed.com/sirajdatoo/corbyn-hogging-the-limelight#.xrznRQ45E

[7] http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/david-cameron-may-have-once-done-something-bad-with-a-dead-pig-and-no-one-can-cope–Z1tcEHMdIl

Does reaction to Charlotte Church’s ‘prosecco socialism’ show that authenticity is out of reach for celebrity activists?

It’s fair to say that Charlotte Church was unhappy with the result of the UK’s latest general election. After the Conservative party unexpectedly won an overall majority, Church not only reiterated her dislike for the Tories on Twitter, but attended an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. This attracted a lot of attention, and by June 20th Church was not only participating in The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest in London, but giving a speech to the thousands of protestors in parliament square.

Church was not the only celebrity to address the crowd, but her speech did attract the most attention. This may be partly because Russell Brand did not want to give interviews that day, but may also be because Brand is now an established and expected presence at such events, whilst Church is a fresher face. Her speech attracted much online coverage, and she was interviewed for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and SKY News.

Church would have known that her role in the protest would attract criticism; before the event had even finished she had discussed accusations of hypocrisy, and the difficulties artists face in talking about politics, with Channel 4 News. Church’s mum even wore a T-Shirt stating ‘prosecco socialist’, referencing her comeback that she was ‘more of a prosecco girl’ to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives who dismissed her as a champagne socialist. Church had previously been criticised for not ‘voluntarily’ paying a higher rate of tax, after she stated that she would be happy to pay 70% tax in order to contribute to properly funded public services and an end to austerity.

Church and her mum at the protest in London

Church and her mum at the June 2o protest in London

Church’s speech, however, brought a new wave of criticism, much of this using misogynistic language, and new accusations of hypocrisy. Looking at celebrity involvement in progressive campaigns, a clear pattern emerges. Evidence of alleged hypocrisy is quickly found and (re)posted by right-wing bloggers or journalists, and this is then used by others to criticise the celebrity’s political statements and suggest that they should not be participating in political movements. Following Church’s statement that she would pay 70% tax to support public services, a Conservative councillor uploaded a video to YouTube of Church appearing on Have I Got News For You 12 years ago (aged just 17), complaining that she pays too much tax. Guido Fawkes then embedded this in a post accusing Church of being on a ‘mission to be reborn as a poundshop Russell Brand’.

Following the protest Fawkes accused Church of further hypocrisy, publishing a quote from the website of the accountancy firm used by her companies which stated that ‘lowering and deferring tax is, of course, a key aim’. This new allegation was used by many of Church’s Twitter critics. This is now a familiar pattern; the speed with which Russell Brand (following a housing protest) was declared a hypocrite for the tax affairs of his landlord, or Martin Freeman a champagne socialist because of his son’s private education (following his Labour party political broadcast) is impressive. But Church was faced with not only trying to refute these accusations of hypocrisy, but also calling out the sexism of many of her critics.

Can a celebrity be an ‘authentic’ activist? 

These accusations of hypocrisy are founded on a perceived inconsistency between the person’s political statements, or the political aims of any movements, groups or parties they are associated with, and other aspects of their life. This fits with recent academic debates over what authenticity is, which conclude that authenticity is a performance. Rather than about ‘being yourself’, to be perceived authentic a person must present themselves consistently across the different areas of their life, and the different platforms they use to communicate.[1]

Clearly, this perceived authenticity is difficult to achieve, but there are three key reasons it may be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a celebrity who becomes involved in left-wing political activism. Cries of ‘hypocrite’ often come from the tension between the celebrity’s elevated wealth and status and their desire to speak on behalf of those who do not have these privileges, but there are other barriers to authenticity. If someone has been famous for a number of years, it is almost inevitable that some aspect of their mediated life can be found and used as evidence of inconsistency, and therefore inauthenticity. Charlotte Church became known as a singer at the age of 11, we should not be surprised that her opinions have changed over the past 18 years.

The celebrity/activist is also likely to have their fingers in several pies, which creates more opportunities for inconsistency. Those who wish to ‘expose’ the celebrity as inauthentic can search for tensions between the celebrity’s commercial activities and their political statements. Even in cases where these allegations of hypocrisy are tenuous, such as Russell Brand being held accountable for the actions of his landlord, the celebrity is then drawn into time-consuming arguments with critics.

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

If consistency is the key to being perceived as authentic, and authenticity is the key to being taken seriously, the celebrity-activist is likely to find that their fame opens doors, but that there is a crowd of critics armed with Google and Twitter waiting on the other side. Church’s case demonstrates that for women, their authenticity as an activist will often be debated in misogynistic terms. Of course a celebrity’s political actions or statements, and their intentions, should not go unscrutinised. However, these petty disputes over minor inconsistencies in a celebrity’s mediated life hold the celebrity to a standard of ‘authenticity’ which is unattainable, and distract from the political issues up for debate in the process.

[1] See the following: Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture

Alice Marwick (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).

Sarah Thomas (2014) ‘Celebrity in the “Twitterverse”: history, authenticity and the multiplicity of stardom. Situating the “newness” of Twitter’, Celebrity Studies 5 (3).