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?

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.