Emma Watson’s feminist book club: empowering or elitist?
The Tab Lifestyle Long Read: Feminism is for everyone, but this book club isn’t and it’s time to stop pretending otherwise.
It might have passed you by, but in early January the actress and activist tweeted her intention to set up a feminist book club, ‘Our Shared Shelf’. Something about the idea struck me as not quite being right. Is there something inherently wrong in making feminism a ‘club’?
As a goodwill ambassador for UN women, it is part of her ongoing campaign against gender imbalance. Her work has led her to read “as many books and essays about equality” as she can. “I decided to start a Feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too,” she wrote on GoodReads. The plan is to choose a book to read every month, and on the last week the club convene on the site for an open discussion.
So what exactly does a feminist book club mean? On paper, it is men and women uniting to talk about feminism, discussing, promoting and empowering women as professional authors, as well as within fiction. One member’s comment illustrates this: “I joined this book club [to discuss] two things that are important to me (feminism and literature) with others.”
Alright. Seems legit. Why, then, can’t I shake off this niggling cynicism that I seem to be feeling? Why do I get the impression that this seems a little bit elitist and a little bit privileged? Yes, Emma signs off on GoodReads saying “everyone is welcome”, and okay, her GoodReads piece is full of intentionally inclusive vocabulary such as “our” shelf.
But does it – can it – live up to this?
Not “everyone” can buy the books. Nor, and I am aware that this sounds condescending, will “everyone” feel as able to understand the discussion at hand, let alone contribute. We must not try to pretend that the audience this club is trying to reach is a sphere limited to university students and academics. Even if the texts are chosen to be manageable for all, the potentially pretentious concept alone is enough to be an alienating factor, let alone the actual novels.
Of course, this might be absolutely void: not everything will appeal to everyone, and of course there are other ways to engage in feminism. But Emma Watson is one of the most outspoken and universally accessible feminists today, her involvement in the fabric of popular culture automatically making her a face to a movement that is already misrepresented and misunderstood, and it seems to me that taking this in even a slightly elitist, exclusionary direction is unadvisable.
Searching #OurSharedShelf on Instagram yields interesting results. Whilst publicity and exposure is fantastic, the amount of people posting pictures of Gloria Steinman’s My Life on the Road (January’s book) beside a mug of peppermint tea or a blender threatens, in my opinion, to incorporate the movement into the self-consciously smug Instagram aesthetic that is so prevalent today.
Is there a more self-satisfied way to tell your 341 followers that you care about the world, <3 Emma and that you juice than beaming next to a book (that will probably spend the rest of its days sitting in your toilet), and your new Nutribullet, underlined by #EmmaWatson #Feminism #OurSharedSelf (typo intended)? Because that’s what it threatens to become, just another part of people’s like-seeking, face value shared selves, ephemerally circulating the Twittersphere.
A platform for promoting female authors is undoubtedly important. The problem of a male-dominated literary scene is age old. As an English Lit student I am yet to study a text with female authorship at Cambridge. True, I’m studying medieval and renaissance texts, but arguably inequality in literature is as much a modern issue as a medieval one. Last year a Guardian article exposed how the author Catherine Nicholas, after sending her novel to 50 agents, received just two manuscript requests, compared to 17 when she sent the exact same content under a male pseudonym. Nicholas notes dryly “he is eight and a half time better than me at writing the same book”. And this is in 2015, not the 1800s!
Emma Watson is obviously on to something. Her book club is uniting thousands of people, of diverse gender and nationality, in an effort to celebrate female authors and reduce situations like Nicholas’s. It’s refreshingly active: it’s not just about feeling empowered but directly is empowering women, be it the author, or by the invitation to discuss feminist literature on a scale probably unprecedented.
Nonetheless, if combatting elitism – gendered elitism – is inextricable from the movement, then it does seem dangerous that this endeavour veers towards being exclusionary. It’s unrealistic and unreasonable to criticise Emma for not targeting “everyone” with her book club, but I do think it’s worth pondering.
The icon for the group on GoodReads is a speech bubble reading ‘feminism is for everyone’. Feminism is for everyone, but this book club isn’t, and it’s important that those that are privileged enough to engage with it consider this.
Celebrity endorsement and social media responses mean ‘Our Shared Shelf’ as a concept is popular and fashionable, and this platform for feminist literature is great, but ultimately it’s about how you choose to engage with it. It’s one aspect of a multi-faceted campaign for gender equality and one that addresses a real imbalance, but perhaps highlights further social inequality at the same time.
‘Our Shared Shelf’ is an exciting opportunity for women in literature, but I wonder if its connection with feminism should be so explicit. I don’t think it’s possible to claim it’s not at all exclusive. The club is certainly empowering in many ways, but if it is selective in its audience, is this a positive route for feminism to take?
Food for thought, not for Instagram.