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4 July 2018

Why is publishing suddenly obsessed with “rebel” women?

A trend of celebrating “nasty”, “badass”, “rebel” women has swept feminist literature. But idolising defiance raises difficult questions about an individualistic approach to feminism.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Step into any bookshop today and you’ll find too many compendiums of feminist heroines designed for both children and adults. The books might be recently published, but the formula is well-established: colourful illustrations opposite short descriptions of the lives and works of pioneering women such as Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo and Hillary Clinton. This publishing avalanche owes its existence to a single commercial success: 2017’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Italians Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, who are romantic partners as well as co-founders of their own company based in California, longed to correct the gender imbalance they saw in the world of children’s media. In 2016, the idea of a children’s book with the word “rebel” in its title came to them. As Favilli explained to the Bookseller magazine, “Rebel is usually considered a negative word… especially when it’s associated with women.” Within months of starting a crowd-funding campaign for the project on Kickstarter, they had raised $1m. Rebel Girls became the most funded original book in the history of crowd-funding.

It is a collection of short and sweet biographies of influential women, each one told with a fairy-tale lilt and paired with an elaborate illustration of its subject. “Once upon a time, in the English countryside, there was a girl who loved books more than anything else,” begins the entry for Jane Austen.

The expected names are all present and correct: as well as Kahlo and Clinton there’s Amelia Earhart, the Brontë sisters, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks. They’re all tailored for children’s eyes – Virginia Woolf’s entry contains no mention of her suicide, while Margaret Thatcher’s explains: “When she took free milk away from primary school children, the people disliked her.”

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women became a Sunday Times and New York Times best-seller, sold more than one million copies worldwide, and was translated into 30 languages. Its success has birthed a sequel and sparked a trend in publishing across children’s and adult literature. It’s the kind of book that publishers dream of: both commercial and progressive, one good, ground-breaking idea wildly outselling expectations and marking the literary landscape.

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Its influence is everywhere. In 2018 you can buy your children Marcia Williams’s Three Cheers For Women!, a comic strip-style compendium of biographies; Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World; Laura Barcella’s Fight Like A Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World; Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelia Welden’s Girls Who Rocked the World; Kate Schatz’s Rad Women Worldwide. There’s Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst (a very, very distant relation of Emmeline) – which slightly pre-dates Rebel Girls, and is the only similar book to approach its UK sales, with 100,000 to Rebel Girls’s 300,000 – and its follow-up Fantastically Great Women Who Made History. The same faces crop up in them all. The creators of the Little People, Big Dreams series had the bright idea of splitting the life stories into a series of collectable books: there are 22 and counting at £9.99 each.

The craze is evident in adult publishing, too, with Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History; Becca Anderson’s The Book of Awesome Women; Hannah Jewell’s 100 Nasty Women of History; Penelope Bagieu’s Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World; Harriet Hall’s She: a Celebration of Renegade Women; Julia Pierpont’s The Little Book of Feminist Saints; Marisa Bate’s The Periodic Table of Feminism; and What Would Boudicca Do? by Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates (coming from Faber & Faber in September) to name just a few.

Maya Angelou by Manjit Thapp

This batch is mostly authored by young women journalists and graphic designers and, though they are aimed at an older audience, they rely on the same tricks as the children’s books: bright illustrations, short and simple biographies, boisterous adolescent language. Most owe a debt to Rebel Girls, but none has approached its sales. The most popular of this group, 100 Nasty Women of History, has sold nearly 6,000 UK copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. These books are colourful, cheeky fun – they’re like a girl gang who laugh at stupid boys and wear matching motorcycle jackets. They are the literary equivalent of “This Girl Can” advertising campaigns and empowering Little Mix songs – feminism in its most accessible, populist form.

Their popularity shows the great progress mainstream feminism has made over the last few years. The idea that publishing would be revitalised by a series of gift books filled with the life stories of mostly dead, unconventional women would have been unthinkable a decade ago – let alone the possibility that they could be uncontroversial, exuberant, even funny (Hannah Jewell’s book describes itself as “just as satisfying as a cathartic scream – but less alarming to your friends and neighbours”). Their existence is a net positive.

But there’s also an infantilising undertone at play in these books, one that feels obvious when you consider the liberal overlap between those aimed at adults and those aimed at children. “To be a bad girl,” Ann Shen explains in Bad Girls Throughout History, “is to break any socially accepted rule.” Leaders in politics, art and science are reduced to cute cartoons, twee language and colourful biographical details; complex, messy women become “badass” rebels. Ann Shen describes Catherine the Great as the “Queen B of Russia”; Hannah Jewell explains how the French male aristocracy “had their asses handed to them” by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Men, and writes of New Statesman founder Beatrice Webb: “Phew, check out the big ol’ brain on her, I tell ya.”

Individually, these books are on a harmless mission to engage even the most politically apathetic woman with concepts of feminism. Yet collectively, a patronising scene emerges. The tone is mainly uncritical. The same terms pop up again and again – the books are a “love letter” to or a “celebration” of women who are “heroic”, “role models”, and most of all, always “inspirational”. Though most authors have ensured their books contain a diverse selection of women in terms of race, age, class and historical period, seeing the same faces over and over again can become dispiriting.

These figures are often sterilised, or even literally sanctified. Julia Pierpont’s The Little Book of Feminist Saints gives each of her subjects a halo, telling us to “open to any page and find daily inspiration”, describing them all as “The Matron Saint” of something. Clinton for example becomes, vaguely, “Matron Saint of Possibility” – though a 2017 speech is discussed in detail, it’s not mentioned that she ran for president of the United States (or that she lost). 

This whitewashing is uncomfortable enough with Woolf and Elizabeth I, but seeing the Nazi sympathiser and exploitative factory boss Coco Chanel cheerfully described in What Would Boudicca Do? as an inspiration for “killing it at work” with “a pretty superbe business model” is a stretch so energetic it could cause a spinal fracture. It’s frustrating that while men can remain problematic giants of history, women must find relevance by becoming inspirational poster girls.

It’s easy retrospectively to celebrate transgressive acts that would today seem far less threatening: women writing under their own names, engaging in politics, wearing trousers. These books are fundamentally more safe and marketable than, say, a compendium of contemporary cutting-edge activists, artists and leaders, but a nostalgic righteousness allows us to feel just as progressive. The focus on singular, unconventional women is straightforward enough. Yet idolising individual defiance – often a great, laudable thing – raises complicated questions. It comes back to that word “rebel”. There’s a thrill in being a lone trailblazer uncontained by patriarchal systems. But what about the ones left behind? At what point does glorifying rebellion only serve to reinforce the oppressive structures that prevent most women from reaching the same heights? If a dash of boldness can free you from your cage, is it really a cage at all?

It’s more glamorous to be unconventional than it is for convention to become fundamentally more democratic. We need rebels at the edges of society in order for the mainstream to shift, but an individualistic approach to feminism elides the fact that most of its successes, from suffrage to civil rights to legalising abortion, are thanks to grass-roots collective action.

At least some once-transgressive feminists have been deemed palatable enough to enter the mainstream; fashionable enough to be marketable. These books tell us how far we’ve come, but they also show how much further we still have to go. 

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This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit