Since its release in June, Florence Given’s debut book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has sat comfortably at the top of bestseller lists, recently exceeding 100k sales. The mass popularity it has inspired is perhaps the least surprising thing to happen this year. After gaining recognition on social media in 2018, Given has been catapulted into the role of feminist activist and icon for the Instagram generation. To her 500k followers, slogans such as ‘Stop Raising Him He’s Not Your Son’ have become part of the Florence Given brand, women’s empowerment painted in pink seventies font and leopard print.
If that sounded scathing, it wasn’t the intention. For a 21-year-old Florence Given has achieved great things, has helped make feminism accessible to those previously uninterested or unaware. There are certainly worse things than girls finding a form of empowerment in discussions surrounding consent, sexuality and boundaries. The one area, however, that Given’s book struggles to tackle fully is that of privilege. Privilege is a system built on generations of inequality, and the reversal of this dynamic is so much bigger than one person’s intentions. As a white, middle class and (by eurocentric standards) conventionally attractive woman, it is a system that Florence Given herself benefits from. Could she ever have understood it completely?
Last week, Chidera Eggerue, the feminist writer otherwise known as ‘the Slumflower’, expressed her justified anger and sadness at Given’s book. Eggerue has also achieved success with her works ‘What a Time to be Alone’ and ‘How to Get Over a Boy,’ both through the lens of black women’s experiences. On close inspection, the writers’ books have striking similarities; from their bold phrases such as ‘Dump Him’ to the print and colour scheme used, they could be interchangeable. It is these similarities that have raised the necessary question of why it was Given’s book that achieved such a blinding success. Eggerue’s books, after all, were released prior to Given’s debut. The answer we are left with is the uncomfortable truth about the consumerism of palatable white women’s feminism.
As Eggerue has said, Florence Given, and other white women in the history of feminism, learnt from the emotional labour of black women. From the suffrage movement and Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?,’ to the isolation of black women within the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement, repeatedly we have witnessed the failures of white women’s feminism. The inability to understand, to centre ourselves in conversations, to repeat others’ ideas in a louder voice. In Given’s book, she acknowledges the role of black women, including Eggerue, in her journey of feminism. However, their work still remains unpaid. Eggerue herself stated, ‘This book is generating wealth for white people. Black women’s ideas generate wealth for white people. But that wealth doesn’t go to our community.’ The more this point is contemplated, the more there is something quietly insidious about an industry that repackages and profits from black women’s ideas, selling feminism and equality at the cost of £12.99.
In the aftermath of her open criticism, Chidera Eggerue has been dropped by her agency Diving Bell. This is unsurprisingly the same agency that represent Given, undoubtedly also benefiting from her success. As for the latter, her official response seemed to somehow miss the heart of the problem. Whilst she stated that a portion of her royalties were directed to black charities, the main issue of innate privilege remained blurry. Especially with Eggerue’s career now damaged after speaking out, it does feel that instead of listening to Chidera’s feelings, the response was a defensive PR move against any negative claims. In Given’s own chapter ‘Check Your Privilege’ she writes, ‘the reason you are privileged is because another group is suffering and paying for it.’ Yet Chidera Eggerue’s suffering still remains unacknowledged.
The questions raised by this series of events are so much bigger than the individuals involved. Personal attacks against either parties seem slightly reductive: the problem lies not just with Florence Given but the machinery she is part of. Could the selling of feminism as a brand ever have achieved equality? The premise of agencies such as Diving Bell is to represent feminist activists and influencers as a business, however this already seems to conflict with true activism. Activism sold in the form of social media and aesthetic paperbacks already suggests a level of performativity, of selling a neatly finished product. When it comes to what is right versus what sells the most, it is difficult to tell where priorities lie.
As for the author of Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, for so long Given has moved from strength to strength, heralded as the ‘true’ feminist voice of our generation. It cannot be denied that she has in some ways invited this idealisation, citing women breaking up with their boyfriends as ‘the Floss effect’ and claiming to coin words such as ‘hetrifying’. The positioning of Florence Given as the face of feminism causes two main problems. At its most damaging, it prioritises the experiences of white women above all else. It also removes any space for her to get things wrong, to admit that there are issues she cannot speak on. It is easy to forget that this is a young woman barely into her twenties, but easier still to fall into the trap of viewing her book as the single guide for feminism.
Mistakes are likely to be made when learning about feminism, and misgivings are likely to be had before listening to different women’s experiences. Navigating privilege and amplifying unheard voices is a continuous effort and impossible to reverse overnight after reading one slogan. The complexities of feminism and women’s experiences cannot be condensed into a single book. Though there are many positives within Given’s work, there is still so much about the nature of privilege that cannot be said in pretty pink print.