The story behind the outrage sparked by Florence Given’s feminist memoir.
The feminist “self-help” book that brought 22-year-old online influencer and activist Florence Given to fame mid-lockdown, unexpectedly became the centre of a horde of criticism by the end of 2020. Chidera Eggerue (The Slumflower) had previously endorsed Florence’s book with the quote “Florence is an absolute powerhouse” boldly proclaiming from the top corner of the first edition. However, this endorsement was removed from later editions of Women Don’t Owe You Pretty after Chidera became aware of how much Florence’s best-seller appeared to mimic her own debut non-fiction work, What A Time To Be Alone, released in 2018 with massive success.
Both Florence and Chidera were on the roster of publishing house Diving Bell, and this may partially explain the similarities both books show. The issues that have arisen are fiercely political and completely valid. Chidera stated that White women steal the ideas of Black women and profit from them, and indicated that the problem is industry-wide. Following the first major social media outburst, Chidera pointed out that too many activists and influencers have stayed quiet in the face of such blatant racial injustice.
Following the recent controversy surrounding Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, I thought that it was important to do a review of Given’s book in light of the issues that have arisen. I witnessed the fanatical frenzy that followed the release of the book, and was intrigued by Florence’s writing. I hope to provide a view of Florence’s book through the lenses of slightly-less-rosy-but-hopefully-unbiased glasses, taking into account some of the problems that have been flagged up.
A front cover that stares you down, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is eye-catching and attractive with its 70s-flower-power-style font and summery colour scheme. Before launching into its contents, a short blurb about Florence appears, citing her achievements and attributes. For someone so young it’s definitely an impressive list, which cannot be taken away from her. The next page shows more groovy fonts detailing the chapters: 21, to match her age at the time of writing. This is where the dirty laundry is aired: with expletives, orgasms, and sex mentioned frequently, this may be the point at which the parents of the young, female target audience exchange nervous looks and try to ease the pages out of the firm grasp of their daughters. And that is precisely the reaction Florence appears to be going for. She says things straight, jumping over the hurdles that convention and stigma impose when talking about traditionally “awkward” topics. Her straightforward attitude is one of the reasons for her online popularity. Yet when brief hints of vulnerability shine through in her writing, I find myself yearning more for them than for her characteristic cutting tone.
In podcast interviews, Florence has previously described herself as having written a “self-help book”, and yet online, Waterstones placed the non-fiction piece in the “memoir” category. This is the first major barrier: to which section does it belong? Florence writes in her introduction that “this book is my interpretation” of the books of many other writers before her, notably Chidera. As a personal memoir, it functions well as Florence has centred almost every chapter around her own experiences, to the extent that sometimes her messages verge on being unrelatable. Her descriptions of relationships seem more personal than universal and the book feels, at times, contrived and only “self-helping” to a particular type of person.
Another problem is the oversimplification of a vast variety of issues discussed in WDOYP. As an entry-level feminist text, it has been commended for its beginner-stage information. However, I wonder whether even the smallest amount of additional explanation would have benefited the readers more.
The author writes: “Once we are seen taking control of our own sexuality, we are a threat. A woman who has no shame […] is a threat to capitalism and the status quo.”
Simply stating “[this] is a threat” feels completely oversimplified and is entirely unhelpful for a reader as they attempt to explain Florence’s message to their friends and family. It doesn’t take long before persistent questioning about why “this is a threat” breaks down her point, and the lack of a back-up explanation serves to detract from Florence’s overall work. A slightly more detailed deconstruction of certain issues would give this book some much-needed depth.
The final point is that the solo white feminist voice lacks a significant amount of credibility when discussing issues that don’t pertain to her own life, like when discussing Black or transgender people. Florence appears satisfied in doing her bit by adding in a sentence here and there about marginalised groups, but it feels performative, as she only scrapes the surface. If she had interviewed a selection of women from different backgrounds to paint a more accurate and resonant picture of the differing hardships then I would personally find the “self-help book” a far more worthwhile and fulfilling read.
WDOYP is a quirkily-designed book that makes several important points, and flows best when Florence is talking from the heart. However, her inability to ever properly settle on a genre, paired with the lack of diversified voices and depth of explanation, takes away from the overall quality of the book. It has, as can be better seen on Chidera Eggerue’s Instagram, landed her in a very awkward situation in terms of both politics and personal reputation.