Roar writer Molly Green reviews Florence Given’s When Women Don’t Owe You Pretty.
When Women Don’t Owe You Pretty was published at the beginning of the year, I refused to read it. The overly stylised 70’s, pink and orange cover felt somehow patronising, although admittedly part of my dismissal of Florence Given was also the number of tweets I saw explaining why it wasn’t worth buying.
Recently, her name has come up again, and I felt that if I wanted to truly have a part in the argument, I should read her book. Within a few pages, I wanted to throw it away, but since I’d borrowed it from a friend I persevered. In her introduction to the book, Given writes an imagined conversation between an older, far more enlightened self, and her 13-year-old self. The gist of it is that ‘Older Floss’ spouts buzzwords to which ‘Younger Floss’, after a little resistance, is entirely receptive and becomes a newly progressive feminist.
The next chapter of the book, aside from a few Instagram infographic-style mantras, comprises more lists of jargon that could essentially be condensed into a sentence – Given repeats the same basic messages of feminism again and again. “This isn’t an effective way of making me love myself,” she argues, is the essential first step towards gender equality. A lot of her feminism is borne out of the concept of self, which wouldn’t necessarily be bad if she went beyond this. I think what she’s trying to say is that even though not all women fit society’s ideal, they should still feel beautiful. But by the way, guys, Given is aware that she does fit the ideal!
Given consistently refers to her desirability and tries to acknowledge how this affords her some privilege. However, what happens is that she only involves women who face more struggles than her as an afterthought. It’s as if after writing a draft of the book she went back and added, “…But I guess it’s harder if you’re a POC, gender nonconforming or disabled woman,” after every statement about her own disadvantages. By making herself and her struggles the first point of reference, she perpetuates what she aims to criticise: women without her privilege remain an afterthought, spoken over by someone who is already placed advantageously in society by dint of her looks.
There are a few quotes amongst the girl-boss-feminism she writes that are constructive. However these come a little too late in her feminist discourse. Remember that this book was published in 2020, years after white woman feminism became a part of popular discourse. I want to make it clear that this isn’t a dismissal of what Given has overcome, rather a criticism of the fact that she believes she has an original voice of authority in feminist discourse. Claiming that someone being ten minutes late for a date is a micro-aggression and proves they don’t respect your time is both irrational and unnecessary.
It might be argued that her simplistic take on gender discourse, peppered with her illustrations, is beneficial in creating an accessible way in to feminism. I would immediately dismiss this as aside from vaguely suggesting we read feminist literature by, for instance, Black or disabled writers; she doesn’t offer a single author or title.
Given probably had good intentions writing her book. There are a couple of chapters towards the end of the book concerning consent which make important points and are well-written. But ultimately, she only writes from the perspective of a middle-class white girl and is only able to do so because of that; she presents a non-radical take that, along with her prettiness, makes the book palatable to the mainstream. It is not a bad thing that women are increasingly able to be vocal about their struggles, but as white cisgender men have long coopted culture, it’s beginning to feel like they’re stepping aside only to be replaced by white cisgender women.
Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is a book that will only encourage a generation of girls to become feminists if they have the drive to do so themselves: think Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth with no boring theory, or A Room Of One’s Own without any pre-2000 language. Given’s is the same lazy brand of feminism that celebrates Kamala Harris as the first female vice-president without acknowledging her harmful track record. The illustrations by Given in her book and those on her Instagram are, in my opinion, more interesting and meaningful than the body of the book she wrote off the back of the attention she got online. She doesn’t seem to view feminism as anything other than a tool for proving to herself her worth.