By Lea Dokter
Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, the literary debut of 21-year-old Instagram influencer Florence Given, is an exemplification of Gen Z feminism – aesthetical and empowering, but highly individualistic. Given’s book is essentially a brief introduction to some of the ways in which patriarchy still influences the lives of (young) women in modern society, and how the reader as an individual can recognise and intervene in these patterns. The book ranges from topics such as the beauty industry and romantic relationships, to rape culture and rivalry between women.
Given is, first and foremost, a visual artist. She initially garnered online fame through her drawings of naked women, often proudly displaying their body hair, accompanied by quotes such as, “Life is short, dump them,” and “Looking good for my goddamn self.”
Like the Instapoets before, Insta-artists and -activists are transcending the confines of social media and branching out into the literary sphere. Given’s art plays an important role in Women Don’t Owe You Pretty; its colourful, seventies-inspired cover lined with panther print stands out boldly on any bookshelf. Each chapter is accompanied by a full-page drawing as well as one of Given’s quotes set out in her signature font.
Given’s brand of empowerment is consistent across her social media and throughout her new book. She encourages her readers to take agency in their own lives and to radically cultivate self-love; although Women Don’t Owe You Pretty may be classed as feminism/gender studies by its publisher, it often reads more like self-help.
Given’s road to personal growth depends heavily on lists, of things to do, avoid, recognise, or ask yourself. Examples include “[h]ow to take someone off a pedestal,” “[p]hrases to avoid when apologizing,” and “examples of microaggressions.” Additionally, Chapter 20 features six separate checklists for different kinds of privilege.
This format is one of the reasons the book is so reminiscent of the classic self-help formula, which actually undermines Given’s claims that this is a radical feminist work. Making existing ideas easily digestible for a new generation is not radical, and neither is marketing individualistic self-help advice as feminism.
What Given is saying is not, by any means, new, but it is attractively repackaged and made accessible to a younger audience that might not be familiar with the work of, say, Naomi Wolf or Chidera Eggerue. As Given herself says, “[i]t’s basically the book I wish I could have whacked over my 14-year-old self’s head,” and teenagers are definitely the age group that could benefit most from this read.
As someone familiar with even the most basic feminist theory, this book is not the eyeopener many claim it to be. What does feel fresh about it is its overt insistence on inclusivity, accountability, and checking one’s own privilege – themes that have garnered increasing attention over the past decade and show no signs of slowing down in today’s political climate.
Given wastes no time setting this tone: the author bio that precedes the narrative includes her preferred pronouns (she/her), a clear sign of her being aware and insistently supportive of gender identity despite being cisgender herself.
Accountability and privilege as topics even earn their own separate chapters – which means this is not always a comfortable read, even if it’s an easily consumable one. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty can hold up a harsh mirror to the reader at times, whilst guiding them through ways to critically reflect on learned patriarchal behaviours.
But what I find most problematic about Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is closely related to the phenomenon known as “postfeminism,” a modern, depoliticised feminism that is heavily influenced by neoliberalism.
The postfeminist subject is autonomous and, above all, individuated. The focus lies on perpetual self-development and self-invention, with the collective feminist struggle for emancipation forgotten or assumed complete. Individual development and empowerment are obviously worthy goals, but they cannot truly be called feminist if the oppressive structures themselves are left intact and unchallenged.
Ironically, postfeminism is intimately intertwined with privilege, which Given rallies against so vehemently. Shifting the focus of feminism from activism to personal growth diverts energy from making sure less fortunate women can go out and accomplish their empowerment.
However, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’s immense popularity may have a silver lining. Since publication, Given’s book has resided in the top five of the Sunday Times Bestsellers List for twelve consecutive weeks, and Instagram has been steadily flooded with pictures of people posing with the book.
Although Women Don’t Owe You Pretty advocates postfeminist practice and sensibility, it does (briefly) reference keystone works that could inspire some to read older feminist works. When viewed as an introduction into the concept of patriarchy, it could inspire further research into the topic itself, or at the very least raise awareness of its existence.
Furthermore, in an age where many young women have become hesitant to label themselves feminists, Given is making a strong effort to make the term not just acceptable, but attractive again, with the help of social media and her aesthetic sensibility.
Only time will tell whether an increased popularity of postfeminist sensibilities will actually be able to inspire a new generation of feminists to come together to stand up against the structures that are still holding them down – Women Don’t Owe You Pretty can either turn out to be a harmful perpetuation of depoliticised feminism, or a gateway drug to communal action. I am certainly hoping for the latter.
Lea Dokter, 25, is currently finishing up her Master’s degree in Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University, after graduating (cum laude) from an English Language and Culture Bachelor’s. She specializes in countercultural literature, women’s writing and life writing, specially autofiction. In her free time, Lea reads a lot of non-fiction, focusing on themes such as feminism, gender, and societal critique. She’s a big fan of the dystopian and speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, as well as other authors such as Irvine Welsh and Carol Ann Duffy.
Author image by Lee Russell
Er, Yanbing. “Contemporary Women’s Autofiction as Critique of Postfeminist Discourse.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 33, no. 97, 2018, pp. 316-330. Taylor and Francis, DOI: 10.1080/08164649.2018.1536442.
Given, Florence. Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. Octopus, 2020.