Palatable Feminism Doesn’t Owe You Accountability

At the start of December 2020, social media influencer, writer and artist Florence Given came under fire for seeming to have replicated the work and message of Chidera Eggerue (whose online moniker is The Slumflower). The initial accusation came from Eggerue herself, who posted a series of Instagram stories talking through what she perceived to be similarities in their books (Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty and Eggerue’s What a Time to Be Alone and How to Get Over a Boy). These included the cover style, some of the snappy phrases Given utilises (most notably “Dump Him”), and the self-illustrated, ‘coffee-table’ vibe of the book. Eggerue called for accountability from Given, and some redistribution of profits both to her and the other Black women Given credited in the afterword of her book, stating “Black women’s ideas generate wealth for white people. But that wealth doesn’t go to our community.” Radio silence followed from Given’s usually very active Instagram, until a few days later when she posted a statement via her Instagram, attempting to explain her side of the story. She pointed out that Eggerue had “ethusiastically” endorsed Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, and that it would have been impossible for her to read How to Get Over a Boy before handing in her manuscript for her own book. She cited her own previous work and drawing style, as well as her long-term interest in feminist thinking and the ways in which it has inspired her art. She also said she had donated a chunk of her advance to Black Minds Matter, a UK charity aiming to provide Black people with free care from Black therapists. Black Minds Matter has refused an offer of a further donation.  

Discourse on social media followed, with many calling for Given to do better and pay the women she had been inspired by. This was exacerbated when Diving Bell, the agency representing both Given and Eggerue, dropped the latter a few weeks before an agreed contract termination. There were calls for other figures represented by Diving Bell, such as model and activist Munroe Bergdorf and activist Gina Martin, to publicly come out in support of Eggerue. Others said that Eggerue was being hypocritical, as they claimed that half of her work was stolen from sex workers and others in the first place. Given has since revealed via Instagram story that lawyers that she hired found there to be no substantial plagiarism in her book, but Eggerue is insisting this is not the case.

Whether you’ve read one of these authors exclusively, or both, or even neither, you’ll no doubt be familiar with their style. Many have pointed out that their work is largely based on art styles commonly found on Pinterest and discussions from Tumblr, which in turn were influenced by feminist thinkers of the past. It is almost impossible to trace every idea in both women’s books back to their roots. To be clear, I believe that learning from the work of others is always a good thing; most feminists would not have learned half of the theory or concepts they know were it not for the work of foremothers such as Laura Mulvey, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Simone De Beauvoir, just to name a few. However, when it comes to situations like this, the claim that any art or ideas are ‘stolen’ is somewhat clouded in the fact that both women’s work can be said to be ripped off (however good their intentions are) from very mainstream feminist theory and discourse.  

Eggerue and Given’s works are essentially part of the same category: palatable feminism. Their work is not revolutionary, yet captures the attention of a key target market: young women. Their books, however much hard work and original content went into them (Eggerue ran a successful blog for years and Given has had a consistent style and message on Instagram since her account started), are as popular as they are largely because of canny marketing by publishers and agents who know that feminism is having a profitable resurgence. Multiple brands have cashed in on designing products to sell to a predominantly young, female target market, who are keen to communicate to their peers and society that they are ahead of the curve. These companies sometimes follow through and donate proceeds to charities aiming to fight for womens’ rights, but arguably many just sell their stock and never give feminism another thought. As Nicole Aschoff wrote in an article for Jacobin, “the goal of capitalism is not to better the world — it’s to make a profit”. It is, therefore, no wonder that Diving Bell, after dropping Eggerue, deleted a homepage dedicated to donation links for various charities supporting Black people that she had requested they put up. It is not a huge leap to hypothesise that they felt that the problem had gone away and, therefore, they no longer had to promote the ideals that they had perhaps pretended to eschew.

The publishing world is not immune to this kind of thinking. Whether it is to be believed or not that Given’s publishers are paying for her book to appear when Eggerue’s book is searched for on Google (something they and Given have denied), with over 100,000 sales within the first 6 months of publication, they must be making a fair amount of money from her catchy slogans, along with her management team. Young women who speak up in a concise and aesthetic-conscious way about social issues are highly marketable. Moya Lothian McLean wrote a fascinating article for gal-dem in which she describes what she terms ‘Instagram feminism’:  “To be a ‘feminist’ influencer in 2020 means hawking ideas that have almost certainly been taken from academics and activists – usually older women of colour – and then regurgitating them via an aesthetically pleasing Instagram tile.” Given and Eggerue’s easy-to-digest, colourful posts have garnered them a great deal of loyal fans, leading to attention from agencies and publishers alike.  

So, who here is the victim? Quite apart from the clear privileges she has as a relatively well-off, attractive white woman, Florence Given has the support of her agency, Diving Bell, who have dropped Chidera Eggerue. Eggerue is being supported by her fans, but Instagram comments don’t make up for financial losses she will no doubt suffer because of Diving Bell’s treatment of her. Are Eggerue and Given both victims of the money-making machine of liberal capitalism, having both been published extremely young and perhaps without adequate protection from their new-found notoriety? As Lothian McLean puts it: “Why are publishing houses and influencer agencies building personality cults around young women who have barely begun to live and not expecting the entire thing to go sour?”  

Florence Given and Chidera Eggerue have undoubtedly inspired many young women to know their worth and introduced them to feminist theory in a fun, shareable way. But perhaps it’s time to stop putting them on a pedestal and realise that capitalism will always muddy the waters of accountability, reparative justice and the world of social justice influencing.

Caitlin Barr

Feature Image Source: RAZZ Magazine

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