Florence Given and Coffee Table Feminism

The ‘Floss effect’ and feel-good feminism: Ellie Strahan considers how mainstream Florence Given-style feminism stifles the reality of complex and intersectional perspectives.

I remember when I was first introduced to Florence Given. Like most who come across her Instagram page, I was instantly hooked. The gorgeous illustrations, her infectious confidence and catchy quotes (let’s be real, ‘off for a shag’ is iconic) made feminism seem glamorous and fun. Caught between wanting to learn from her and wanting to be her, I instantly bought her breakout book, ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’. 

Let’s just get this straight from the start: it was by no means a bad book.  It’s a good attempt at bringing together a lot of different aspects of feminism, and its take-no-shit attitude is fantastic. But far from the ‘life-changing’ experience the reviews on Waterstones had promised, Florence leaps from topic to topic, often spending less than a page on important ideas which I had been excited to read more in-depth. The result is a jumbled, often inarticulate maze of opinions and advice. It was hard to discern universal from individual experience, her original thoughts from the work of other women. At the time, however, this somewhat disappointing experience didn’t really affect me. I figured it was a kind of ‘introduction’ to feminism, and that it would be more helpful to younger girls. I’m ashamed to admit it, but the book looked cute on my shelf and so it doubled up pretty well as a decorative piece. 

Then in December 2020, Chidera Eggerue, better known online as The Slumflower, accused Given of directly plagiarising her work. Beyond the controversy itself, what struck me about the exchange was the conversations it opened up both with friends and online about Florence’s book and its impact. Suddenly, I was seeing perspectives I hadn’t considered before, how her ‘brand’ of feminism was hugely isolating for many who had been excited to read it. It champions confidence and self-love without acknowledging how difficult this can be for those who don’t fit the mould of being wealthy and white. It celebrates dumping your boyfriend and experimenting with girls, but never explores how same-sex relationships are equally complex. Whilst the title tells you that ‘women don’t owe you pretty’, this book is laced with illustrations of beautiful, glamourised women, half naked and smoking cigarettes. It’s such a stereotype of the ‘liberated woman’ and it’s actually kind of exhausting.

Florence claims her book is based solely off of personal experience, and her chapter ‘Maybe it’s a Girl Crush, maybe you’re Queer’ is particularly good at exploring sexuality in a way which feels personal to her. But whilst her book occasionally touches on such anecdotes, what her work actually gives is a generalised experience of a white, attractive, wealthy woman. It is these experiences which have always dominated mainstream feminism. In fact, Florence’s Acknowledgements page openly admits that most of her ideas are not truly based on her own experiences, with her claiming that ‘I had to search for this understanding, I had to listen and I had to learn, predominantly from Black women’.

With this in mind, we really need to take a closer look at ourselves and wonder why we champion this woman (who admitted she needed a diversity reader before she could publish!) above all others in the sphere of mainstream feminism. Being intersectional is not just including drawings of black girls or girls with tummy rolls, then slapping out some cutesy lists so you can literally ‘check your privilege’ against the masses. It is a deliberate effort to look beyond your own experiences and learn how feminism looks very different depending on who you are, what you look like and where you come from. It is also making sure that your privilege is not getting in the way of the progress of others. Whilst learning from black women is fantastic, repackaging their words and using your palatability as a white woman to profit off them is violent. 

It is easy to dismiss the oversimplicity of Given’s book and simply label it as an ‘introduction’ to feminism, something you wish you had read when you were younger. But if this is true, why is this the only book on feminism that most of my friends own, when there are so many others out there which are better researched, more inclusive, and written by women who have a lifetime of experience more than her? Why are these ideas – which she admits mostly come from Black women – only appealing when they come out of a white woman’s mouth?

The answer is that Given’s feminism is attractive. It avoids the nitty gritty, the grey areas and the harder-to-swallow questions. Her Instagram in particular presents feminism as something easy and palatable, championing the idea that all women can smash the patriarchy if they just cut themselves some bangs and break up with their boyfriend. But the ‘Floss effect’ is not reality, and it’s a long, long way from being intersectional. 

This is not just a problem with Florence and her ‘brand’ of feminism. Her popularity reflects a universal appeal to ‘watered down’ feminism which often ignores the experiences of those who do not fit within a certain box of consumption. A lot of people who bought this book, myself included, were lured in by the beautiful cover art and its easy-to-read format. But this brand of coffee table feminism is only good as a starting point, and we need to move beyond it. 

By all means, read her book; if it’s not on your shelf, it’s probably on your friend’s. But we need to make sure we’re doing more to lift up others’ voices too; feminism does not begin and end with Florence Given. Mainstream feminism needs to work harder to be more intersectional, not just in its general philosophies, but in who we are learning from. It also needs to be uncomfortable; it needs to make you think, start discussions and question accepted truths. A book which simply sits in readers’ rooms as decoration does not and can never achieve these things.

Artwork by Laura Cook.

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