Feminism can be a touchy subject, not least because what it means to someone is so personal. Gender equality can mean to one woman doing away with her femininity, and to another embracing it completely. This makes it incredibly hard to write any kind of feminist text. Harsh criticism becomes inevitable.
Florence Given doesn’t just talk about having ‘you go girl’ moments in Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. She does the work in unpicking the female experience. It takes courage to examine your privilege and even more so to stand against centuries of patriarchy. For this, Florence Given has my utmost admiration.
The book starts with a conversation which, to me, felt like a slow and laboured start. Given talks to her younger self about feminism and all that she’s learnt over the years. At this point the book missed out on the considered analysis of society I think most readers are looking for. It falls into the trap of the overplayed ‘hey gals, did you know you don’t have to shave if you don’t want to?’
But as things develop, the book definitely picks up. It moves on from the preaching to the choir to real analysis. It’s intersectional, honest and at times very raw.
Something that white women often fail at when it comes to the conversation about feminism is being intersectional. This is something that Florence Given does well and does repeatedly. ‘Pretty privilege’ is the subject that gives the book it’s title and it is explored with great care. Yes, women are expected to conform to unattainable expectations, but how much harder is it to conform if the society treats your skin tone as undesirable, or fails to even acknowledge that you are the gender you identify with?
“You cannot win and the world will judge you either way”
Rather than blame social media for being superficial or damaging, Given acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects. It shows that she’s thought about the issue before jumping on the ‘SOCIAL MEDIA BAD’ bandwagon. It’s also important to acknowledge that how we currently live, especially in lockdown, social media can provide lifesaving support to those who need it.
Still parts of the book did come across very first-time author. ‘Dear listener’, while possibly satire, didn’t play well and still caused a cringe. I did also feel in parts that whilst admitting to ‘still learning’, many of Given’s opinions come across as absolutist and don’t allow space for further growth.
In places the book also shifts from manifesto and testimony to untrained therapist territory. This is something I believe Given should have been more careful with. There is a huge amount of danger in telling people how they feel and what inside them makes them act in certain ways. Often this can cause more harm than good.
All things said, the ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’ is a book I’m glad to have read. It makes a great contribution to the discussion on feminism and holds some great ideas. I do wonder if I were younger, or if I had been less exposed to Feminism whether I would have read the book differently. I don’t agree with every point that Given makes, but I respect her views and am wholly impressed with her commitment to writing such a personal book. Frankly, it’s very brave.
By Kahina Bouhassane