On December 9, a debate began to simmer on social media over the resemblance of two popular women’s empowerment books released in 2020: Chidera Eggerue’s How to Get Over a Boy (published in February by Quadrille Publishing) and Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty (published in July by Cassell Illustrated).
Comparisons between the two have circulated for some time. Given and Eggerue, also known as The Slumflower, are both influencers (people with large followings and marketing influence on social media) and both promote a message of self-love, acceptance, and body positivity.
Earlier this month, Eggerue and some of her followers accused Given of copying two of her books: How to Get Over a Boy and her debut, What a Time to be Alone. This sparked fresh questions over similarities between their works in terms of style and content.
Both of the women’s books are eye-catching, with vibrant covers, large text, and colourful illustrations throughout. Eggerue claims her books sparked a new wave of self-help literature “that had never been seen before”.
While at first glance it could appear as though we’re looking at a copycat case, we should not forget that publishers like trends and will try to cash in on what’s popular. The cover style of both Given and Eggerue’s books chime with design trends from 2019 from their plain large fonts to their use of colour and illustration. Searching for either book on platforms such as Google and Amazon often brings up the other, and the latter even bundles the two author’s books together.
Popular feminist books targeted at a mainstream audience are nothing new. Over the last 15 years there have been dozens of light, easy-to-read feminist texts, often with the aim of making feminism “fun”, “cool”, and even “sexy”. Laura Bates’ Girl Up (2016) in particular bears the most resemblance to these newer self-help books in the way it challenges sexist expectations through humour and quirky illustrations.
But there are countless examples: from Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (2007) to Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s The Vagenda (2015), books like Ellie Levenson’s The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism (2009), Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (2011), or Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist (2015). While these books can vary in approach and style, a number put forward similar messages – personal empowerment, self-love and the right to choose.
Some of these books have been criticised for selling self-help as a solution to injustice, rather than working with others for political and social change. In academia, feminists argue that popular feminism is at best a diluted form of feminism that treats it simply as a form of self-help focused on “what’s right for me” – a brand which can be packaged and sold.
What all these books have in common is their desire to make feminism accessible to their readers, which is not a bad thing in itself. It has long been argued that feminism has an “image problem”, and that it is no longer needed in the West. It has also has been declared unappealing and irrelevant to young women by newspapers and in polls run by OnePoll and the online community Netmums.
Academic feminist literature meanwhile has been criticised for tending to be theory-heavy and filled with impenetrable jargon. Matters are not helped by such texts being inaccessible to the general public, often being placed behind paywalls or published as costly hardbacks. This leaves a gap which popular feminism fills whether through blogs, social media posts, or affordable paperbacks.
However, this is where the world of marketing tends to step in to “save feminism” through rebranding exercises. It is a process which often involves mainstream women’s magazines such as ELLE, Stylist, Grazia, or Cosmopolitan hiring advertising agencies to make feminism fashionable and challenge negative stereotypes of angry, ungirly feminists. As with popular feminism books, these attempts have varied in quality.
Since the 1990s, young feminists’ writing has been criticised for being focused on personal anecdotes at the expense of theory and now is no different. Popular feminism is often skewered by critics of being superficial, fluffy, apolitical, individualised and consumer-driven.
Reading around the subject, you will find different labels used to describe this brand of feminism, including “popular feminism”, “new feminism”, “young feminism”, “consumer feminism”, “choice feminism”, “neoliberal feminism” and “mainstream feminism”. Whatever the label, the objection is the same: that feminist ideology is being commodified, de-fanged, and made attractive to a general audience.
Popular feminist books are often designed to appeal to younger readers, rather than those well versed in feminist theory. Eggerue makes it clear that she used an easy-to-read writing style because she did not want her book to intimidate readers.
Why feminist books look similar
These books all look and sound the same because they are meant to be starting platforms for those who are new and curious about sexism, inequality, and feminism. They click with younger readers and I am sure there will be more to come aimed at future generations.
What is more difficult though, is bridging the gap between these “starter” 101 books and more challenging, critical texts. While the former are more readily marketable and appealing to publishers, the latter still tends to occupy less visible spaces. This lack of visibility for other feminist texts means a rich wealth of ideas and thoughts are not being heard outside niche spaces like academia and activist circles.
On the flip side, feminist voices dominating mainstream spaces are selling women the idea that social and political inequalities can be simply overcome through self-will and self-improvement: “You go girl!”
Rebecca Wray is a Critical Psychologist and Specialist Mental Health Mentor at Leeds Beckett University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.