Molly-Mae: Privilege, Exploitation, and the Myth of Meritocracy.

If you live in poverty, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. At least not as hard as Molly-Mae, according to recent statements.

In case you missed the drama, here’s a quick overview. Molly-Mae Hague is a 22-year-old English social media influencer who appeared on Love Island and is the current creative director for fast-fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing. In December 2021, she appeared as a guest on Steven Bartlett’s podcast The Diary Of A CEO. A clip from the interview started circulating on TikTok and Twitter this past week, attracting outrage. In the clip, Molly-Mae stated the following:

“You’re given one life and it’s down to you what you do with it. You can literally go in any direction. When I’ve spoken about that in the past I have been slammed a little bit, with people saying ‘it’s easy for you to say that because you’ve not grown up in poverty, so for you to sit there and say we all have the same 24 hours in a day is not correct.’ But, technically, what I’m saying is correct. We do.”

“I understand we all have different backgrounds and we’re all raised in different ways and we do have different financial situations, but I think if you want something enough you can achieve it. It just depends on what lengths you want to go to get where you want to be in the future. And I’ll go to any length. I’ve worked my absolute arse off to get where I am now.”

To summarise, Molly-Mae is more successful than other people because she wanted it more and has worked harder.

As many successful individuals do, Molly-Mae seems to be downplaying her privilege. (After all, she is cisgender, straight, white, and conventionally attractive.) Instead, she reinforces the idea of meritocracy – that society allocates economic and/or political power based on individual talent, work ethic and achievement.

Intentional or not, her argument has some pretty distasteful implications. If wealth is the result of personal merit, it follows that poverty must be the result of personal failings.

Sure, it would be lovely if society was based on merit (depending on how we define ‘merit’). But anyone with the slightest knowledge of capitalism’s structural inequalities knows this is far from the case. It’s pretty hard to overlook at a time when around 20% of the population is in poverty and the cost of living continues to rise.

Acknowledging privilege does not discredit anyone’s hard work or struggles. I don’t know how hard Molly-Mae works in her day to day life. (I could watch all her YouTube vlogs to find out, but that would be an unproductive use of my 24 hours.) There is no denying she’s worked hard at self-promotion. It simply means that someone like Molly-Mae is more likely to succeed in her industry than, say, a gay black woman with the same skills and work ethic. For example, much of her success comes from being picked for Love Island, a show famous for its lack of body or ethnic diversity in casting.

Privilege is not the only issue at play here. We also need to get into the nitty-gritty of how Molly-Mae earns her success.

Molly-Mae has worked with online retailer PrettyLittleThing for several years, announcing her appointment as the firm’s “creative director” in August 2021. PrettyLittleThing is owned by Boohoo.com, a company worth around £3.5 billion.

In 2020, the Sunday Times exposed Boohoo.com for paying garment factory workers in Leicester as little as £3.50 an hour. That same year, the Guardian reported that Pakistani factory workers were earning 29p an hour in unsafe conditions. PLT’s list of recent controversies does not stop there. Last Black Friday, PLT launched their infamous ‘Pink Friday’ sale, with products discounted by up to 100%. Sustainable fashion activists criticised the sale on social media, noting how many of PLT’s products end up in landfills in Africa. Rather than addressing their concerns, PLT co-founder Umar Kamani blocked them. Not a great look for PLT or Molly-Mae, who said she believes in the brand ‘wholeheartedly’.

Of course, PrettyLittleThing is not the only major clothing retailer that relies on unsustainable and exploitative practices. Fast fashion profits off a culture of overconsumption, fed by micro-trends and low-quality products made from cheap labour and unsustainable materials. (Fashion YouTuber Mina Le made an excellent video about this, discussing the popularity of fast-fashion retailer SHEIN on TikTok.)

Despite the backlash, a change of heart from Molly-Mae seems unlikely. In a recent vlog, she dismissed criticism of her interview, saying “there’s no point looking into things too much because as I said in the podcast, there’s always going to be somebody that hates what you do”. 

Some people (including fellow Love Island stars) have made excuses for her on the basis that she’s ‘young’ and inexperienced. This suggests her view may change over time and/or with education. Any ignorance she has on the issue is born of privilege. Many people far younger than 22 have had to learn about structural inequality first-hand. Whether or not she truly is ignorant, it is in her best interest to continue to avoid accountability and dismiss legitimate criticism. At least for as long as she retains her core fanbase.

The controversy may not directly change anything for Molly-Mae or for PLT. Nevertheless, I feel encouraged by the complex discussions on inequality and exploitation in fashion that it has sparked. After all, the most effective way to gradually change the industry is through thoughtful consumption, challenging structural inequality, and holding individuals and businesses accountable.

(You can watch the full podcast episode with Molly-Mae here.)

Image courtesy of Rio Lecatompessy

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