Earlier this year, an excerpt from the Diary of a CEO podcast went viral. The clip was from an interview with Molly-Mae Hague – Love Island alum, social influencer and Creative Director at fashion brand PrettyLittleThing – in which she made comments about poverty, success and hard work, arguing that ‘we all have the same 24 hours in a day’ and ‘if you want something enough you can achieve it and it just depends to what lengths you want to go to get to where you want to be in the future.’ The clip was met with immediate backlash; criticised as classist and tone deaf, it inspired numerous comment pieces about the logics of influencer culture and the hypocrisy of a millionaire with a slew of lucrative brand deals suggesting that escaping poverty is as simple as having passion and a strong work ethic.
Given her personal trajectory – from an obscure reality show contestant to a successful fashion and media career – Hague’s comments are hardly surprising, and speak to a neoliberal logic common to influencer culture. As others have pointed out, at a time of increasing inequality, a housing crisis with no end in sight, and a generation of young people with significantly worse financial prospects than their parents, we now inhabit the perfect conditions for such a highly individualised understanding of success to flourish. It is all too easy to overlook the complex, shadowy web of higher-up gatekeepers – including media execs and corporate sponsors – and attribute such ‘success’ to a straightforward meritocracy.
But enough ink has been spilled on this topic (including Eve Livingston’s excellent piece on ‘girlunion’). When I read Hague’s comments – especially on the power of ‘[wanting] something enough’ and success depending on ‘what lengths you want to go to’ – my first thoughts were of a wider phenomenon, increasingly popular in social media spaces. A neighbour of astrology, crystals and tarot, manifestation, or ‘the law of attraction,’ is described as the process of ‘bringing making everything you want to feel and experience a reality…via your thoughts, actions, beliefs, and emotions’.
Since emerging in the mid-2000s, manifestation and The Secret – the Oprah-endorsed books and films which inspired the trend – now seem more popular than ever. Hague is no stranger to The Secret; she has linked her Love Island success to manifestation, and in a December 2020 Instagram story stated that seeing ‘big beautiful houses’ motivates her to ‘work hard for the future I want…Manifesting always.’ A quick click through Instagram or YouTube reveals the ubiquity of manifestation culture among influencers. In a 2019 video, Gemma Louise Miles (244k followers on Instagram, 457k subscribers on YouTube) said: ‘You can achieve absolutely anything you put your mind to […] I honestly think that by using The Secret in my everyday life that’s how I got to this point […] I live on my own in a house that I probably only ever dreamed of having, in an area I adore, I’m about to buy my dream car, like, it’s insane’. Four manifestation-related books are linked in the video description.
Manifestation culture obscures the realities of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and endorses an articulation of success which is simply out of reach for many
My primary concern around manifestation culture is that it represents a pseudo-spiritual articulation of neoliberal capitalism; one which erases structural inequalities and places the emphasis upon individual actions. Want something badly enough? Visualise it! Struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage? Pop it on your vision board! Not yet at the pinnacle of financial and personal success? Manifest harder!
The popularity of The Secret has not arisen in a vacuum. A constellation of influencer tropes can be sketched out here, all of which are indebted to a specific mode of late capitalism common to influencer spaces: hustle or ‘grind’ culture; the ubiquity of Photoshop- or FaceTune-modified images of (women’s) bodies, often exchanged for capital (social and financial); the overlapping of ‘popularity’ (i.e. followers) and wealth (ad revenue proportionate to follower numbers). What I find particularly unsavoury about manifestation, however, is how its seemingly-benign spirituality provides a convenient veil to the cruelties of inequality.
My intention here is not to attack women’s and girls’ online cultural productions in general. As a researcher of the lives, identities and experiences of girls, I am a fervent believer in the value of those modes of cultural production and consumption which are routinely devalued as part of a broader, sexist disavowal of all things femme. This is especially the case for multiply marginalised girls, including working-class girls, trans girls, disabled girls, and girls of colour.
Rather, I take issue with pseudo-spiritual narratives around the translation of these cultural forms to personal wealth. Manifestation culture obscures the realities of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, and endorses an articulation of success which is simply out of reach for many. In turn, this ultimately reduces class consciousness, rendering invisible both the structural underpinnings of success and why some are less well placed to achieve it.
Within an increasingly unequal and unpredictable world we have, by contrast, also seen plenty examples of feminist collectivism on social media over the last decade – extending beyond the well-known #MeToo movement and #EverydaySexism project. Through #Hospitalglam, Karolyn Gehrig made visible her experiences as a disabled woman, whilst Noorulann Shahid unintentionally started the hashtag #LifeOfAMuslimFeminist when trying to voice her frustrations around Muslim feminist identities. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen was Mikki Kendal’s response to the lack of white feminists’ support for women of colour targeted by Hugo Schwyzer, and Janet Mock created #GirlsLikeUs to raise awareness around the disproportionately high murder and suicide rates of trans women and girls. In response to the specific kinds of exploitation rife among young creatives, fashion blogger Nicole Ocran and influencer consultant Kat Molesworth created The Creator Union, representing workers in the influencer, blogger and digital content creator space and organised around principles of fair pay, inclusion and education.
All of these hashtags and movements generated solidarity and community, and represent a move away from the individualised logics underpinning influencer culture at-large. Indeed, in the examples of #hospitalglam and The Creator Union, social media culture itself (i.e. ‘glam’ selfies and influencer spaces) contains potentials for radical collectivism. They are encouraging signs of how social media can fulfil its stated aims of community-building, and needn’t be reduced to a highly competitive, individualised race for clicks, clout and cash.
Hannah Walters is based at King’s College London where she researches and writes about girlhood, youth and social class
For more on marginalised young women and girls’ experiences, identities and cultural productions, the author recommends Dr Sarah Hill at Newcastle University, Dr Briony Hannell at the University of Sheffield, and Amanda Ptolomey at the University of Glasgow.