Something strange happened late last week. My inbox, usually a disparate mix of pitches, press releases and password resets (honestly, Gmail, I’ve nothing more to give) started to sing as one chorus.
In the space of a couple of hours, I received more than a dozen pitches from people wanting to write about someone called Molly-Mae Hague.
Hague, for the uninitiated (if they still exist), is a 22-year-old influencer who makes a very good living shilling polyester. A former finalist on Love Island, she’s now the ‘creative director’ of that fastest of fast fashion brands, Pretty Little Thing – part of the Manchester-based Boohoo Group previously shamed for its pitiful treatment of garment workers.
This week, however, Hague was forced to make a public apology after a crass comment in a December 2021 appearance on The Diary of a CEO podcast – basically, that everyone has “the same 24 hours in the day” to make a success of themselves – resurfaced, and swiftly landed her at the bottom of an internet pile-on.
“When I say or post anything online, it is never with malice or ill intent,” Hague wrote on Monday, forced into a climb-down following days of being compared to Thatcher by an outraged internet. “I apologise to the people that have been affected negatively or misunderstood the meaning of what I said in the podcast. The intentions of the podcast were only ever to tell my story and inspire from my own experience.”
She certainly inspired a reaction, I’ll give her that. But while the temptation was to jump in on the click frenzy, something about the speed and scale of the furore gave me pause. Yes, Molly-Mae was wrong. But are those calling her out in the right? Is all of this righteous anger actually useful?
An army of outrage
“We speak to people every day who are fighting back against shocking injustice at work – so of course it’s outrageous to suggest that meritocracy exists in UK workplaces,” says Danae Shell, co-founder and CEO of Valla, a DIY legal platform that helps marginalised employees resolve workplace issues without the burden of huge bills.
“The UK’s pay gap is still 40% between women and men,” she sighs. “Women are half as likely to get promoted after having children, and a staggering 70% of Black and Asian employees in the UK have experienced racial harassment at work. So many marginalised people would love to just get on with work but can’t.”
The problem for people like Shell – those working to tackle the UK’s distinct lack of intersectional equality every day whether it’s trending or not – is that for all the column inches dedicated to Hague’s comments, very little has been genuinely aimed at shifting the dial.
Yes, we need to talk about intersectionality. We need to talk about racial and gender disparities. We need to talk about the rights of garment workers, and the wrongs of the fashion industry. But if very little of the anger levelled at Hague is directed from those working in those spaces, where is it actually coming from?
“The whole Molly-Mae thing, I just have no energy for, because it’s unlikely to create real change,” sighs Ruth MacGilp, communications manager for Fashion Revolution. “It’s not activism. It’s not about people caring more about the plight of garment workers. It’s just about joining in with whatever’s trending.
“In terms of fashion, scandals happen all the time. They are popular for 48 hours, 72 if you’re lucky, then they fade away, leaving very little ongoing support for the people and organisations actually fighting for change. When you see something trending on the internet, it’s easy to forget that there are probably decades of work from campaigners behind that issue that you can go and directly support the work of.”
And therin lies the rub. For all of the outrage being displayed online right now, those organisations on the frontline are seeing little tangible impact. The reason? There’s a very big difference between performative allyship and true activism.
“Whenever I see social media pile-ons, I see a disproportionate number of white women managing their perceptions of themselves as one of the ‘good white people’,” explains anti-racist educator and author of The Good Ally, Nova Reid. “It so often comes from a place of ego, rather than from wanting to actually help and meaningfully contribute to a situation where communities of people are suffering.”
Too often, Reid says, openings for nuanced discussion about racial and socio-economic disparities of opportunity are missed, having been co-opted by those with little experience or understanding in the space.
“You can tell the difference between the people who are calling someone like Molly-Mae in, who are speaking to hold her to account or highlight an issue, and the people who are just playing lip service. And a lot of this performative allyship stems from wanting to cover up what we feel shame and guilt about. It’s about the shame of not seeing all of this injustice sooner. About not being intersectional sooner. About causing harm to the very communities you’re trying to advocate for now. It’s a stage performance.
“But it’s far easier to put all of your focus, energy and blame into shouting at others than it is to turn the mirror inwards, address your own role in it and say, ‘You know what? I’ve got this wrong before, I’ve caused harm and I’m not perfect either. I need to work on this.’ We won’t make a dent in doing better on social justice if we can’t be honest with ourselves.”
Of course, in a world in which people and brands are increasingly indistinguishable, the temptation to offer up our own hot take on any trending topic is understandable. But with very little nuance available in 280 characters, sometimes it’s better to pause and consider what we’re hoping to achieve than rush, lemming-like, over the outrage cliff.
“Although social media awareness is absolutely crucial to any kind of change in any industry, we have to take it further,” says MacGilp. “Within fashion, that means supporting garment workers, supporting campaigners, supporting policy change and changing our own habits, both in terms of our own consumption and in terms of who we follow and allow to influence us.
“Tearing people down on social media without questioning the entire system and looking at where the real decision-making power lies is unlikely to lead to structural change. Influencers are the tip of the iceberg while so many fashion billionaires remain out of sight. But there are lots of actions we can take offline that can actually make a difference.”
For Reid, meanwhile, one of the key differences between true allies and keyboard warriors is the willingness to speak up face-to-face or in private, where intervention is often more tangible but less visible.
“Ask yourself, am I doing this to help the community of people who are mostly impacted by this? Or am I doing this to look good and to be seen to be looking good? Check in with your intention and your integrity.
“Sometimes when people get things wrong, we genuinely think that we can help by bringing in our own experience of when we’ve gotten things wrong ourselves – but does it have to be in that moment? Can it be done privately? Can it be helpful within our own friendship circles or in our workplace?
‘Molly-Mae’s comments are very representative of a wide demographic of people in Britain. You’ll find people in your workplace, in your friendship and social circles, even around your family dinner table, who share that same view. Can you affect change and influence in those circles? Because that’s far more worthwhile than staging some performance art on social media and then, in two days’ time, moving on and never engaging with the issue again.
“It’s about intention. It’s about integrity. And it’s about being honest.”