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Molly Mae influencer exploitation
Illustration Marija Marc

Molly-Mae, influencer culture, and the myth that hard work reaps rewards

‘Everyone has the same 24 hours’ is an argument that has provoked wide criticism, but the influencer’s words are just the product of an exploitative society that worships meritocracy

Pull yourself up by your Balenciagas. This is what 22-year-old influencer Molly-Mae Hague was effectively preaching in an interview on the Diary of a CEO podcast. A short clip of Hague talking about her work ethic has gone viral, causing her name to trend on Twitter. “If you want something enough you can achieve it, it just depends to (sic) what lengths you want to go, to get to where you want to be in the future,” she said. “And I will go to any length. I have worked my absolute arse off to get where I am now.” The former Love Island contestant also drew on the tired adage of everyone having the same 24 hours as Beyoncé, insinuating that people could… simply motivate – and hustle – themselves out of poverty.

On social media, criticisms flew in from all directions. For a moment, it felt like the internet was collectively seeing behind the veil of mainstream influencer marketing for the first time: selling followers misguided ideas on achieving ‘aspirational’ lifestyles in a world that is materially unequal. The paradox of Instagram girlboss grind culture, offering mantras and productivity tips to an audience of which some are certainly struggling to pay their bills, was getting a much-needed rinsing.

This is, of course, a topic that has been meticulously dissected before, but the discussion has been reignited by Hague’s disarming honesty, lack of self-awareness, and refusal to acknowledge her own privilege. One person wrote that the she was in essence reciting “Thatcherite talking-points dressed up in inspirational influencer speak”, while others pointed out the contradiction of her earning £600,000 as the creative director of Pretty Little Thing, a fast-fashion company infamous for subcontracting garment workers for as little as £3.50 per hour, way below the UK minimum wage.

To position this as a hypocrisy, however, is part of the problem. It’s not. It makes perfect sense that a 22-year-old who has grown up in a country that does indeed celebrate Thatcher’s legacy – the same legacy that left Britain with a housing crisis, privatised nationalised industries, sought to reduce the role of the state, and eradicate the idea of class distinctions – believes she has been able to accumulate her immense wealth through something intangible as Hard Work, and not, say, the intersection of social, aesthetic, and material privileges she may possess. Or, luck, even.

Unfortunately, this type of thinking is not unique to Hague or other influencers like her, but is part of a wider political reality where work, and particularly, effort, is seen as the sole barrier to financial success. Ellie Mae O’Hagan, the director of the Centre for Labour & Social Studies think tank, writes: “The Molly-Mae thing goes beyond influencers. I’ve listened to people who have two jobs and still can’t pay the bills make similar arguments in focus groups and quantitative studies. Most people are emotionally attached to the idea that hard work reaps rewards. How to address that is complex and not easy to answer.”

“(Influencers are) a highly visible symptom of the way individualist ethos around work has not only seeped into every crack of our lives today, but been packaged as a product to be sold to people in desperate need of answers to their financial struggles”

“Work, for the vast majority of people, is not, as it promises to be, a viable means of self-expression, but an affront to freedom – something that eats up our lives,” writes Amelia Horgan in Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism. Focusing on influencers can’t be the endpoint of these conversations, then, but rather the beginning. They are not the sole problem, and are actually a highly visible symptom of the way individualist ethos around work has not only seeped into every crack of our lives today, but been packaged as a product to be sold to people in desperate need of answers to their financial struggles.

In a country where house prices have been rising for 17 years, household income inequality continues to climb, and precarious zero-hour contracts have increased over fivefold during a Conservative reign, the false promise of meritocracy is a great way to substitute a hollowed out state. As the vision of a thriving collective or an equal society is forced to fall away, trampling on others, in a twisted game of survival of the fittest, is painted to be the only choice offered towards financial security.

That is of course not to say that influencers don’t bear individual responsibility or shouldn’t be criticised, especially when they wield so much power through their social capital. To flatten the argument by insisting that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism”, and that influencers therefore are exploited as much as garment workers, is simply untrue. As writer Rachel Connolly puts it: “All workers experience exploitation of some sort under capitalism, but it’s not an act of solidarity to obscure the very uneven way this manifests.”

Recognising the visible injustice in someone preaching about work ethic, as they wear jewellery on their wrist amounting to three years’ worth of an average annual salary and continue to benefit from low-wage labour, is certainly important. However, focusing on influencers alone, as many have routinely done before, doesn’t recognise the bigger picture; most rich people get rich and stay rich through the same processes of exploitation, not ‘hard work’ (as much as they may try to convince themselves in private). Influencers just wear this mindset on their sleeves because they can sell it as a product to their audience.

The next stage of this dialogue is to think about what the tangible solutions are. How can we collectively create conditions where such attitudes to ‘work’ wouldn’t exist in the first place? In what kind of world would bullshit concepts like ‘millennial burnout’ and ‘productivity dysmorphia’ be simply eradicated? And when can we not just call exploitation for what it is, but also end it?