When Florence Given sat down to write her debut fiction novel, she wanted to create the book she'd always wanted to read. Exploring online culture, sexuality and our innate desire to be liked, Girlcrush is described by the author as a "dark, feminist retelling of Jekyll and Hyde." It tells the story of a young woman who is simultaneously finding and losing herself after becoming a viral star on an online app named Wonder Land, and the intricacies that come along with it.
Following the success from her debut non-fiction book, Women Don't Owe You Pretty, Given says she didn't feel an overwhelming sense of pressure to deliver a certain 'thing' despite this being her first time as a fiction writer.
"I was excited to share a different side of 'Floss' that people hadn't seen before," Given told ELLE Australia. "I've always loved telling stories and creating imagery in people's minds. In a way, writing fiction was a lot more freeing than it was to write non-fiction because I got to escape and create a world of my own. This book gave me permission to do something a lot messier."
Set in the future (2030 more specifically), the book focuses on the effect of an app called Wonder Land, which allows users to plug in and project a dreamt-up version of themselves to the masses.
"People are gaining access to fame in a way we've never really seen before, and it's so interesting," Given said. "Everyone has access to their 'fifteen minutes' now with videos going viral online and that's a theme I wanted to explore in Girlcrush. I think people are being thrust onto pedestals in ways we've never seen before, going from nobody knowing who they are one day, to thousands of strangers commenting on every aspect of their personhood the next. It's wild!"
Fans were quick to note that Eartha, the book's main character, bore a striking resemblance to Given at times. Both are young, bisexual women living in London, both are carving a career in the online space, and both have been openly criticised by the masses at one point or another. The second half of the book takes a darker turn, when we see Eartha's entire online persona questioned, and her integrity attacked.
"Every time I came home from writing the second half of Girlcrush, I had to take an hour to de-compress," Given explained.
"It was really hard to write, but I hope that people question how they speak to others online and how much power they give the online world over their sense of self."
For a 23-year-old who is still figuring things out, Given has been heralded as a feminist icon. Both of Given's books are lofty titles, but they come with an overwhelming sense of pressure to meet people's unspoken expectations. When someone becomes known for having an opinion, they're expected to have one on almost everything — a position which Given isn't always willing to take.
"It's an impossible label to live up to," she said, of being branded the voice of a generation. "I think it's a bit silly that we do this to women, because it sets them up to fail. Why must we do this to a new woman every week who dares to speak her opinion? It's an impossible position." Against the backdrop of fourth wave feminism, Given has openly shared parts of her sexuality that some people might still struggle to understand. "I love being bisexual and wouldn't have it any other way," she said, adding that it can be "challenging when faced with people who can't grapple with the idea of being attracted to more than one gender", or the stereotypes about bi being just "confused".
"There's something uniquely beautiful and freeing about other people not being able to 'figure you out'," she said. "It gives you the freedom to be entirely yourself and define it for you, not others."
It's this belief about unapologetically being yourself that has seen Given grow a fiercely loyal following who admire her candour and ability to embrace the nuances of life. The author believes that the desire to be universally liked is an impossible feat, which will ultimately leave people feeling disappointed and defeated.
"No matter who you become or what version of yourself you project online — you're always going to have some people that don't get it," she explained.
"Not everyone is meant for you and you are not meant for everyone. You might as well be authentically yourself and have people that don't like that, than be something you're not and face the very same issue of being disliked. Authenticity is vulnerable because it means we'll face being judged for who we actually are as opposed to who we're pretending to be — but the cost is still the same."
With Girlcrush still in its infancy, Given's first book will always be known as the female battle cry of 2020, prompting women of all ages to question their relationship with themselves and the beauty industry,
Despite igniting a global movement, Given believes that our relationships to beauty still "run deeper than we'd care to admit."
"The feedback from Women Don't Owe You Pretty and even Girlcrush has seen a pattern of women waking up to the fact that our lives are dictated by how we are perceived by others," she said. "I think lockdown did this for many people too, in hibernating from the world temporarily, we all realised that a lot of what we were doing was a performance."
That being said, Given acknowledges that unpacking these relationships and tearing down the structures that have attempted to suppress us is still a work in progress. Pretty privilege is alive and well, with people who are considered conventionally attractive reaping benefits that others could only dream of. It's a reminder that the female existence is hierarchical, with those at the bottom being excluded, while those at the top make it increasingly harder to gain access.
"Every year we get better at having conversations and bringing the dirt to light, but we still exist in the reality where women are treated better the prettier they are," Given argued.
"Human beings in general are treated better the more 'good looking' they are, but for women it's a whole other level of invasive procedures with constantly changing goal-posts. I'm not sure how we'll ever escape it unless we all, collectively, decide to drop them at once. It can't just be one person, it has to be all of us!"
While the battle is undoubtedly an uphill one, Given's voice, among others, could well be the much-needed force to collectively pull us upwards.
You can buy Girlcrush here.