Molly-Mae and the Myth of Meritocracy
“Beyonce has the same twenty four hours in a day that we do”, claims former Love Island star Molly-Mae Hague, in a viral video that has since sparked fierce debate around wealth inequality and poverty. Her claim is essentially that how far you go in life depends on you and you alone.
Like many in the UK, Molly-Mae believes that Britain is a meritocracy. After all, the idea that we live in a country where those who put the work in can succeed has been central to the political consensus for decades. One of the oldest and most persistent myths is that your life chances are solely determined by your talent, effort and a dash of good luck. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with where you were born, your race, your health, the school you went to, the social class of your parents, nor the money in your bank. It is a sheer coincidence that 20 prime ministers came from the same school - Eton College.
At CLASS, we spent 2021 talking to diverse working-class people across the UK. We too found that many working class people just like Molly-Mae believe, “with the right mindset, you can achieve anything.” But they also acknowledge that upward social mobility - although possible - is “rarer” and “the route is much longer and more difficult” than for their affluent counterparts. Many feel trapped by a cycle of low wages and soaring living costs, and believe that good education and employment opportunities are kept out of their reach.
CLASS’s research shows that people also acknowledge that those who are wealthier “have access to opportunities that can propel them in[to] better situations that don't require them to work harder” and “have more access to education and opportunities.” Strikingly, we found that 65% of the public believe that wealthy people are wealthy because they are given more opportunities and not because they worked harder. Meanwhile, 60% of the public believe that working-class struggles are due to the system being rigged against them, rather than a lack of effort or initiative.
If class is a societal ladder, then racism and sexism present additional obstacles which further hinder people’s ability to move up. CLASS heard countless examples of racial discrimination, from discarding applications from ‘foreign-sounding’ names, employers “who only higher white people,” to people being continuously overlooked for opportunities and promotions. Such testimonies converge with the perceptions of the majority of the public. 58% of the British public agree that people of colour (including Black, Asian and minority ethnic people) face greater barriers to economic success than white people. In addition, we heard from working-class women who were overlooked and undervalued at work compared to their male counterparts. Many - especially women of colour - expressed that they were passed up promotions multiple times compared to white and male colleagues. Additionally, employment opportunities are often incompatible with unpaid care work, for which the responsibility falls disproportionately onto women. Consequently, a number of our interviewees spoke about having to turn down extra wages, better jobs with inflexible work schedules and having to stop working altogether.
If people accept all of these things are true, why then do so many agree with Molly Mae that hard work can achieve anything? The answer to this question is a complicated one. First, it’s a truism of public attitudes research that people often hold contradictory opinions about the same issue at the same time - so it is perfectly plausible that people think that hard work can achieve anything and that the system is rigged against certain groups of people. But it’s also important to remember that people see political and social issues through emotional and moral prisms, not factual ones. “Facts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be framed in terms of their moral importance,” says the cognitive linguist George Lakoff. When people think of hard work, they think of it in moral terms - that hard work is inherently virtuous and meaningful. Working class people often use the value of hard work to distinguish themselves from what they described to us as a “lower class”, people who choose not to work.
There is another reason why the belief in meritocracy is so strong. As one young participant in Cardiff said during a discussion about whether upwards social mobility is possible: “you’d need to graft a lot unless you are really lucky or ruthless. It’s a lot harder, but I really hope so.” 'Hope' is the keyword. Despite awareness of a system rigged further compounded by racism and sexism, we all hope that we can better our situations for our families and communities. For many persevering and struggling to make ends meet, there must be something greater than just survival on the other side.
The myth of meritocracy creates a divisive society of winners and losers. It justifies the severe inequalities and injustices of poverty in our society by attributing them to the lack of initiative and drive of unsuccessful people and the unfair advantage presented by race, class and gender as the talent and hard work of the ‘successful.’
Yet, such narratives obscure the reality that no one makes it on their own, and especially not figures like Molly-Mae, who, as creative director of fast-fashion giant Pretty Little Thing, owes no small part of her success to the hundreds of exploited workers who continue to earn less than £3.50 an hour. We are not born into a vacuum; we depend on each other, from the food we eat to the pavements we walk on.
Moreover, we not only direct praise towards the individual that succeeds but blame others when they struggle, or when we struggle. The meritocracy narrative says the ‘losers’ have no one to blame but themselves. But for those who work hard and still lose, someone else must be at fault, not the system itself.
Of course, we are all too familiar with the scapegoating of families struggling to make ends meet, newcomers and Black and brown people, for the hardships the wealthy few created. Distracting us from how certain politicians, their corporate friends and the media they own, harm us all by hoarding extreme wealth and power,
Most of us put effort and pride into what we do, whatever our skin colour or gender - whether we're caring for loved ones, grafting between jobs or working 9-5. When we pull together across our differences, we can make this a country where we all have what we need to live a good life, and where working for a living means earning a living - no exceptions.