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Feminist Clementine Ford on how toxic masculinity hurts men as well as women

Clementine Ford. Photo/Melanie Faith Dove

Australia’s bête noire of blokes, Clementine Ford, reckons her new book may surprise those whose minds aren’t made up about her. 

Clementine Ford, best-selling writer, columnist, broadcaster, speaker and scourge of the patriarchy, has been called a witch, a bitch, an ugly femmo, a joyless harpy, and much more too eye-wateringly awful to reproduce in a family magazine. “I know, I know,” she writes pre-emptively in her new book, Boys Will Be Boys, “‘More man-hating from the irrelevant Chlamydia Ford!’”

Trolls will be trolls. Even in the press, “flamethrower” gets used. She doesn’t mind. “Not at all,” she says evenly, on the phone from Sydney, where she’s touring Boys and, by the sounds of it, grabbing a bite between events. “I think people actually listen more to my uncompromising voice than they do to the one that’s reassuring and gentle.”

Her first book, out in 2016, was called Fight Like a Girl. To say she gives as good as she gets is pitiful understatement. She’s a subversive masterclass in outspoken, pushy and all those other words only ever used about women. I find myself apologising for accidentally calling her “feisty”. “I described myself today as being a bolshie child. I don’t think anyone ever describes boys as being bolshie,” she says. “I like ‘uncompromising’.” I tell her many women of my generation found it hard to be so … uncompromising. “You were so much more punished for it than I was and I am. I think, structurally, it’s easier for me now. It would have been so much more difficult in different ways when you were my age to behave that way.”

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“Unf---withable feminist Demogorgon” is her handle on Twitter, where she promises, “Every time someone calls me a ‘feminazi’ I power up by 5 points.” It’s a bracing thought to imagine her any more powered-up than she is. “I dipped a quill in the inky ocean of male tears and wrote an angry manifesto,” she said, of Fight Like a Girl. She’s just back from promoting it in the US. It can’t be easy pushing her last book while launching the next. “It’s not as confusing as I thought it would be because it’s two halves of the same coin.” With Ford, the personal is always political. In Fight like a Girl, about the way that girls and women are contained and controlled, Ford writes about her early experience of anxiety, an eating disorder and the sort of lessons absorbed by young girls: “Don’t grow, but shrink.”

Boys Will Be Boys takes another unhelpful gender cliché and turns it into a funny, exhilarating, confronting read. It tackles toxic masculinity and the damage it does to men as well as women. Fellow Australian writer Tim Winton has described the constricting traditional expectations of how men should be: “There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism.”

Ford. Photo/Pobke Photography

Boys’ chapter titles lay out the territory: “A woman’s place”; “It’s just a joke”; “Asking for it”. The epilogue is addressed to her toddler son, “F”. She has said the book is a love letter to him. “Yeah, it is because I want a world for him in which all of these aspects of toxic masculinity are, if not eradicated yet, identified as being dangerous and opposed. I don’t want him growing up in a world that tells him not only that he needs to cut off all of the sensitive parts of himself in order to be a real man but also that his masculinity is dependent on how rigidly he presents himself and conducts his behaviour as blokey.”

So, how do you prepare him for our still-blokey culture? “I’m just going to lock him in an attic until he’s 50.” Oh, dear. She’ll be setting off klaxons on the MRA (men’s rights activists) and anti-feminist internet sites where she is hated. “It’s interesting. Dads say, ‘I’m going to lock her up until she’s 35, then she’ll be allowed to date men.’ And I think, hmm, why is that? What are you saying about men? ‘Oh, I know what boys are like.’ Okay, what if I said I know what boys are like? ‘Aw, you bloody man hater.’” Ford wants her son to see women first as people. “I mean, he may not even be interested in women. Sexually, I mean.” Is that the sound of klaxons again?

She tells a story about a video clip circulating online as evidence that she’s a man-hater. “And also that I’m an unfit mother and should have my child taken away from me. I can be heard saying, ‘I’m so sick of talking about men. I have a male baby and he’s just constantly demanding my attention. Feed me, change me,’” she says. “Okay, it was part of a comedy debate.”

She’s in a relationship with her son’s father. “Women have lots of good reasons to hate men but also most of us continue to love and support men in our lives and invest in their emotional maturity despite the fact that we get very little of that back.” Ford has no time for male parenting experts who celebrate research that shows men have increased the time they spend with their children to up to 40 minutes a day. “Well, hell,” she writes, “let’s have a f---ing parade.”

Her book is a reminder of the countless calculations women make every day just to stay safe. She writes about the rape and murder of Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon. At a press conference, a detective “advised people to practise ‘situational awareness’, as if being hyper aware of our surroundings isn’t something women especially have been practising since childhood”.

Murder victim Eurydice Dixon. Photo/Eurydice Dixon/Facebook

If she wasn’t so entertaining, Ford could be depressing. Surely things have improved in the age of stay-at-home dads and the Me Too movement? New Zealand is led by a young, female Prime Minister who has a baby. Not that she doesn’t get attacked constantly by the media’s more threatened men. “I know! They’d be terrified of her, what she represents,” says Ford. Still, it’s when real change is under way that the dinosaurs bellow the loudest. “Exactly. She’s brilliant. I wish she would come over and lead Australia.”

Of course, there’s been progress. “There are more men invested in the fight for gender equality now than before. At the same time, some of the tools people have available, certainly that young boys have available in terms of online access and the way that they can use online spaces to not just co-ordinate with each other but to radicalise each other to abuse women; it’s really disturbing. It’s like two steps forward, one step back.”

She encounters a lot of fools in her line of work. She doesn’t suffer them. I foolishly ask if she expected the impressive public profile she has acquired. “No, of course not. Who would expect that?” She is grateful for the platform. “Because I think I can do important work. When I was at university discovering feminism, no one cared about it. It was considered passé and over. It’s just fantastic to do events where you see hundreds of people turning up really feverish for the conversations.”

Just don’t expect her to play nice. In response to what some saw as a woman-shaming item in which Australian breakfast television show Sunrise asked, “when will women learn” not to post nude photos of themselves online, Ford posted a selfie of herself with the message, “Hey #Sunrise Get F---cked” scrawled across her bare chest.

“What’s become apparent in the past few years, especially recently with Me Too, all over the world, is that women are really, really angry and that anger needs to be spoken to. It needs to be acknowledged and invited into the room instead of ignoring it and insisting, still, that we stay so nice and polite all the time. I think that’s what women feel quite liberated by with me. I tell them they can be as angry as they like and no one’s going to tell them to calm down, least of all me.”

Not everyone gets her style. There was the “kill all men” business. She was tweeting in response to the sort of trolls who express the hope that she will sit on a butcher’s knife so she can’t reproduce. She was joking. “When I tweet ‘kill all men’, obviously I am having a joke at the expense of the fact that feminists are called man haters who want to see an eradication of the male species. OBVIOUSLY that’s a joke,” she explained at the time. She has also advocated firing men into the sun. She doesn’t mean that either. Probably.

Trolls do lack a sense of irony. “Absolutely. For men who demand constantly that women develop senses of humour and not be so wounded by words, they cannot interpret comedy at all. Not if they’re the butt of the joke.” Boys includes a story told by writer Margaret Atwood. She asked a friend why men feel threatened by women. “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. Then she asked some women at a seminar she was giving why women feel threatened by men: “They’re afraid of being killed.” Ford defended her combative sense of humour when questioned by the Daily Mail Australia: “If we lived in a world where women were murdering men en masse and men genuinely had reason to fear they might be murdered in their beds by a gang of marauding feminists, I would agree with your concern. As it is, we live in a world where it’s women who are being murdered by men at a minimum rate of one a week in this country, not to mention the countless circumstances of sexual violence, physical harassment and ongoing domestic violence perpetrated against women.”

Germaine Greer. Photo/Getty Images

For sheer chutzpah, her street-fighting ways, Ford resembles a young Germaine Greer. Yet it feels like an odd comparison, given Greer’s later contentious views on transwomen and her call for reduced rape sentences. Have people such as Greer let the side down? Ford isn’t playing. “I don’t want her to contact me and get mad at me. I don’t know her at all.” And she gets enough unsisterly judgments herself. “I hate when people say to me, ‘Oh, I’m disappointed in the thing you did.’ I always think, ‘Who the f--- are you? You can disagree, of course. But don’t be disappointed in me. I’m not your child. I’m not your mother.’” She gives Greer her due. “Germaine was such a pivotal figure in the feminist movement. So many women owe so much to her from that time. We owe to her legacy.”

Legacy. In Fight Like a Girl, Ford writes about her mother, who died of cancer at 57, and her maternal grandmother, who was Lithuanian. During World War II, her grandmother was in a Russian concentration camp. “She ended up in a camp completely separated from her family when she was 12. The story’s been handed down to me through my mother, who didn’t get all of it because it was too traumatic to talk about,” says Ford. I ask if this personal history informs what she does now. “If anything, I recognise that had my mother had different circumstances available to her, she could have gone to university and become a brilliant scholar. She was so smart. She could have had a very different life. But she was the child of a traumatised war survivor who had been horribly and repeatedly raped throughout her experience in the camp. I think it’s just that buildup of intergenerational trauma, you know?” There are two uncles who have never been traced, left behind in Lithuania when Ford’s grandmother remarried to an English man who wanted only her two daughters. “Losing her brothers and never knowing where they were, being punished for asking about them … there was a lot that conspired to make life very difficult for her,” says Ford, of her mother. “I suppose it’s at the back of my mind but not ever something that I’m working to heal explicitly or anything.”

So much in the world to be angry about. Ford is doing what she can in the trenches of the gender wars. We talk about the days when women couldn’t go into a public bar or wear trousers to work. “That was one of the saddest things to come out of writing Fight Like a Girl, hearing the same stories from 15-year-old girls that I do from 75-year-old women. A lot has changed but a lot has stayed exactly the same.” She was in the US just before the hearing on sexual abuse allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “A woman tweeted something very clever about the Kavanaugh thing, saying that if Christine Blasey Ford had reported it at the time, nothing would have happened to Kavanaugh, but the effect on her life would have been profound. That’s what happens even now to girls who speak out about popular, privileged boys in their communities. [Boys] has quite a few stories about girls who are forced to leave town or who are ostracised by the community. Why didn’t she report it? Because she wanted her life to go on.” As for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, “It’s so frustrating and disgusting but wholly unsurprising. Of course [Christine Ford] is being undermined. Of course she’s being painted as a political operative. Of course he’s allowed to rant and rage because how dare anyone try to stop a privileged white man from ascending to his throne on the Supreme Court? It’s his birthright. What it comes down to is that they don’t care if he did it.”

Women supported Kavanaugh, too. And it’s not just flak from men Ford has to deal with. “I’m sure you have your own women in New Zealand who play to the boys and don’t think we need feminism now because all of these nasty man-haters are making life difficult for men.”

She doesn’t despair. “I’ve been getting a lot of great engagement from men who are obviously really committed to the idea of making things better, which is really encouraging. Perhaps they have daughters, perhaps they have sons. Either way, they want to be good fathers.”

Time is up. She’s off to another bookstore event. She has no illusions about changing the minds of her detractors. “They’ll definitely talk loudly about how it’s a man-hating book but they won’t read it.” That’s a shame. Because in the end, for all the profanity and provocations, it’s a book that wants nothing scarier than equality, the best for everyone. “I think if people are uncertain about me, and they pick up the book to see what she’s all about, they might be pleasantly surprised.”

Clementine Ford will speak at Freemans Bay Community Centre, Auckland, on November 27.

BOYS WILL BE BOYS, by Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin, $36.99).

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.