THE GOOD FIGHT

Male man­i­festo: Cle­men­tine Ford on rais­ing fem­i­nist sons.

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY LAU­REN SAMS

In the mar­gins of a proof of her new book, Cle­men­tine Ford’s edi­tor has hand­writ­ten a note. “So beau­ti­ful, Clem!” is scrib­bled next to a para­graph about Ford’s anx­i­eties for her young son. “I’m pre­pared (I think),” she writes, “for the mo­ment you might come home from kindy or school and tell me some­thing like, ‘Pink isn’t for boys’ or that ‘girls can’t do X, Y and Z’, but it still breaks my heart to know how lit­tle time you and your friends have be­fore that les­son will be forced on you.”

Ford gave birth to her son a lit­tle over two years ago. In the book, she says she “didn’t know how to have a boy”. The world can be cruel to girls, she ex­plains, but in a more sub­ver­sive way, this cru­elty also works to shut down boys who don’t con­form to nar­row gen­der stereo­types. The love let­ter to her son that closes Ford’s sec­ond book is tes­ta­ment to the ways she is try­ing to raise him free of the con­straints of gen­der. She wor­ries, she says, about how to pro­tect him from a toxic, de­struc­tive pa­tri­archy, and she wor­ries that he may some­day be “an agent of it”. I ask her how her fem­i­nist par­ent­ing jour­ney is go­ing, two years on. “Look,” she says with a small sigh. “It’s an on­go­ing project.”

The same could be said of Ford’s en­tire ca­reer as a fem­i­nist writer and broad­caster: it’s an on­go­ing project. For a decade now, Ford has been writ­ing about misog­yny, rape cul­ture and vi­o­lence against women. In that time, she’s es­tab­lished her­self as one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing fem­i­nist voices. She’s writ­ten elo­quently about the ways her own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences have in­ter­sected with the pol­i­tics of fem­i­nism: through her abor­tions, her body-im­age strug­gles and now, the ex­pe­ri­ence of par­ent­ing a lit­tle boy. The project be­gan with her post-uni blog (“Back when every­one had a blog,” she says) and her col­umns in the Ade­laide Ad­ver­tiser, then as a found­ing colum­nist for Fair­fax’s Daily Life. In 2016, just af­ter the birth of her lit­tle boy, she re­leased her first book, Fight

Like A Girl. It was a quick best­seller and has since been pub­lished in the UK and US, cov­eted ter­ri­to­ries for an Aus­tralian writer. The fol­low-up is out now, and where Fight Like A Girl was a call to arms for women, its suc­ces­sor, Boys Will Be Boys (which has been op­tioned for TV), tack­les the com­plex, in­cul­cat­ing na­ture of misog­yny and its reper­cus­sions for us all. It is – to put it bluntly – a dif­fi­cult read.

“You read it in a day?” Ford asks me. I did. “Wow,” she says. “That must have been re­ally hard.” It was. The book in­ci­sively un­packs ev­ery­thing from the pub­lic re­ac­tion to Jill Meagher’s mur­der to the deep weird­ness of gen­der-re­veal par­ties to the in­sipid ha­tred that in­cels and other misog­y­nist groups feel for women. It ends with a list of fa­mous men who have com­mit­ted acts of vi­o­lence against women and chil­dren. The shock­ing thing about the list isn’t so much that the men com­mit­ted the acts, but that they got away with them and in­deed, that their ca­reers thrived even in their wake. It’s a dis­turb­ing read, but a nec­es­sary one. “I’m glad you cried, ac­tu­ally,” says Ford, af­ter a beat. “I think peo­ple should be cry­ing when they read about this stuff. That’s the re­sponse we need.”

The book, she hopes, will stim­u­late con­ver­sa­tions about vi­o­lence against women, and the spec­trum on which it ex­ists. “It was drain­ing to write,” Ford ad­mits. “But what helped me push through was this de­sire to start con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple. I want peo­ple to know how des­per­ately we need to make changes.” The writ­ing is “un­com­pro­mis­ing”, says Ford, be­cause it needed to be. “I think if you show peo­ple this in­for­ma­tion and hold their hand, it just doesn’t get through. You need to show the re­al­ity of what is hap­pen­ing. It is re­ally dark. The peo­ple who are gen­uinely in­vested in try­ing to create a good world, for them­selves and their chil­dren, won’t be able to turn away any more.” The time for niceties, she says, is over.

Ford is not known for pulling punches, of course. When morn­ing show Sun­rise asked women when they were go­ing to learn not to send nude self­ies, Ford re­sponded with a top­less In­sta­gram shot. On her chest she wrote, “Hey #sun­rise get fucked.” Just be­fore Christ­mas in 2015, full to the brim with hate­ful mes­sages in which men threat­ened to rape and kill her, Ford con­tacted the em­ployer of one of the men, Michael Nolan. His sub­se­quent fir­ing set off yet an­other so­cial me­dia shit­storm. Ford laughs about this now, but the trolling must have some im­pact, I wa­ger. Is she ever afraid for her life? “There have been one or two oc­ca­sions. I’m dis­tantly aware that the threats might end up be­ing real. But I wouldn’t say that I live my life fear­fully. Most of them want to scare you. But they never show up to any­thing I do.” She does pro­tect her son, de­clin­ing to name him pub­licly and only re­fer­ring to him in the book as “F”.

When I say that I can’t imag­ine hav­ing her sense of self-pos­ses­sion about all of this, she coun­ters, “But you’re imag­in­ing if it started overnight for you. You don’t re­ally no­tice it at first, it creeps up on you. There are some days when it feels par­tic­u­larly bad, but most of the time you get quite de­sen­si­tised. There’s only so many times some­one can call you a ‘fat ugly cunt with daddy is­sues’. The words don’t even mean any­thing any more.”

One thing that helps when the trolls get too much is her lit­tle boy. “You know when kids come up to you for like a five-sec­ond hug, to recharge them? He does that all the time. And I’ve started to re­alise that the hug isn’t just for him. It recharges me, too.” It’s a bit of a cliché, she ad­mits, but with kids comes a sense of per­spec­tive. “It’s hard to worry about ir­rel­e­vant stuff hap­pen­ing on so­cial me­dia when you’ve got this lit­tle boy who has your face in his hands, say­ing, ‘Mummy, Mummy.’”

Still, Ford says the work can be over­whelm­ing, in part be­cause it sim­ply never ends: it’s an on­go­ing project. She rewrote the book’s in­tro­duc­tion at the last minute, to in­clude Eury­dice Dixon’s rape and mur­der, and then the de­face­ment of her me­mo­rial by a male Mel­bourne co­me­dian. “And five days af­ter Eury­dice Dixon was mur­dered, a woman was dragged into a car on Ly­gon Street and raped by two men,” she adds. The men were 23 and 26 years old. Some­thing in her voice breaks, but only ever so slightly, as she goes on. “One of the most fright­en­ing things for so­ci­ety to con­tend with is that nor­mal blokes – these two knew each other from cricket – are get­ting to­gether and say­ing, ‘Let’s force a woman to have sex.’ They don’t call it rape, but the re­al­ity is that is what it is. And we still think of rape as be­ing com­mit­ted by mon­sters, peo­ple out­side so­ci­ety. It’s just not true.”

She has heard, she says, from men who read her work want­ing to crit­i­cise it, but found them­selves chang­ing tack. “Hear­ing from men who have been an­gered by me at first, and then have been able to sit for a minute and lis­ten… it’s quite in­cred­i­ble.” She’s one of the pri­mary tar­gets of the well-worn “not all men” ar­gu­ment (ie not all men rape/com­mit do­mes­tic vi­o­lence/earn more than women, etc, so why are we talk­ing about “men” as a col­lec­tive group?) and she has a sim­ple an­swer to it, honed no doubt af­ter many years hear­ing that #no­tall­men are as bad as she says. “Ob­vi­ously when I talk about men, I’m never talk­ing about all men. Of course not. But all men ben­e­fit from pa­tri­archy. So they are com­plicit, whether they think so or not.” The onus is there­fore on all men, she says, to re­spond to move­ments like #Metoo as al­lies. “There are good men out there. But even they need to look at their be­hav­iour and make sure they’re do­ing the right thing.” Be­sides all that, she says, the idea that “not all men” are ca­pa­ble of vi­o­lence is not re­ally the point. “We’re al­ways made to re­as­sure men that we don’t mean them per­son­ally when we talk about this. But ac­tu­ally, we do mean them per­son­ally, be­cause no­body knows who is a rapist and who is not. It’s not like they wear signs!” Talk­ing about men col­lec­tively is not a per­sonal at­tack, Ford says. “It’s an in­dict­ment of the world we live in.”

As we fin­ish our con­ver­sa­tion, I ask Ford what she hopes, ul­ti­mately, for her son. Af­ter a long pause, she says, “I hope that we shift our think­ing. Peo­ple spend a lot of time wor­ry­ing about girls, how we can equip them for the world they’re born into. And I think that’s ask­ing the wrong ques­tion. What we need to ask is, ‘How can we change the world that girls are be­ing born into, so they don’t have to live their lives de­fend­ing them­selves from it? How can we change the world so that boys don’t feel so en­ti­tled to rule it?’ They’re the real ques­tions we need to ask.”

The project con­tin­ues.

“I think peo­ple should be CRY­ING when they READ THIS STUFF”

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ADRIAN PRICE

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