THE GOOD FIGHT
Male manifesto: Clementine Ford on raising feminist sons.
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”