Even as I write this, the irony is not lost on me that Clementine Ford absolutely does not care what I or other men think about her book, Fight Like A Girl (A&U, 2016). It is a “love letter to the girls” and a passionate treatise calling for women to not ask but demand gender equality (p.283).
For a public figure renowned for her toughness and combative style, the book is replete with disarmingly personal moments. Ford makes herself touchingly vulnerable as she shares intimate details of her struggles with body image, anorexia, self-esteem, mental illness, and the lingering stigma associated with choosing an abortion.
Regardless of whether they agree with Ford in particular, of feminism more generally, there is a lot in this book that women will find valuable, interesting, relatable, and funny.
But, this book is also a great read for men. There are two groups of men especially who really could benefit from reading this book. First, there are men who think everything is equal now so feminism has no point (except to serve as an angry cabal of men haters). Second, is the group I fit into, male feminists.
For the first group, Ford does an excellent job of pointing out the societal inequalities that still exist between the genders. Yes, women can vote. Yes, women have the same legal rights but you don’t need to be Margaret Mead to appreciate that culture defines us and regiments our behaviour in powerful ways.
The discussion on childlessness and abortion is particularly poignant. Ford writes:
Why is it that men who prioritise adventure and independence over family are called ‘committed bachelors’ and ‘wanderers’ who just can’t be tied down, but women who similarly pursue a life free from burdens are called ‘spinsters’ and ‘cat ladies’ and are viewed as pitiful cautionary tales?
It’s because men are given the complexity to be fully rounded individuals while women are still treated like plants in need of a man’s attention to fully bloom (p.130).
One only has to consider the treatment of Australia’s first female prime minister to see this double standard in action. For the litany of colourful insults thrown at male politicians, none had ever been deemed unsuitable for leadership on account of being “deliberately barren” before. Anne Summers has written a depressing NSFW article that catalogues some of the gendered and often sexualised and/or violent attacks Gillard received on a regular basis.
At times, I did find myself thinking that men and boys do face many of the same struggles. Especially when Ford discusses depression, anxiety, and issues relating to body image, there is a sense that both genders suffer from stigmatisation and both are exploited by a ruthless capitalism that always has a new product to make you the perfect man or woman.
The chapter on rape culture was the most distressing. Yes, we have come a long way, and yes, women are far more free than they were 40 years ago, let alone, a century or more. We definitely still have a while yet to go. As Ford dissects the rape and murder of Jill Meagher, the inescapable conclusion is that we still place unfair and contradictory societal expectations on women that men simply do not experience.
Perhaps it is the horrific nature of rape that clouds our vision. We are so reluctant to face this issue honestly that we create list of reasons why it was really the victim’s fault all along.
Ford highlights the mixed messages we send women about their own safety and their responsibility to not be assaulted:
You know the drill. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t wear revealing clothes. Don’t drink too much. In fact, don’t drink at all. Don’t talk to strange men, but don’t ignore men who are probably just trying to have a conversation with you – can’t a man even have a conversation with a woman these days without being accused of being a rapists, how dare you unfairly malign all men with your paranoia and man-hating … ?
What do you mean, you let him walk you home? What were you thinking? Don’t you know how dangerous that is? … What do you mean, you won’t let me walk you home? … I’m not a threat to you, how dare you make me feel like a might be a threat to you! … That’s the problem with feminism, it makes out all men to be rapists (p.237).
Depressingly, there are just too many examples of women being raped and killed only for the media to discuss the ways they brought it on themselves or how lamentable it is that a man’s life has been ruined by “20 minutes of action“.
So yes, it is great to acknowledge how far we have come in terms of gender equality, but for men to decide feminism is now obsolete is to display a woeful lack of empathy. There are instances yet, where men and women are simply not treated equally.
But what of the second group? What of the right-on, progressive, Enlightened males of the planet who happily identify as feminists? While Ford does dedicate a chapter to “the good guys” it is not the standing ovation some have come to expect simply for showing up to the feminist party. As she puts it, feminists “are under no obligation to reward men for being basically okay”.
This can be a bitter pill to swallow, but in the same way no one would expect applause for believing people of different races should be equal, there is no reason to consider men who desire gender equality particular virtuous.
Ford is especially critical of White Ribbon Day and similar events which, in her view, boils down to women heaping praise on men for promising not to be violent. As I read her critique, I remembered standing with my 10 year old nephew at a Wanderers game and saying the White Ribbon Oath. It was a good thing. And it was a great moment to reiterate that violence against women is never okay.
That said, Ford’s argument is strong when she suggests the front line workers at rape crisis centres are far more deserving, not only of funds but of the accolades that are so freely given to male sports stars for being a “champion of change“.
Glamour Magazine’s announcement that Bono is their 2016 “woman of their year” is a case in point. Ford certainly had something to say about that. It is great, of course, when men show an interest in gender equality, but the accolades should be primarily reserved for the women who have led the movement and done the thankless heavy lifting for decades.
I wrote an article last year suggesting that male feminists (like myself) need to know their place. Ford’s book really articulates why that is. What could be more ironic than men finally coming around to the idea of gender equality only to push through to the front and insist we take our rightful leadership place (head of the house dontcha know)?
Ford is a polarising figure. Her fans love her and will take the message and lessons from Fight like a Girl to heart. Her thousands of online haters will continue to troll her, threaten to rape her, tell her she is too ugly to rape, and spew the usual unfiltered misogyny.
For those in the middle, those who sorta agree but not always, those who support gender equality but think feminism has lost its way, those who think Ford is right in principle but is too angry and combative in her approach (that is like so unfeminine); this is a great read, if only to understand where she is coming from.
While the book is aimed at women and will (probably) be read mainly by women, there is a lot of worthwhile stuff in here for men too. There is no obligation to agree with everything (or anything) Ford says, but from one bloke to others, it is worth at least attempting to understand why feminists insist the fight is far from over.