From boys to men

Australian writer Clementine Ford at "That F Word", a Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival event,...
Australian writer Clementine Ford at "That F Word", a Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival event, last weekend. Photo: Linda Robertson
Clementine Ford's visit to Dunedin went without incident. That's if you don't count body blows to the patriarchy as incidents, Tom McKinlay writes. 

Feminist Clementine Ford is applying lipstick.

Now, there's a danger here. Not for Clementine Ford. It is clear she has done this before and that she is in danger of neither getting lippy on her teeth nor smearing into clown territory.

Red is applied, quickly, expertly, judiciously, using her phone as a mirror.

No, the danger here is in mentioning that she is applying lipstick - mid interview - in case that sounds like an effort to soften her image in the eyes of detractors.

Because she's not much bothered by them.

The Australian writer's appearance at last weekend's Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival was preceded by outbursts of vein-popping apoplexia by some who believed she was coming to incite violence against men. Or something.

They contacted the council. They contacted the immigration service. They contacted the police. They called for protests. Then failed to turn up. Ford turned up and had not so much as a harrumph to deal with at the packed, humour-punctuated sessions she fronted.

In person, Ford's friendly open face appears primed for mirth.

So does the "men's rights" aggro she cops take a toll?

"I never really worry about the stuff in Australia because Australian men are way too lazy to organise ... Obviously, men are here too," she says with trademark raillery.

"I suppose the problem is when you fear they might be threatening other people who are coming to see you. That's what worries me - a lot of the women who come to see me will have experience of violence from men and I don't want them to have to walk through a gauntlet, however small, of angry aggressive men screaming at them."

Enough about rump populations of red-faced men though, there are more pressing things to ask an Australian.

Just recently, Australians decided Jacinda Ardern, our Jacinda Ardern, was their most trusted politician. What's going on there?

"It means that we don't trust our politicians," Ford says simply.

Ardern appears genuine, does empathy without it looking like politicking, and seems authentically concerned for people's welfare, she says.

"She's a great antidote to the kind of, like, overwhelming male egos that we are seeing around the world right now and the dismissiveness towards the needs of marginalised people."

At the festival Ford declared a qualified preference for the Labor team in this weekend's Australian federal election, and expands on that, singling out a couple of women in Labor leader Bill Shorten's line-up for special mention; his deputy Tanya Plibersek and the foreign affairs shadow minister Penny Wong.

"He has a lot of excellent people who have been consistently in the same portfolios for years, whereas there has been so much destabilisation in the [Liberal National Party]. And also they are f****** fascists."

(That last bit was humour.)

Shorten, well he's a flight back to the safety of a white bloke as leader after the flirtation with diversity under Julia Gillard, Ford says. She thinks Gillard was pretty good.

"Julia Gillard was the most effective prime minister that Australia has ever had," she says.

For the time she was in charge, she passed the most legislation.

"And she is still dismissed as being `everyone hated Julia Gillard, she was useless'," Ford says.

"It's like opinion and facts aren't the same thing but people treat them like they are."

Ford does opinion, no question. But her enthusiastic advocacy for women doesn't rely on their gender being the foremost thing to recommend them. Her writing is personal and vital and urgent - and earthy - but it's about well-researched argument, facts.

Women such as Gillard, and now Ardern, who get to the top make a difference, Ford says. When that is discounted it is because the people writing the history fail to consider the people for whom they made the difference.

"And you know, I think there's something really powerful as well about having seen the leader of a country give birth."

Ford's been watching and noted the criticism Ardern attracted; suggestions that if she knew she was going to have children she should never have stood for prime minister.

"Like, a mum couldn't possibly lead a country, you know?"

Queens of the domestic sphere, sure, but leave the running of the country to others.

"For me personally, and a lot of the women I know who are mothers, but a lot of the people I know who aren't as well, to see someone do both of those things ... "

She's noticed Clarke Gayford as well, Ardern's partner, and has big wraps on what he is modelling for other dads out there.

"That's one of the ways in which we need to change the world. I think we encourage more empathy in men by encouraging them to view the opportunities they have to be empathetic and caring as being valuable to them."

This stuff is very close to the discussion in Ford's latest book, Boys Will Be Boys.

Ford is herself the mother of a young son, and in the book she runs through the very many traps society will leave for him on his journey through life. Traps through which boys can fall into a toxic masculinity that both denies them the opportunity to realise their full human potential, and recruits them to the cause of misogyny. It denies tenderness in boys and punishes forthrightness in girls, she writes.

Some of those boys will lose themselves so completely they end up physically harming the women around them; becoming rapists, perpetrators of domestic violence and killers.

Ford desperately wants people to care for the victims, but she is also prepared to argue on the basis of the harm it does the offenders too.

"I think the entitlement of young men is sorely in need of addressing," she says.

It's an entitlement learned early, when boys realise they are at the centre of our society's narratives, the doers, the main characters: girls - and other genders - peripheral. Boys' rambunctious ways are to be expected and excused.

Ford says we need to tackle the way this narrative intersects with men's bonding behaviours. There are enough young men bonding in ways degrading to women that we should be concerned about it.

"Not just because of the harm it does to young women, but because of the harm it does to young men and their own evolution and their own sense of self," she says. "To dehumanise someone else is to take something away from your own humanity."

I'll just chuck a little Harry Potter reference in there, Ford says conspiratorially.

"If you can think of every act of degradation and the dehumanisation of young women as being like the creation of a Horcrux, you are splitting off a tiny little part of your soul and you are putting it into an inanimate object that can no longer exist inside you. And I think people should be really concerned about that."

For the uninitiated, this is what the evil Lord Voldermort did in the Potter sagas. Dreadful consequences all round.

We're talking here about young men - driven by cultural touchstones such as the "Don't dog on the boys" mentality - who might together bond over degrading pornography or even, as a pack, take part in sexual assaults.

This is the mother's concern. Ford writes in Boys Will Be Boys of her fear that her son might one day find himself confronted by that sort of situation. She is determined he will have it in him to do the right thing.

Her prescription includes talking about this stuff with boys, early and often. And then at regular intervals.

The research appears to indicate you can't start too early.

As a new mother, Ford was alarmed to observe the way in which narrowly defined gender roles are now assigned even before birth, at gender-reveal parties. This based on the single metric of a particular chromosomal endowment - ignoring the very much more nuanced understanding of gender that has blossomed in recent times. Ford's discussion of gender is far from binary.

Research indicates that gender stereotypes are so pervasive that children can apply them themselves before they are 3 years old. Repeated studies underline the way in which the adults around them reinforce such stereotypes without even being aware they are doing it.

Brought up in this environment, by his teenage years a boy is primed to prioritise his own needs, and those of his friends, and discount the impact on women. Ford quotes coverage of rapes and pack rapes where time and again boys' behaviour is excused and downplayed.

It's challenging stuff, and Ford shines light into every dark corner, but she also manages to make it all a little more accessible by writing as herself. For example, in discussing the way in which boys are discouraged from interests regarded as "girly", she does not say it is unfortunate, or undesirable. It is she says, "utterly shit": an expression fit for the real world.

These are issues on which it is past time for mincing words. Yet, some people think Ford should. That she should be nicer.

"When I first started writing I would always be very conciliatory towards men. Making sure that men, if they bothered to read me at all, knew that I wasn't talking about them. That I knew that most men were good men."

But constantly including escape clauses didn't feel right. It probably came from some residual conditioning that men must be made to feel comfortable and safe from disapproval at all times, she says.

"My dad always said you will catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar. But he never said it to my brother.

"I got bored with it, because the more I found my voice and the more passionate I became about the issues I was writing about and the more I thought they were enraging to other women as well, the more dirty I felt about making sure men felt OK about it."

What she found when she dropped the exceptions clauses, was that men started responding in a new way.

"You get three different brackets of men: The first would be `you are a fat **** and you hate men'; the second would be, `you would get your message across better if you were nicer to men' - in which case, whatever, you are not the men who are listening to the message; then the third would say `Oh, I get what you are saying'."

The interesting thing that happened when Ford dropped the provisos, she says, is that a lot of men in category 2 migrated to category 3. They persisted, kept reading and got there.

"I got so much more success from just being really forthright, than from making sure that they knew they weren't part of the problem."

Ford says that same approach has worked for her, in her own life, in terms of confronting her own privilege as a white woman living in a racist society. It has helped when people of colour have written in a way that has made her feel implicated.

"It is not a nice feeling, but it is an important one."

Men need to feel that, she says. Because the enduring power of patriarchy is about them.

"There have definitely been times in your life when you haven't done the right thing," she says.

Or ignored something, because it's easier. Or perhaps not even noticed.

"That's what I think people who are self-proclaimed good people need to start accepting, that goodness is not a static state. ... No-one is good. We are constantly trying to move towards goodness. And in the process of moving towards goodness, it is important for us to be OK with feeling bad, and with feeling implicated without feeling defensive.

"That is all part of the important process towards changing the way that we move through the world in order to make the world more liberated for people who are oppressed by it."

Self-flagellation is not required, Ford says. That's icky. Just honesty.

Ford is part of "fourth-wave" or "cyberwave" feminism. For this latest expression of the liberation movement, the internet has meant being able to publish without being mediated.

But the internet is a mixed blessing; overflowing with misogynist trolling, degrading pornography and the cruel posts of ex-boyfriends.

Ford sees it another way. And has some proof for that on her phone.

Someone has sent her a letter they received from a man dejected after a date was cancelled.

Here's just a small sample of his struggle with rejection: "You are so pathetic, you are the biggest **** and I wouldn't have met you there, I would have stood you up you dumb **** ..."

It just goes on and on. And on.

"That's on the internet now," Ford says.

It is the proof of what women have been saying forever - and been dismissed for saying - that men do not take rejection well, she says.

The abused woman can post the evidence and others, seeing it, can stand beside her. The internet becomes a unifying force in an environment where the means of communication can no longer be controlled.

Ford sees reasons for hope and for change.

"I feel really hopeful when I think about the next generation. When I see kids fighting against climate change and becoming really politically savvy and aware in a way that I wasn't when I was a kid."

The push-back from the old guard proves they are doing something right.

"There are always going to be people who are going to want to ridicule those who want a kinder, more empathetic world, but either those people will always exist or they will become smaller in number. I just don't believe that will be the way of world forever."

Ford sees in Greta Thunberg and her School Strike legions fellow travellers.

"Maybe everyone involved in that effort is not amazing on gender politics, maybe they are not amazing on race politics, but those movements are coming too, you know. They are happening now in their own ways."

Change is close, she says.

"My son is 2 and maybe in 15 years' time maybe his generation of kids are going to have a completely different expectation from the world."

Whether it is the environment, or gender equality, or racial equality, they'll have made the step change.

Ford will be happy to be the dinosaur then, and to have to lift her game again.


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