I’m a feminist. Every day I notice how women’s lives have been shaped to sustain male privilege. I get angry when I think about the gender pay gap. I’m furious about the prevalence of family violence. The way that women in particular (but men too) are poked and prodded into hating their appearance by global beauty companies makes me livid. But I am nowhere near as angry as Clementine Ford.
In Fight Like A Girl, Ford rails against the state of the patriarchy in Australia; every page of this book hangs heavy with rage. Disappointingly, for me this was the most notable thing about her book. At best, Fight Like A Girl is a polemic (or a ‘manifesto’, as she calls it). At worst, it is stream-of-consciousness opinion piece that fails to contribute anything new to the conversation about feminism.
The book is nominally separated into different thematic chapters (abortion, body image and eating disorders, the superfluousness of men to feminism, violence against women and social media trolling), but these half a dozen topics are revisited again and again, as if on a continuous loop throughout the book. Ford sustains her unmitigated anger at the same intensity across all these themes, meaning that as I progressed through the book, Ford’s writing increasingly lost its potency.
At the same time as I was reading Fight Like a Girl, I was listening to the audiobook of Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, read by Helen herself. Everywhere I Look is a collection of Garner’s meditations on life – covering, for instance, her thoughts on growing old, her grandchildren, fellow writers and murder trials. Listening to Garner read her own words was a hugely intimate experience. Inexplicably I now feel like we’re close friends; like she poured out her thoughts for only me to hear.
Although I didn’t plan it that way, reading Fight Like a Girl whilst listening to Everywhere I Look made the deficiencies of Ford’s writing all the more stark, even those these two books have completely different objectives. Through her writing, I felt like Garner metaphorically took me by the hand and gently led me where she wanted me to go, walking at my side, quietly telling me to watch my step. I felt that Ford, on the other hand, stood at my back, poking and shoving me whilst shouting, ‘look where you’re going!’.
Both Garner and Ford cover two recent events, now etched into Melbourne’s collective pysche – the murder and rape of Jill Meagher in a Melbourne laneway, and the public beating to death of Luke Batty at the hands of his father. The two writers approach these seminal events in completely different ways.
Garner’s thoughts on Jill Meagher’s murder are meandering. In the chapter ‘Death in Brunswick’, she links Jill’s murder to the public grieving for Princess Di and then considers the power of social media. She ponders the human condition, turning it over and over in her mind:
What about the poor guy, her workmate, who offered to walk her home? And she said no, she’d be all right? I feel terrible for him. All the women he’s ever known would be feminists. He would have learnt not to patronise them with his protectiveness. God, how many times have I walked home feeling invincible.
Ford uses the murder to discuss ‘the potent elements of rape culture’ and to highlight those men who believe women are to blame for the violence perpetrated against them. Ford write: ‘I expect nothing less from the bottom-feeding troglodytes who belch their way up through the bile of humanity’s most pointless specimens to make sure their Very Important Opinions about how women should and shouldn’t behave are heard’. She outlines a list of horrendous sexual assaults perpetrated by footy players, American college students and Kiwi teenagers. She writes, ‘the bandaid solution of making rape prevention the responsibility of women doesn’t address the core issue of how and why it keeps happening’.
Absolutely. I completely agree. But, rather than demanding that I be angry, Ford could have wound back her writing, let the principles and points speak for themselves, and I’m pretty sure I would’ve been angry of my own accord. I felt like Ford didn’t trust me to reach my own conclusions, that she felt she needed repeat her observations over and over and to make them absolutely, totally BLACK and WHITE, with no room to reflect. The effect of this was suffocating.
The discussion of Luke Batty’s death is similarly dealt with by these authors in their distinctive ways. In her chapter about Rosie Batty (Luke’s mother and the woman who has ignited a national debate about family violence) Garner weaves humour into the narrative (‘”I have to be careful,” Rosie said to me, with her wry grin, “that my little halo doesn’t slip down and strangle me”’) and conveys Rosie’s unique stoicism (‘The architecture of Rosie Batty’s face may be monumental, but the air around her is so clear that one can ask her anything’). Garner’s piece conveys pathos and a powerful message around Batty’s trauma.
Ford discusses Rosie Batty in the context of her critique of the White Ribbon Campaign. This chapter highlighted for me another fault I found with Ford’s writing; she doesn’t validate her opinions with any form of external reference. There is no acknowledgement of broader feminist analysis, statistics, case law or budget allocations. For instance, Ford asserts that the support required by the women’s health sector is ‘diverted to flashier places like the White Ribbon Foundation’, which is ‘more invested in raising awareness of its own brand than tangibly opposing men’s violence against women’. Whilst I fundamentally agree with Ford’s analysis that White Ribbon activities can be tokenistic, her claims around the White Ribbon Foundation need to be substantiated. The closest she gets to is this: ‘a friend of mine… recently told me that only about 40 percent of surveyed [White Ribbon] Ambassadors identify as feminists’. It’s not much.
Fight Like A Girl is intended to be hard hitting, and is clearly framed as a call-to-arms for budding feminists. Ford is explicit about the need to be angry, and to fan women’s anger about the patriarchy. If she had trusted me to arrive there in my own time, if the arguments had referenced any kind of broader analysis, or if Ford had presented some original ideas on solving these intractable issues, I would’ve become agitated. I’d have been furious. Instead, I was bored – to the point that I skim-read the last few chapters. By the end of the book, where I presume Ford was expecting me to toss it aside and start googling ‘how to be a better feminist’, I felt only a sense of disappointment.
Perhaps a younger woman might find Ford’s writing instructive, and perhaps even epiphanous. Perhaps this style and tone of writing is what’s needed to galvanise women to don the feminist mantle. As a wizened old woman who’s read lots about women’s rights, I found Fight Like a Girl to be underwhelming and all a bit shouty. Meanwhile, Helen Garner’s This House of Grief is now on sitting on top of my ‘to be read’ pile, even if I might not agree with her opinions in it. Sometimes, less is more.
I can’t think of another young, Australian feminist writer, other than Clementine Ford. (I can think of at least four in the UK). Is it better to have an inadequate book about feminism that people are buying and reading, than no book at all?