The ideological fortress: Clementine Ford’s Boys Will Be Boys

The central argument in Clementine Ford’s Boys Will Be Boys is that an ongoing culture of toxic masculinity affects the ways we behave toward and perceive—consciously or otherwise—women in society. In the book’s early stages, Ford outlines that the “search for solutions has yet to include looking at ways to change the behaviour of boys.”

Unlike Fight Like A Girl, which injected new rage into Australia’s feminist movement, Ford’s latest purports to “take aim at toxic male spaces and behaviours that are used to codify male power and dominance, but that also secure protection from the consequences of them.”

Separated into a tidy twelve chapters, Boys Will Be Boys traverses the fog of toxic masculinity one step at a time, working its way from the assignment of cisnormative gender expectations at birth straight through to pornography and victim-blaming.

Many of the core subjects that defined Fight Like A Girl appear in Boys Will Be BoysFord is comfortable using reiteration to convey a sense of ideological cohesion from book to book. The primary difference in focus is that Boys Will Be Boys represents the ways women are perceived and treated in relation to masculinity.

Although Ford’s book is a fire-tongued diagnosis of today’s gendered imbalances, it constructs this narrative by reducing masculinity, and men, to simple wholes.

But Ford also strives to prove it is not feminism that is damaging and hurtful to men, but rather toxic masculinity itself. For me, this goal is undeniably A Good Thing, something that may help non-feminists empathise with the objectives of feminism. But while the goal itself is not problematic, the way Ford delivers her message runs the risk of confirming the bias of her supporters without resonating with a broader audience.

Although Ford’s book is a fire-tongued diagnosis of today’s gendered imbalances, it constructs this narrative by reducing masculinity, and men, to simple wholes. It is not Ford’s job, nor may it even be her intention, to reach out to men, but her unwillingness to address the complexities of masculinity cannot help but make this book feel like a missed opportunity.

Currently, there seems to be an untraversable division in Australian views of feminism, with the two clearly observable markers being generation and gender. The disaffection toward modern-day feminism, from a generational point of view, generally revolves around disagreement regarding intersectionality: the belief that race, gender, social status and ability are inseparably bound to feminism—the belief that there is no such thing as the ‘everywoman’.

Second, and equally disruptive, is the opinion of certain men that feminism has become an ideological fortress. It is impenetrable, no longer about equality, amorphous in intent, or simply ‘not for men.’ These critics of the movement feel disaffected because they believe it has been twisted into, or always was, a kind of misandry.

Boys Will Be Boys convincingly rebukes the idea that equality has been established between the genders. Throughout the collection of essays, Ford observes how certain men continue to behave destructively and vilely toward women, arguing that male systems of treating women as objects or “things to ‘earn’ or ‘win’ [is] part of a culture of learned entitlement in which the logical endpoint for falling short is violence and retribution.”

Because this violence against women endures, despite the vocal outrage of contemporary feminists, Ford argues that the architecture of boyhood is broken.

To support her argument, Ford uses recent examples of crimes against women to illustrate the more pervasive psychologies among boys and men produced by this toxic environment. Just look at the rape trial of Luke Lazurus, for example. Or the horrific rape-murder of Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon and the subsequent defacing of her memorial by Andy Nolch, “a thirty-one-year old man from within the comedy community who … later told Fairfax he had done it as ‘an attack on feminism’.”

Because this violence against women endures, despite the vocal outrage of contemporary feminists, Ford argues that the architecture of boyhood is broken, leading to the development of men who believe abhorrent entitlement over women is permissible.

Another indication that inequality reigns supreme is the proclaimed perception of household responsibility, the idea that “women’s work is considered equally important.” Ford believes this to be untrue. “The gendered conditions of domestic labour” remain massively imbalanced to this day, with men being frequently praised for “helping out” around the house, by both men and women. Ford is idiosyncratically wry about this divide: “Let’s throw a fucking parade,” she writes.

Perhaps the most memorable passage is an “incomplete list of men who have either been accused or convicted of various crimes against women and a description of the impact these accusations had on their careers”. This list of Hollywood stars and other men of relative fame concludes the book, a powerful sign of solidarity toward the #MeToo movement.

Clementine Ford’s long history of being internet trolled derives, in part, from the fact that she ‘feeds’ them. She is infamous for screenshots of abusive messages. She does so to demonstrates that their behaviour will not be tolerated. It is this impulse to combat her provocateurs that filters into Ford’s brand of mockery.

If an ideological fortress provides ways to empower people in a position of societal disadvantage—in this case, women—isn’t that a good thing?

On that note, Ford often finds herself on the Twittersphere battleground. She narrates an incident in which she posted a tweet regarding the #MeToo movement, signing off with “#cancelmen”.

“Whoops!” Ford writes. “You’re not supposed to punctuate the rage you feel about men’s violence with sarcastic references to ridding the world of the male scourge.”

Immediately afterwards Ford reassures us she’s joking, and that she is forever surprised by the fragility of male egos in the twenty-first century.

At times, mockery and jest appear to supersede empathy, and this will likely disaffect some male readers. Non-feminists who point at Ford’s contrarian nature as a reason for disengaging with her ideas, however, seem unproductive. If an ideological fortress provides ways to empower people in a position of societal disadvantage—in this case, women—isn’t that a good thing?

Of course, the problem then becomes that Boys Will Be Boys may alienate the men it purports to encourage to reconsider their masculinity, and is unlikely to lead those not already doing so to acknowledge that views toward women can incite violence, even unintentionally.

In many ways, Boys Will Be Boys is a retaliation against male unaccountability, and one reading of the book is that Ford has confronted her fears about raising a boy in the “toxic dumpster fire that is our patriarchal world.”

The book aims to destroy the myth of the ‘Shadow Man’, a faceless creature associated with toxic men. “Who is this Shadow Man?” Ford asks. For too long we have avoided the confronting reality that The Shadow Man could be anyone. The misogynist, or rapist, or murderer, Ford suggests, could be somebody you know, “any man … You just don’t know. You don’t.”

The subtext may very well be that Ford has used her son as a narrative synecdoche to suggest that men are still behaving like children.

She is explicit about this in the Epilogue, a love letter to her son. As we read through the Nabokovian evocations, “you are my life and light”, the directness of the letter falls away and we are left instead with increasingly open-ended life advice: “Don’t use women as a way to reckon with your own feelings of inadequacy or anger”, she cautions; “we have so far collectively failed to let you all be anything other than the most rigid, damaging and reductive form of boy.”

While the intention might be to end on a positive, optimistic note, the subtext may very well be that Ford has used her son as a narrative synecdoche to suggest that men are still behaving like children.

For the male reader, Boys Will Be Boys can be abrasive, written with a rage-as-virtue candour that’s become a trademark of Ford’s Fairfax column. Quite a few times throughout the book, Ford addresses this very complaint about the alienating style of her writing for a male readership:

If you’re a man reading this, you may be feeling defensive. It’s okay, I get it. It can be hard to hear that you’re not as great as you think you are. It doesn’t make you a terrible person to feel defensive and uncomfortable. It makes you a terrible person if you refuse to interrogate that discomfort and instead use it as a way of dismissing what it is you’re being told.

In the final sentence, she challenges men to be active in responding to the insights feminism has provided. It is people like Clementine Ford who generate discussions within society about issues of social equality. One of her biggest grievances is with the defensive statement, “not all men.”

‘Not all men!’ … [is] a diversionary tactic used to shift attention away from the substantial issues of discrimination and oppression that impact women’s lives and channel it instead into men’s feelings.

I agree with Ford. Within the broader discussion, these petty asides are indeed “lazy and aggrieved” diversionary tactics. Feminists make claims about masculine culture and identity in broad strokes, and non-feminists reply that their experience is inconsistent with such a view. How that breakdown can be bridged is perhaps a question for another book, even another writer, but it certainly feels like a question that will have to be tackled.

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One Comments

  • Dean Briggs

    November 8, 2018

    There is a photo of Bill Bailey, wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE’. It pays to remember that if you are a bloke, and a committed feminist, Clementine’s barbs may not necessarily be aimed at you. I read the book and (as a male) never once took offence at her comments and occasional potty mouthed explosions. I was keen to see what a ‘fourth wave’ feminist might be. I don’t know about the concept of toxic masculinity but willingly concede that there are many systemic speed humps impeding the journey towards equity. She made a passing remark that women operate in less space. That is an idea that has stayed with me. We have to facilitate, and allow, women the same space that we (males) are born to.

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