Review: Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl

pic1Last night I was lucky enough to see Clementine Ford launch her book Fight Like a Girl at Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre. I was keen to hear Ford talk, to come down from my ivory tower in the academy and see what mainstream feminism in Australia had to say. I was struck by how much I looked like all the other women there, with my Gorman clothing and my “alternative” haircut, and my not being a man.

Ford was charismatic and had loads of interesting anecdotes about sexism. I was struck by her “giving no fucks” attitude, and deep concern for the lives of women. Interestingly, Ford called for a new version of “radical feminism” for the contemporary world. But when MC Julia Baird asked, “So, how do you fight like a girl?”, I was surprised that Ford had little to say other than along the lines of “‘girl’ has become synonymous with ‘shit’, so we have to own it instead of be ashamed”. The suggestion seemed to be that fighting like a girl, boiled down to just being a girl.

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Reading selfie

I decided to go home and swiftly read the book to see if I was missing something.

Throughout Fighting Like a Girl, Ford documents the sexism she has experienced in her life in meticulous autobiographical detail. She talks for example about the stigma around abortions, the difficulty of having mental health issues as a woman, the mixed emotions of pregnancy, and grappling with body image issues and eating disorders. Ford’s reflections are refreshingly blunt. I particularly liked her point toward the end that, “We should be angry. Because if we aren’t, we aren’t paying enough attention” (271). I have often advocated the value of anger and the way that women’s expression of anger is derided.

But while Ford outlines all of these issues and rallies us for anger, there is a little direction about what to do with it.

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Clementine Ford

Ford’s manifesto reads as a kind of re-vamped consciousness-raising strategy ala 1970’s feminism. Though, unlike the feminist groups of that time (that would meet to talk tactics and plans for actions) Ford’s consciousness-raising (at least in this book) is largely about self-work, undoing negative thoughts and female conditioning, enjoying the virtues of masturbation, and repeating insults thrown at oneself over and over until they loose meaning and force. Ford also advocates for ignoring sexist men, to laugh in their face or just “walk away” (278).

But while some of these options may assist in surviving a sexist world, I am dubious about how effective they are for dismantling sexism. I feel like masturbating in your bathtub just ain’t gonna cut it.

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An excellent slogan from the strike in 1970

It is fruitful here to compare Ford’s strategy to the radical tactics that were also going on in the 1970’s alongside consciousness raising. For example, women gathered at the Miss America protest in 1968 to throw their bras and Cosmopolitan magazines into a “Freedom Trashcan” (where the bra-burning myth comes from), in order to draw attention to the sexism of beauty pageants. There was also the socialist feminist Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), which staged a lot of theatrical protests such as gathering to march down Wall Street and cast hexes on corporations. Even the more conservative so-called “liberal feminists” of the time organised a general strike in New York City in 1970, where more than 20,000 women marched, brandishing signs like “don’t iron while the strike is hot!”. Revolution must have felt like it was around the corner.

tumblr_mkbyo55hdo1s9zzmvo1_1280However, the feminism of the 1970’s was not without its problems. Many women of colour raised important issues about what mainstream feminism was hoping to achieve – the question became: feminism is liberation for whom? Women of colour such as bell hooks highlighted how they faced a double burden of both sexism and racism. As The Combahee River Collective pointed out in 1974:

Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. 

The Collective was fundamentally concerned with building coalitions to fight racism and sexism, because of the shared interests that cut across gendered lines.

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Michaelia Cash and Pauline Hanson

While Ford is happy to pay lip service to difference (she states in the beginning that the book “is not intended to claim itself as a universal experience”), her strategy ignores the old critiques of separatism.

Fundamentally this approach is based in “identity politics”. Identity politics is problematic because it sees identity as a source of both oppression and resistance – politics is founded at the site of identity. This also leads to the problematic idea that all women have shared interests, so for example, at least on some level I am supposed to get on board with feeling my sisterhood with right-wing racist women like Julie Bishop, or Michaelia Cash or Pauline Hanson, i.e. celebrate women in power. Never mind if they’re involved in locking up and torturing refugee women, or advocating for the end of Muslim migration. Identity politics is how we get to the idea that “fighting like a girl” is simply about “being a girl”.

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LOL

Ford’s quasi-essentialist view – that really being a feminist is about being a woman without qualms – became more starkly problematic last night when Ford started suggesting that men were unnecessary in the fight against sexism. In her book Ford nominally invites men to “get on the boat…or drown” (187) but we’re left wondering – what is the boat?

Let me just pause here to say I’ve experienced my fair share of sexism. I’ve been in many a relationship with a man and bore the burden of domestic and emotional labour. I’ve sat through endless philosophy classes with arrogant boys and cried on my walks home over feeling silenced. I’ve experienced sharp sexism on the streets and in the academy, and had grown men scream at me for being a confident woman. My current partner is a woman, and I can see that the way we relate intimately and domestically is affected by the gender scripts we have grown up with.

Sexism is real.

whiteribbonaustralia_campaignribbon2I also definitely take Ford’s point that the whole “male champions of change” thing is a joke. Going to an International Women’s Day breakfast only to be talked at by endless male speakers “standing up for change” is pretty ordinary, as is being part of any space where men are in the minority but feel the need to dominate verbally. But I think what’s wrong with most of these “male champion” ventures (the White Ribbon campaign being one of the cases Ford discusses) is that they’re not actually doing anything.

Let’s imagine for a second that there was a mobilisation against sexism at universities across Australia to stop rapes on campus and let’s say it involved everyone striking – teachers, students, everyone. In this scenario, to be honest, if every guy wanted to be a “champion” by picking up all of the tedious activist organising tasks like arranging email lists, painting banners and setting up information desks at the strike, I would be 100% behind that. Maybe the people who had experienced assault could “carry the flag” as Ford suggests, but the other people could carry the stalls. Bear some burden. Do some boring tasks to educate, agitate, organise. Sounds amazing.

But the theory of “patriarchy” that Ford employs (which the radical feminists of the 1970s certainly also believed in), suggests that there is something fundamentally essentially wrong with masculinity. It locates the cause of sexism in masculinity, rather than seeing masculinity as a symptom of a larger structure that is not only promotes sexism but also racism, and every other “ism” you can think of.

bdb4eaf4df0f6e2e765392ed96032bc8e8a52a8f03d6ec29c51704e4e3ff8ce9In contrast to Ford’s identity politics and patriarchy theory, we could imagine a politics which attends to issues of identity, which recognises that sexism disproportionately affects people of different identities in different ways, but which doesn’t found the political moment in identity itself.

What this alternative to identity politics really boils down to then isn’t identity at all, but a material relation to the world. It’s class politics.

Class isn’t about identity per se but a relationship to production. If you work for a wage, you are a worker (the working class). If you extract profits from other workers, you are a boss (the ruling class). The system of capitalism needs to divide the working class to maintain control. When workers are united, they have a lot of power (hence why the Turnbull ABCC issue, trying to take away worker power, is such a big deal). Ford touches on capitalism in Fighting Like a Girl, but instead of seeing it as structural cause of division and control, she sees it in terms of merely a “market” which sells things to us. Capitalism certainly does sell things to us, but the main point of capitalism isn’t consumption so much as production. As long as we don’t try to seize the means of production, i.e. control over our own labour, capitalism keeps ticking (though it is in perpetual crisis – another story for another time). The more divided we are, the less able we are to seize power.

This perspective is critiqued for being too simple, too crude for describing the world. It’s pretty uncool to use Marxist theory these days. But I wonder why: perhaps precisely because it cuts to the quick of what’s really going on? Unlike feminism and other identity movements, Marxism appears to be the one thing capitalism struggles to reabsorb and sell back to us.

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Hilary Clinton

Men who make this point are often called “brocialists”, which irks me to no end because it suggests that only men care about class, and that the ones who do are inherently sexist. For example, the UK’s progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is constantly being called a brocialist, despite explicitly trying to introduce radical gender equity policies and indeed policies which benefit working class men and women (I’m not saying he’s a full blown revolutionary, but he’s not bad). Commentators like Ford would rather get behind right wing leaders like Hilary Clinton than social progressives ones like Corbyn, because of the “sisterhood”.

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Fact.

Of course, just as feminists grappled with issues of racism, historically there have been issues with the left grappling with sexism. Sexism should always be challenged in activist spaces, and that is not always an easy task.

But all of this really makes me think that fighting like a girl has to mean more than just being a girl (or a cisgender woman, or a gay woman…etc). If we’re really going to put up a fight, we better put our collective heads together real quick, before the ocean rises and the earth melts away, before every black man is shot in America and every Australian indigenous person dies in police custody, before everyone is a refugee, before everyone is squeezed until there is nothing more to give.

Sure, unashamedly orgasming in the bathtub isn’t the worst idea in the world. But I really hope that we don’t wait until death is knocking on our door to get out of the tub and join the collective struggle.

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Suffragette Comic: Christabel Pankhurst and Her Tiny Dog

Yesterday a friend told me some pretty bleak stories about the famous suffragette family, the Pankhursts. The head honcho of the Pankhurst bunch was Emmeline, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Britain, and was a key figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She had a bunch of daughters who also grew up into activists of various kinds.

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Sylvia Pankhurst in action

One of the Pankhurst offspring was Sylvia, who was pretty radical. She rallied against the first world war (when so many were in favour of it, including her family), and, like her mother was part of the WSPU fighting for women’s rights.

 

But while Sylvia was trying to broaden the struggle, her mother Emmeline and her sister Christabel were taking the women’s suffrage movement in a different direction. Emmeline stated that members of the WSPU should focus on fighting for women’s rights alone and not be distracted by other social issues.

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Christabel Pankhurst

In 1912 Sylvia started the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) as part of the WSPU, specifically targeted at empowering and fighting for the rights of working women. Much to Emmeline and Christabel’s dismay, the East London group also supported broader trade union struggles and the fight for Irish independence. During this time, Sylvia was arrested on a number of occasions, often subject to the “Cat and Mouse Act” where police officers would release suffragettes who were on hunger strike, wait until they were healthy again, and then arrest them once more.

Fed up with her sister, Christabel summoned Sylvia to visit her in Paris in 1914. Sylvia had a bad time. This is pretty much exactly how the scene went down:

FullSizeRenderChristabel told Sylvia that working women ought not be involved in the fight: “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!” Sylvia later commented that the expulsion left her feeling “bruised, as one does, when fighting the foe without, one is struck by the friend within”.

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Sylvia at the ELFS headquarters in London

Eventually Sylvia was vindicated in her views on working women, who were key. In 1914 the WSPU stopped fighting for the vote, and instead turned their efforts to campaigning for the conscription of men in the war. However, the ELFS continued the fight. In 1928 full suffrage for women was won in the UK.

 

Sylvia kept up her activism and was involved in various anti-fascist and anti-imperial campaigns, and eventually moved to Ethiopia. Christabel campaigned against men spreading venereal diseases, and became a televangelist in California. The Pomeranian was sent to live with Emmeline, and things did not end well.

The Problems With Marriage Equality…But Why We Should Still Fight for it

Currently, my girlfriend and I cannot get married. Not that we’re planning our Pinterest pages or anything, but the point is: same-sex marriage is illegal in Australia. Recently a friend shared this video, an ad in support of the “Yes” vote for the upcoming Irish referendum on same-sex marriage:

What struck me most was the emphasis on “family” made in the video created by BeLong To youth services, underscored by the tagline “Bring Your Family With You.” I was torn by this message. While the idea of parents and extended family coming out in support of their lesbian, gay and bisexual relatives is moving (albeit unrealistic for many), it also reinforces the idea that this fight is centrally about maintaining the primacy of the blood-related family in society, which only extends itself via legal marriage.

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From Paris is Burning

This idea of family is far from the reality in many queer communities, where kinship ties are made with many non-blood relatives, especially for those who are thrown out of home when they come out. This different conception of “family” in the queer community is illustrated most clearly in the 1989 documentary ‘Paris is Burning.’ Created by Jeannie Livingstone, the film reveals an underground world in New York of “drag balls” where young (often homeless) African American and Hispanic youth find belonging, joining different ball “families” who compete and perform. Ask anyone who has found belonging in LGBTIQ spaces, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that family often means much more than who your genetic relatives are or who you are legally bound to.

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

Some people have used unique ways such as combining handfasting with traditional marriage, to represent polyamorous union

It is also important to note that within queer communities sexual and emotional partnerships are not always so clearly between two people. Campaigns for marriage equality generally seek to change the legal definition of marriage from that between “a man and a woman” to “same-sex” marriage but still for a partnership of two. This does not reflect the reality of many queer people’s lives, who may be in polyamorous relationships or who might enjoy other partnership dynamics not reflected by a dualistic definition. Add to this the fact that many transgender and intersex people are often left out of proposed “same-sex” marriage bills, and you can see that the fight for marriage equality sometimes refers to a very narrow idea of partnership and family that is in conflict with many queer people’s experiences.

1509307_675883508915_2761431560733048872_nI raise all of these points to highlight the very important fact that “marriage equality” often does not reflect the kind of relations that currently occur in queer communities, nor the central needs of these communities, and to that end is not the “final” frontier of LGBTIQ rights. However, this does not mean that marriage equality is not worth fighting for.

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Some in the queer community argue that marriage is assimilation

Every time my girlfriend and I go to a wedding we are reminded that we do not enjoy the same legal rights as our heterosexual friends because of our sexuality. Here the ban on same-sex marriage acts as a symbol of difference and exclusion. Some in the queer community argue that difference is good, and should be celebrated: assimilation is not the way. Although it’s all well and good to embrace difference, it’s quite another story when you have the law labelling you as different. Some have also suggested that gay marriage creates a situation where there are “good” (married) gays and “bad” (unmarried) ones. However, we can already see that unmarried versus married straight people are sometimes treated differently in society, which highlights that the problem here is how we value marriage altogether, not whether some people should be allowed to marry. Often I forget that I’m in a “same-sex” relationship until I get reminded by society; discrimination on the basis of having a loving relationship with someone seems utterly ridiculous.

marriage-equality-supporters-washingtonThe fact that you are legally obliged to read out the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” at weddings in Australia also causes our sympathetic straight friends much guilt, consternation and dismay. Often celebrants read out the law, and then at the bride and groom’s request make commentary on their rejection of the definition. While some do this quickly and quietly, the best way I have seen this dealt with is to labour on the point. When straight couples get up at weddings and say “this law is outrageous!” I think this makes the point better than “abstaining” from marriage altogether.

1_123125_122946_2081208_2087895_030903_wedding.gif.CROP.original-originalMany feminists in the West have fought against the insular and restrictive aspects of the institution of marriage since the 1960s. The gains of this have been changes to social understandings of marriage, where women are no longer seen as the property of their husbands, and where divorce is a legitimate option for those in unhappy or dangerous partnerships. While the institution of marriage is not perfect, and indeed is an institution where the law comes into the intimate sphere of a relationship, it is arguably not what it used to be. Except that is still between “a man and a woman” (in Australia at least).

20081117_lovedontdiscrim_560x375Of the weddings I have been to, what I have seen is a celebration of people in love, making a public declaration in front of their friends and family (however that is defined). Sure, queer people can still have parties that mimic this, but while discriminatory laws are in place there is ever the reminder that inequality between heterosexual and homosexual people is legally sanctioned in this country.

10809965_494942430647416_1137332444_nThe fight for marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBTIQ rights, not by a long shot. But it is an important stone in the path to justice, and winning equal marriage in Australia would remove one roadblock that we keep getting stuck on. So let’s fight to open up this path, not stopping at marriage, and along the way take everyone with us in the fight against entrenched discrimination.

How (Not) to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

Australian model Jennifer Hawkins posing with the cup

This Tuesday Australia was again witness to the “race that stops a nation”  – the annual Melbourne Cup. Amid the gaudy headpieces, peacocking men and drunken stumbling, another common tragedy struck: two of the horses died, one in its stall from a heart attack after the race, and the other put down for a broken leg after being spooked by the crowd. While horses often die because of racing (or are put down when they are no longer winning) this year’s events seemed to strike a chord with people, and there was an outpouring of grief on both social media and a huge amount of coverage in the press. This was not without backlash – some people reacted by highlighting the other human tragedies that happen every day, arguing with people along the lines of “why should we care about two racehorses when there are so many other things to worry about”. Indeed on the same day – and getting very little news coverage – it was reported that an Iranian refugee sent to the island nation of Nauru by the Australian Government, was stoned and then beaten, as tensions on the island escalated between locals and the refugees being forced to stay there.

A picture from Animals Australia shared on Facebook

A picture from Animals Australia, shared on Facebook

But with horror happening all around us, what are we to do? Can we really ask people to stop caring about horses being tortured while refugees are too, as if caring about one thing is a callous distraction? I thought about this for some time.

I decided that it is a bit of a dick move to call people out for caring about another creature’s pain. What the outpouring of grief for the racehorses says to me is that people are capable of a great deal of compassion and that caring about one thing is not mutually exclusive to another. What we may even be seeing is a critical point where people are actually feeling emotional about the current state of affairs generally, 978-0-8223-4107-9-frontcoverwhich gets crystallised around strange and unexpected events such as this year’s Melbourne Cup.

American theorist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects explores this very idea – that in daily life we are subject to an overarching and low-burning trauma, as we are subject to all kinds of pressures and misfortunes. We can get by most of the time without noticing these negative daily “affects”- sensations felt in the body – but sometimes they boil over into big and unfortunate events, like a pressure valve momentarily releasing everyone’s pain and struggle.

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

An image of the march for Jill Meagher in Melbourne

Another example of the kind of debate over “what matters more” happened after the murder of Australian journalist Jill Meagher in 2012. In an unusual case, Meagher was subject to sexual violence and was killed by a stranger, after walking home alone at night in the busy streets of Brunswick. With her last moments eerily captured on CCTV, many Australians were deeply moved by the case, and a week after her death 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in her memory. While some responded by criticising the march for not focusing on the “real” issues of violence facing women (such as the fact that being subject to stranger violence is much less common than domestic violence), this kind of critique only served to alienate people who were experiencing grief and concern. I imagine for many people it was precisely the low-lying “ordinary affect” of fear that many women experience on a daily basis (especially walking home alone) that was being expressed in the march. The Meagher case was a nightmare made real within a broader context where women experience violence and sexism every day.

another_world_is_possibleThe lesson to take away from all of this is that when people demonstrate that they care about an issue, getting angry at them for not caring about something else isn’t going to work. Instead, it can be a good time to raise awareness of broader issues and how these connect up. After all, it is the same world that allows horses to be tortured for the benefit of billionaires, while refugees are used as political pawns. We don’t need to choose to have feelings about one thing and not the other. Perhaps we do need to think about the kind of world we want to live in, a world where neither of these things are possible – and how in fact we might get there.

Best Lesbian Date Movie Ever

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A shot from ‘Pride’: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)

Seeing as I usually only cover depressing Adam Sandler movies here at binarythis, I thought that it was high time I do a review of something more uplifting. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to see Pridethe true story of how a gay and lesbian activist group joined forces with a mining town to fight the Thatcher government’s attacks on miners in 1984 -1985.

We assumed that it might be emotion-making – seeing as we both cried watching the trailer. But we didn’t expect quite the workout that our tear ducts got, and we laughed at our own sentimentality as our eyes welled up in pretty much every scene (to be fair to us, beforehand we accidentally primed ourselves for an afternoon of happy tears by watching Ellen Page’s coming out speech).

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Ben Schnetzer as LGSM leader Mark Ashton

Particular tear-jerkers for us were every time:
– someone mentioned the importance of solidarity
– people spontaneously sang union songs
– there was the shaking of hands/friendship between the gays and lesbians and the miners
– someone stood up for what they believe in, even though it was really tough
So yeah, pretty much the whole film.

As someone who has been involved in political struggles, particularly around students and education as well as refugees here in Australia (#HeyAsio), the movie struck a chord with me because it showed the way in which activism can fundamentally transform people’s views and bring them together to fight for a better world. This is summed up in my favourite quote from the film, from one of the miners who visits a gay club to thank Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) for raising money:

When you’re in a battle with an enemy that’s so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well that’s the best feeling in the world. Can you see what we’ve done here, by coming together all of us? We made history!

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Real-life Pride March, 1985

Though I really wanted to know more about the struggle on the picket lines (and how they managed to maintain such an extremely long strike), the focus of the film was really the journey of the gay and lesbian group who supported the miners. It was so refreshing to see a film where intimacy between same-sex couples was the norm and where it was not made into a plot spectacle or reduced to a joke. Overall the film managed to cover a great range of struggles encountered in queer life (homophobia, parental relations, AIDS, coming out, and finding pride) as well as political organising (building coalitions, schisms forming, the difficulty of leadership, and the challenge of those who argue for “partying not politics”).

When we got home we listened to Bread and Roses as we made dinner, elated with a sense that history reveals human beings are capable of remarkable solidarity.

Total synthesis and the cult of the natural

"Unaltered" food is a big selling point

Yesterday, I got into a discussion about genetically modified crops. My perspective was that while one might have ethical concerns about the practices of companies such as Monsanto, this is different from having an issue with genetic modification (GM) itself. This apparent blurring of lines between the science of GM and the corporatisation of GM products was most clearly evidenced in July 2011, when Greenpeace activists whipper-snipped a GM field trial in Canberra. Despite CSIRO publicly stating that they have no known links to Monsanto, Greenpeace defended their actions on the basis of possible dangers to humans.

But it seems to me that there is a fear underlying the GM debate that is about more than concerns for human health. In a time when many people are anxious over the future fate of the planet,  it seems we’ve also developed a fetish for the natural. On the surface of things, this doesn’t sound bad. In fact, words that might spring to mind when we think of “natural” include healthy, normal, organic, green and well being, not to mention those mental images of makeup-less women standing under waterfalls in luscious rainforests. This is probably somewhat due to the plethora of advertisements that claim their products are good for you because they are “100% natural“. Ironically, by definition something can be deemed all-natural, even if produced through an entirely synthetic process (chemical synthesis of organic molecules).

But chemicals aside, how can we ever grasp a rigid definition of the natural?

Railing against the purportedly unnatural is often brought up in arguments against bodily modification such as plastic surgery, including sex affirmation surgery. In these debates, surgery is posited as a mutilative act. Apart from the religious idea that the “body is a temple“, I’m not sure where this idea of the sanctity of the body comes from. We alter our bodies and appearance on a daily basis- we put makeup on, we cut our hair, we wear different clothes, do or don’t exercise, eat different foods, pierce our ears, or even put coloured contacts in our eyes. While these effects may not be as skin deep as surgery (with tattooing as a modificatory middle-ground), our appearance and the way that we intentionally shape it are an important part of who we are in the world- who we show ourselves to be, for others to perceive.

Corsets: body modification back in the day

The differences between GM soybean crops and having a mastectomy for sex affirmation are obviously very very vast.  Some people may have radically different opinions about GM versus surgery. Granted, there are also ethical considerations to be made on these subjects that warrant discussion. However, I think that public reactions to these issues often reveal deep-seated sentiments about what is natural (and whether that is good), which need to be acknowledged as separate biases.

One day I imagine that we will be able to grow our own spare body parts, making modifications all that much easier. And perhaps by definition, through this act of synthesis we will consider it natural…