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.

How to Smash the Patriarchy with a Small Book

Perusing Yang Lin's new work

Perusing Yang Liu’s new work

Book Review: Man meets Woman by Yang Liu
You often hear of blogsters of the new world gaining financial – and product – benefits from their blogging pursuits. I’m thinking here mostly of the fashion and makeup bloggers that have risen to stardom, who are no doubt constantly being sent designer threads and cool new stuff to put on their faces. Well, here at binarythis.com, I’ve finally reaped the first free thing of my blogging days: a book about gender stereotypes (yes, I have obviously officially made it to the big time). Oh the spoils of blogging about gender! But enough of my bragging – let’s cut to the chase and get on with a review of the thing.

Taschen asked me if I might like to review Yang Liu’s new conceptual book, Man meets Woman. Yang Liu explains in the preface that her work seeks to document the differences in communication between men and women, that she has observed and experienced. The following pages are filled with complimentary sets of graphic images on particular topics such as shopping, sex and illness. Images appearing on the left, on a green background, represent a man’s view, with images on the right a woman’s view, on a pink background. For example, “mysterious objects” reveals that for men the unknown revolves around women’s makeup accoutrements, whereas for women tools and other hardware objects are mysterious.

Liu works with a range of stereotypes from the home to the workplace, providing imagery for many clichés – e.g. a man who sleeps with numerous women is a king, whereas a woman who sleeps with many men is considered easy. While the majority of pages focus on perceived differences between men and women with regard to heterosexual relationships, there is some commentary on same-sex partnerships. Liu’s images reflect a view that gay male couples in society are much more visible than lesbian partnerships.

While looking through Liu’s work, I couldn’t help bristle at many of the reflections on offer. It seems to me that there is a fine line between reflecting stereotypes, and reinforcing them through replication. Liu dances on that line, and I’m still not sure whether I really like the project. Part of the problem is that Liu’s motivations are somewhat difficult to deduce – she states that the images are reflections on a world that she perceives, yet it is not clear whether she is challenging these stereotypes, or merely describing them (and perhaps, reasserting them).

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Liu uses the classic iconography of “man” and “woman” symbols in her work

However, luckily we’re living in a postmodern age where the author is (figuratively) dead, so we can make of texts what we will. At the end of the day, I think that the greatest contribution Man meets Woman makes, is that it acts like a guidebook to stereotypes of men and women today. Do men really find beauty objects mysterious? Are women confused by hammers and screwdrivers? We don’t have to accept these as “truths” but Liu’s capture of these generalisations hints at the social expectations underlying the perceived differences between “men” and “women” in society.

But how are we to ensure that Liu’s book gets taken up in this way – as a challenge rather than a reinforcement of stereotypes (already there are a number of blogs reflecting on the “charming” and “witty” reflections of the book). Never fear – here’s a handy guide to using this small book to smash the patriarchy:

STEP 1: Visit parliamentary question time. Throw copies at the heads of known misogynist politicians.
STEP 2: Go on a guerrilla mission Valerie Solanas style – throw the book at all known misogynist pop artists.
STEP 3: Get someone to bail you out of jail.
STEP 4: Reflect on the stereotypes of the book, and realise that we live in an unjust world where men and women are socialised differently and driven apart.
STEP 5: Become a revolutionary gender warrior.
STEP 6: Use the book for kindling if you get cold while smashing the patriarchy.
STEP 7: The book also doubles as a nice coaster if you need to stop for a refreshing drink.
STEP 8: Show other people the book and talk about how it doesn’t need to be this way.
STEP 9: Work with others to fundamentally reassemble society into a world where gender is plural and fluid, not binary, and doesn’t separate us from each other.
STEP 10: Read the book again, as a bizarre historical artefact capturing an inequitable time.

Queer Music Review – Fun Machine’s ‘Bodies On’

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Fun Machine

As a slight departure from the usual gist of BinaryThis (i.e. critiquing dominant discourse and/or pictures of academically-themed cats) I’ve decided to do a music review. While considering music from a queer theory perspective is nothing new, it’s not often that we turn our lens from the pop culture machinations of the super-famous, to what’s being produced locally. So even though I know sh** all about music, I thought I’d take some time to consider a band from my hometown of Canberra, called Fun Machine and their newest album ‘Bodies On’. My feeling is that while we spend so long trying to recover interesting meanings from the big-name songs we hate/love, sometimes we might miss the very queer happenings right under our noses. Also I have a special place in my heart for this band- they did an ode to Skywhale (Canberra’s many-breasted whale hot air balloon) with Hannah Beasley last year, which is probably the best song OF ALL TIME (listen here!).

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in "fun machine"

This is not the band, but it is what comes up on Google image search when you type in “fun machine”

But before we begin, here’s a SUPER quick run down of what I mean when I say “queer theory perspective” (for a longer explanation of queer theory, see here or here). Questions I considered for this review are:
– How is the fixity of identity (such as sexuality, gender or human-ness) being challenged?
– What are the ways in which ideas of “normal” are being critiqued?
– Are there any other openings being made for ruptures/transformations of the way we usually understand the world?

An image from the band's page: apparently you can "NEVER have too much glitter"

An image from the band’s page: apparently you can “NEVER have too much glitter”

As you might notice from those questions, though queer theory has its historical foundations in gay and lesbian activism, a “queer” perspective (though connected to questions of identity) can be about more than just gender and sexuality: doing queer theory involves challenging the way we think. In this sense, “to queer” can mean to make the familiar seem strange. While I have literally no idea how these guys identify in terms of gender or sexuality, that’s not what a queer perspective necessarily needs to involve – it’s about shaking things up. Having said that, sometimes queer is just about glitter – which incidentally, these guys are definitely into.

One thing that I really love about this band is the way they switch between different vocalists, styles, instruments and subjects…Listening to their new album in full for the first time, I had no idea what to expect from one track to the next. They’re also certainly not one of those bands where all their songs sound the same (as a side note here, honestly when the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful‘ came out last year, I genuinely thought it was a re-release of one of her earlier songs. Silly me). Point is, Fun Machine are far from boring. But what of their queer themes? Oh god get to the queer themes already! I hear you say. Okay, here goes…

The first song on their album, ‘Naked Body’, has a rather exciting clip filmed right here in Canberra, involving a crowd of sweaty, body-painted locals:

The clip is richly queer: a montage of skin fills the screen in an ode to hands, breasts, hair, feet and sequins. Blending voices, singers Bec Taylor and Chris Endry sing/shout the lyrics Girl it’s just my naked body/You’ll never touch my naked body/Get your hands off this naked body claiming freedom to nudity, and ownership of their own bodies. Then there’s some loud guitary-drumy bits (I said I don’t know sh** about music) and on repeat we hear Don’t trust unnaked bodies followed by orgiastic images of a dancing crowd smeared in paint and glitter. We see the words “naked”, “fun”, and “rock” literally written on their bodies.

Exposed flesh bursts forth in 'Naked Body'

Exposed flesh bursts forth in ‘Naked Body’

The whole scene adds up to a reclamation of the exposed body as something to embrace, but “fun” is located in your own enjoyment and relationship with your body rather than becoming object to someone else’s desires. At the end of the video clip we see a “money shot” of glitter in an orgasmic rock finish. Transcending boundaries of gender and heteronormativity, music is the polyamorous lover that brings bodies to climax. Here, nakedness is not about being seen, but about being “true” to yourself and your own desires, not the expected norms of sexiness.

‘Shave’ is the fourth track off their album, which also boasts a locally made vid. This was obviously done on a shoe-string budget (I love how you can see the pieces of paper they’ve pasted together for the backdrop):

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Brady Bunch for the 21st century in ‘Shave’

The clip starts with a colourful grid of local faces, a kind of modern-day Brady Bunch where “family” is no longer recognisable as the norm of mother-father-children, but rather the connections you have to your community and the people around you. The video involves these faces (also sporting neon makeup and jewels) lip-syncing Come back to me my love/And watch me as I shave. Faces are interspersed with surreal scenes that push the limits of reality: Barbie’s head has been replaced with the Hulk; a plastic wolf is bleeding from the mouth; a monkey mask is covered in candy bananas. The song finishes by asking Are you dancing/Gorgeous/Chaos/Hard Lust? More glitter bursts from a balloon, and a picture of Australia’s Prime Minister is smashed with an egg. ‘Shave’ opens up the limits of what we might take pleasure from and exposes a multiplicity of desire directed at rupturing “reality”. That the PM ends up with ‘egg on his face’ in amongst the scenes of multi-coloured surrealism, suggests that a different political future might be possible – things might be otherwise if we raise our voices up and shout Hey!

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Fun Machine: a veritable glitter-fest

Other songs on their album are also strange and wonderful. ‘In the Jungle’ has helpful tips for what you might want to have handy in the Jungle: You need a hat cos it is sunny/And penicillin never goes wrong, just don’t forget your games console…But I like to play my way/Play Nintendo in the Jungle. With a melody that reminds me of a late 80s sitcom blended with nostalgic videogame tones, this song may seem frivolous on the surface. But I can’t help but think that one message in this is that in order to survive we need more than just the practicalities of life, we need to play. In other tracks we hear about zombie girlfriends (‘Set You on Fire’), how we change each other in relationships (‘Alchemists’) and the possibilities for change (‘Ready for the Fight’). I couldn’t quite understand all of their songs- I think ‘Souvenir Teaspoon’ might be about taking drugs with your grandma, but I’m not sure. The album drifts from gruff deep voices to the softest lilting melodies – this is a musical landscape of difference and transformation.

As a final point, we might note that amongst “80s german minimalist techno” and “pop” they also classify their musical genre as “gay punk” and “genres are weird”. To me, this sums it up: Fun Machine are queer as f*** because you can’t put them in any one box. I encourage you to listen to their new album or go see them if you can: you’ll probably end up dancing around naked and covered in glitter. And as we all know, you can NEVER have too much glitter.

Jack and Jill: Why Adam Sandler fails at life


EPIC (gender) FAIL

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 4% (“Jack and Jill is impossible to recommend on any level whatsoever”) and a Rolling Stones review of zero stars (“A total bust, a stupefyingly unfunny and shamelessly lazy farce”) it’s a wonder anyone would ever pay to see this movie.

I for one, will not.

Now, I understand that some people might say, “don’t knock it till you try it”. Well people, I tried the trailer.  And if I went to see the movie after that experience, it would kind of be like tasting some poisonous red berries and vomiting, and then following that up by make a poisonous berry jam cake and eating that too. It just wouldn’t be a good idea.

Mainly, what’s not okay about this film is that Sandler has made the FUNDAMENTAL ERROR of making “easy comedy” out of gender (that is, him acting like a “woman”). It’s not cool Sandler. See Juliet Jacques’ fantastic article for New Statesman on why this kind of comedy is not only degrading, but just generally not funny. On the one hand I appreciate the South Park philosophy of humour that it’s okay to make fun of anything– so long as you don’t leave anyone out. On the other, I don’t see that there are enough positive representations of gender-bending in popular culture to really balance the kind of poor humour presented by Sandler’s new flick.

Entertainment Weekly might laud Sandler for his ability to make people pay to watch him despite being incredibly crap, but I say bring on the boycott.