Stop, listen, think: What I learned from Clementine Ford

Words & Images Fay Edwards

Not too long ago, this 27-year-old gal casually told her mum that “being female suited her”.

This comment could have been met with my mum shouting “SMEEEEEELL THE PATRIARCHY”, but it was instead met with my mum quietly suggesting that I be careful, and have a think about what I’d just said. Mums are usually right.

Around this time, I found myself booking into the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival with a few friends. With practiced nonchalance, I quietly requested a media pass to do a few interviews at the festival. When I (AMAZINGLY) got the green light, I scanned the list of speakers – Renni Eddo-Lodge, Yeb Sano, Jane Carro… and Clementine Ford.

Could someone as inexperienced as me request an interview with Clementine Ford? Maybe they could, but they shouldn’t. With confidence that my request would be rejected, I added the author of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ to my list.

clementine
Celebrated feminist writer and mother Clementine Ford explores masculinity and its role in feminism in her new book, Boys Will Be Boys. Source: Facebook/Clementine Ford.

A few days later I received my approved interview schedule… and right there at the top was Clementine Ford.

I wasn’t entirely sure that I was up to it.

When I told my sister that I would be interviewing Clementine, she responded with obvious concern. “Have you even read any of her books? Do you realise what she’s like??”

“Ahh… not really,” I responded with a nervous grin.

“Oh. She’s going to tear you apart.”

I realised I’d need to put in a bit of work to prepare myself.

With a quiet sense of panic and inadequacy I frantically began to read ‘Boys Will Be Boys’. I paid painstaking attention to her social media posts. And while her online presence somehow irked me (an effect I’m still trying to decipher), her book was so on point and her messages so true that they seemed obvious.

What struck me the most about her book? Maybe it was how it threw into relief some uncomfortable truths about what I had unconsciously associated as being male and female behaviour. As I made my way through the book, I was reminded that it was unfair (and dangerous) to expect that men and women behave in certain ways. And don’t worry – I can see you out there rolling your eyes at me (DUH!). I agree – but the contrast between what I knew intellectually and what I actually believed were a bit confronting.

I was shocked by my own ignorance. How about those stats on male violence against woman in Australia? Or the male-only Facebook groups openly celebrating rape? And how the legal system has and continues to fail to understand what consent really means?

Even more powerful was Clementine’s reflections on how our acceptance of ‘harmless’ behaviour – the casual sexist joke, the meaningless grab in a bar – reinforce and sustain an ugly power imbalance. While no man I know would ever give a mate a heartfelt clap on the back for abusing or belittling a woman, I was slightly sickened as Clementine drew connections between Australia’s culture of ‘mateship’ and Australia’s particular brand of misogyny. Sometimes things can hit a little close to home.

The weeks rolled by, and all too soon it’s the day before my interview with Clementine. Sitting outside, frantically flipping through the pages of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, my friend calls over to me, “it’s time to go!”. With a panicked and over-caffeinated jolt, I manage to sweep half a cup of coffee over the book.

Was this a bad omen? I desperately draped the book over the back of a chair and marched off to the festival, quietly hoping that the conversations I was about to listen to would impart upon me the intelligence and eloquence needed for my interview the next day.

And while the conversations were incredible (Jane Carro was hilarious, Kim Scott was heartbreaking, Gillian Triggs so damn assured), I didn’t feel any more prepared.

But it was too late, and all too soon I was sitting in the audience listening to Clementine, Tishani Doshi, Renni Eddo-Lodge, and Eliza Vitri Handayani pull apart the #metoo movement, feeling sweat roll down my spine and drop softly to the floor. As the audience burst into applause, I felt myself lock into panic mode. Here. Goes. Nothing.

Clementine Ford panel
Clementine speaks on a panel of writers at Bali’s annual festival.

Perched on the edge of my chair I tried to gather my thoughts, pushing aside the little person in my head screaming “RUN!”.

And then there was Clementine, marching into the edge of my vision. A big grin and a seriously firm handshake later, she was sitting across from me, patiently waiting for me to start.

Stuttering out an awestruck hello, I launched into it.

“Can you tell me whether anything surprised you about the panel discussion you just sat on?”

After a pause, Clementine responded, “the sheer diversity of opinions fascinates me”.

I reflected on the earlier discussion about social media, and whether she felt her own media presence was constructive. Looking straight through my thinly veiled criticism, Clementine replied, “it’s not my job to make them come to the water”.

 

But couldn’t she soften the message a little to encourage people to listen? With a sigh she said (as she has and will continue to say), “I can’t stop them getting defensive… the only way I can stop them being defensive is by sanitising the message, and by then they’re not really listening.”

I pushed the point a bit further – why did she persist with social media when it often attracted some pretty foul responses? Wouldn’t it make more sense to stick to opinion pieces and books, in which she could argue her points more fully?

“Social media can be used as a tool for good,” she said, “and it’s the landscape we move through”.

But, she admitted, “I sometimes play to a character – consciously or not”.

And how about the abuse she copped – how did she have the energy to face it again and again? Another pause. “I probably don’t have the best protection mechanisms. I’m immune, until I’m not immune. And then I kind of have a break down – and then I’m immune again.”

I sensed a wobble in her voice that I don’t want to hear. I could have reached into the space between us and dug deeper. But I didn’t – instead I lowered my eyes and Clementine snapped shut.

Taking a breath to change tack, I asked her about her two books – had the message changed?

“I’m more invested in deconstructing what it is to be a man, to work towards a world that has more compassion and empathy,” she said. “If we were to change the narrative around the way we socialise boys and girls, we could create a really beautiful world.”

How could you disagree with that?

A little bit lost for words, I wrapped the conversation up, wanting to linger but not really knowing what else to say.

Abruptly, Clementine got to her feet, gave me another firm handshake, and retreated. Interview over.

Sitting back as she disappeared up the stairs, I felt a grin spread across my face. I’d just interviewed Clementine Frikking Ford, and she was AMAZING.

That was a few months ago, and ever since I’ve been trying to write it all down. Too conscious of how much I don’t understand, I’ve struggled to get over the feeling that I have nothing to say.

But I guess I do – even if these thoughts are just reflections on the words of someone who gets it way more than me.

And what have I learned?

I’ve learned that it’s unfair (on myself and others) to claim certain traits as belonging to a particular gender. I’ve learned that a different opinion is not an attack.

And what else? I’ve learned that it’s so important to be comfortable with discomfort. To have that conversation even if it’s not easy. Just because things are the way they are, doesn’t mean they always will be.

Stop. Listen. Think.

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