There are few things in American life more problematic or pratfall-prone than a privileged, straight white man like myself holding forth on the topic of feminism. The innumerable things that men know about the universe and are happy—happy?, no delighted—to tell women about even has its own word now—“mansplaining,” a term I am sure nearly everyone reading this has heard at least once in their life. I’m fortunate enough to have been accused of mansplaining twice just this week, so allow me to explain to the uninitiated how mansplaining works—mansplaining occurs when a man …
I could go on here to try to see if I can outline an even more cutting-edge concept—that of metamansplaining, but I think you get my drift. I am, among other things, a straight white man with a healthy love of loutish behavior living in the twenty-first century, a time when the most likely reaction to anything seems to be outraged offense. As a therapist I met at a party in San Diego once said, I am “an asshole, but in a really cool way.” Part of the problem is that I spent my twenties in what amounts to a toxic-masculinity incubator—the Marine Corps infantry, a milieu where being called a “bitch” was a common unisex greeting, as in “What up, bitch? You ready to go to the fucking gym or what?” Given the fact that my years in the Marines were preceded by four years at a male-dominated military college in Texas, perhaps I can be forgiven for my tardiness to the conversation about the state of gender relations in America.
Late at night, exhausted by my doltish fits and the ensuing embarrassment, I often worry that my idea of manhood is nostalgic, irrational, and twenty years out of date. My first opinions about feminism were derived from my experience as a cadet in the nineties when the rumors that the National Organization for Women was going to shutter the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets in the wake of a sexual-harassment scandal were rampant enough that several of my friends began making inquiries about transferring to the University of Arizona’s ROTC program. This was a time when it was common to see black bumper stickers bought from our comrades at the Virginia Military Institute that featured a solemn-looking cadet wearing a shako next to the words save the males.
Still, the fighter in me, the connoisseur of underdogs, the lover of tomboys, the son of a single mom, sees rather clearly that the world has changed, that many basic personal freedoms that I take for granted as a dude must be, in essence, stolen from the world if you are a woman. And in this foul era of Donald Trump, it is clear that female liberation is increasingly under threat by powerful forces and that a vigorous, pugnacious, tactically proficient feminism is necessary. More mansplaining: The more time I spend with women today (in the form of my students and my friends, most of whom are women), the more convinced I become that a lot of today’s feminism is beneath them. It often feels monolithic and like a two-note symphony—men are pigs, women are saints—and doesn’t seem much interested in addressing the full complicated range of real-life gender relations.
In Boys Will Be Boys: Power, Patriarchy and Toxic Masculinity, the new book by Australian feminist Clementine Ford, the #MeToo Generation gets a book that is unworthy of them. From page one, it’s clear that this is a book about militant feminism for militant feminists, and if any of the various ideas on offer give you pause, then fuck you. In an author’s note that is essentially an extended trigger warning, readers are urged to “please go gently if [they] are likely to be triggered” by descriptions of misogyny, rape, and online abuse. (As a writer who has published widely on the science behind post-traumatic stress, I have to go on record as saying that I find trigger warnings triggering. To be direct, there is no science that suggests that trigger warnings are helpful; a group of Harvard researchers recently concluded that trigger warnings are, in fact, damaging.)
Clementine Ford is something of a public figure in Australia, having been a columnist for the country’s largest newspaper for the better part of a decade. A child of Twitter, a shade-thrower and a broadcaster, a freelance writer with a punchy style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore, Ford is essentially a writer of manifestos. If you like Meghan Daum, Roxane Gay, or Katie Roiphe, if you prefer your feminism delivered with cold reason, along with a frisson of restraint and self-deprecating humor, you have come to the wrong place. For this, her second book, it appears that Ford went to a couple of baby showers, toured her local mall, and has now worked up her Facebook posts into a sort of book. It is the classic men-are-the-root-of-all-evil excursion beloved of certain seventies-era feminists, with stops at the local playground, the ob-gyn, her Twitter feed, the cinema, her living room, her closet, her Twitter feed again, and finally a “gender-reveal party”—where expectant parents announce whether their newborn will be a boy or a girl (Has anyone actually been to one of these?). As a student of second-wave feminism and the “consciousness-raising” movement that was instrumental to the campaign to have PTSD recognized by society, it was interesting to read a writer who was working so hard to channel the outrage felt by her intellectual ancestors.
Like her fellow Australian Irina Dunn, who, as an undergraduate at Sydney University in 1970, said that “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Ford is a sort of gender separatist, given to sweeping (and less pithy) pronouncements like, “Until we can confidently say that the patriarchy has been destroyed, women who enjoy sex with men are much better off living alone and inviting them into our houses as guests occasionally. #truefact.” Later in Boys Will Be Boys, she claims that “No matter how much love there might be in the relationship, women who choose to live romantically with men are acting against their economic interests.”
Beyond this sort of militancy and her habit of insulting men who disagree with her (who are by Ford’s lights “selfish cockjangles,” “total dingleberries,” “clueless wankers,” “egocentric dickheads,” and “do-nothing fuckfaces”), the biggest problem with Boys Will Be Boys is Ford’s tendency to obsess over relatively trivial consumer issues while ignoring major societal problems such as the rape epidemic (what Rebecca Solnit calls “the invisible war”), sexual harassment, pay equity, access to birth control, and the building wave of misogyny that saw, among other things, Julia Gillard, the first female Australian prime minister, driven out of power by her own party and the ascent of a proud sexual predator like Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world.
Instead, Ford spends chapter after chapter inveighing against the evils of gender-reveal parties, toddlers’ ponytails, and the dark corporate forces behind the campaign to ensure that all infant boys wear blue onesies instead of pink onesies. Interspersed between these Facebook-ready rants are all-caps pronouncements about the stupidity of her critics, complaints about her older brother, and terse hashtag taunts like #cancelmen, along with recaps of the innumerable Twitter campaigns Ford has conducted against those stupid critics over the years. Don’t get me wrong: It’s entertaining, but entertaining in the way that a drink splashed in cad’s face at a party is entertaining. But reading page after page of it is like reading a news article about Trump’s hair or his ties. It’s fun, but it’s small-ball and it misses the point.
Now, in all fairness, it must be said that many people find themselves in their anger telling impassioned crusaders like Ford to “grow up” and to “get over it,” which pretty much never works out the way they hope it will. When I returned from Iraq the first time in 2004, I read and reread John Kerry’s bitter congressional testimony about the criminality of the Vietnam War, along with a number of antiwar books from that period. Channeling Kerry and his ilk in my writing and in conversation was empowering. It’s entirely possible that many women will find Boys Will Be Boys to have a similar effect. It’s a very personal book by an ardent crusader whose culture I can’t claim to understand on any deep level, and reading Ford’s book upset me enough that at several points I had to put the book down and ask myself, Why do I find this book so irritating? Is it possible that Ford’s criticism of men and patriarchy is spot-on and I’m getting defensive simply because she’s right?
Not knowing what else to do, I decided to go online to see if I could get a better sense of what Ford’s deal might be. By and by, I ended up watching several videos of her being interviewed in what appeared to be her home in Melbourne, various children’s toys strewn in the background (Ford is a newish mom, a fact she discusses at length in her book). Toward the end of one of these interviews, Ford complains that most men have no platonic female friends and are out of touch with women’s experiences and their true feelings about the world. Ford might just have a point here, I thought. In a fit of daring—or so I thought—I resolved to call up a few female friends and read them some passages from Ford’s book.
After texting a quote from Ford’s book on how women should live alone until patriarchy is destroyed (see above), my friend Ashley responded, “That’s a very unreasonable statement.” Later, she added, “Though I do wonder what her hypothetical gender-segregated utopia would look like.” Rachel (pseudonym), a rape survivor who was my yoga teacher at one point, took exception to Ford’s comment about cohabitation working against women’s economic interests. “That’s weird, especially since my husband and I share labor and domestic expenses … ultimately that saves me more money and provides double the spending power.” Following up, I sent a digital copy of Ford’s book to both of them as well as some other women friends and invited their comments. A lawyer who was horribly beaten a few years ago by her then-husband declared enthusiastically, “I totally agree with Ford!”
When I explained my irritation with Ford to Ashley, she replied, “Probably because, as a man, society has conditioned you to only allow yourself to feel and respond with a couple of male-appropriate emotions (see: anger) #patriarchy.” After some more back-and-forth in this vein, with me decrying Ford’s lack of Aristotelian ethos and her tendency to insult men with repeated references to their genitalia, Ashley added, “What if instead of being predictably angry, you were publicly hurt, disheartened or uncertain in response to Ford? That shit would be revolutionary! You can’t be effectively critical of her if you are simply playing out predictable tropes of the patriarchy.”
I have to be honest, this last sentence gave me pause, though after a few days’ reflection I can’t say my views have changed much. When people make bad arguments, regardless of how important and high-minded the cause, criticism—spirited criticism—is entirely appropriate. I was similarly irritated a few years back when I was asked to review a book about PTSD written by a famous (and famously misogynistic) war reporter who was making an insulting and easily disproven argument about PTSD among American military veterans today. His failure to do his homework was an embarrassment to his profession and he should’ve been ashamed.
In a similar way, I think that Ford has failed to do her own homework, or at least heed her own advice. Nowhere in Boys Will Be Boys does she venture out into the world and talk to men on the street, nor does she present any evidence that she has any platonic male friends, nor does she do any of the normal journalistic legwork of going out and interviewing experts in the field, like, say, a sexual-assault researcher who might’ve told her that while rape is insanely common and tragically underreported, it has decreased by 58 percent since the 1990s, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (Of course, such a figure is meaningless and possibly offensive to a rape survivor, but wouldn’t meditating on that sort of data point be deeply worthwhile for a book that claims to be about the current state of patriarchy in the Anglosphere?)
My personal feeling, based on my own research and my conversations with feminists, is that many of the changes advocated by seventies-era feminists have actually been enacted and that the #MeToo movement is having a significant impact and that its achievements need to be acknowledged and replicated. An intellectually honest writer trying to make a fair-minded argument about the condition of patriarchy would recognize this and recognize the many achievements of feminism. What Ford seems to want instead is a sort of moral panic, a kind of essentialist feminism based on fear and militancy. As she argues in her introduction, “This book took me a year to write, but it is the culmination of many years of writing about power, abuse, privilege, male entitlement and rape culture. After all that, here’s what I learned: we shouldn’t just be scared. We should be fucking terrified.”
I have a lot of respect for passion and for righteous anger—anger and its aftermath has been one of my life’s great teachers—but I do wonder if Ford is stuck in a kind of spin cycle of anger and fear, a spin cycle exacerbated by her overidentification with social media and what Roxane Gay calls “essential feminism.” As Gay explains in her 2014 book Bad Feminist, “Essentialist feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman—hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don’t cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don’t shave.” While it would be imprudent to speculate about Ford’s shaving habits, much of what Gay claims here seems to apply.