Sunday 16 June 2019

Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford - Fun, frank and fearless feminist manifesto

Non-fiction: Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford, OneWorld books, paperback, 304 pages, €18.20

Attack: Clementine Ford writes on the rape and murder of Irishwoman Jill Meagher, who died in Melbourne in 2012
Attack: Clementine Ford writes on the rape and murder of Irishwoman Jill Meagher, who died in Melbourne in 2012
Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford

If you've spent any ­significant amount of time online, especially in the most feminist reaches of the internet, there's a very good chance you are ­familiar with Brisbane writer Clementine Ford.

A slayer of man-baby trolls, polarising teller of hard truths and feminist flamethrower, Ford is rarely far from online uproar.

Moreover, she fights back with élan, naming and shaming commenters who verbally attack or threaten her. If anything, the abuse acts as a spur of sorts. "Every time someone calls me a 'feminazi', I power up by five points," she tweeted in 2016. More recently, she commented: "I knew having a baby would confuse the angry scared little men."

Her writing for Adelaide's Sunday Mail has been at one clear-eyed, caustic and fearless. A book was a foregone conclusion.

Yet Fight Like a Girl arrives at a particularly curious time, not least because it's published on the back of an entire tsunami of similar tomes.

It's certainly no bad thing, but bookshelves are awash with unapologetic feminist manifestos. Jessica Valenti, Laura Bates, Caroline Criado-Perez, Laurie Penny, Lindy West… when it comes to guidance and teachings, young feminists have rarely had it so good. Likewise, you don't need to venture far on the internet to find hot takes on #MeToo, the gender pay gap, everyday sexism, reproductive rights. That the feminist polemic is everywhere is encouraging, but in a publishing sense, it does mean that the market is crowded, and it takes an extraordinary writer to find some lebensraum amid it all.

Fortunately, Ford has more than enough talent for that. The book gets off to a rather sluggish start as she takes an inventory of topics like rape culture, sexual violence, Trump, and online abuse.

So far, so unremarkable, yet Ford then makes an intriguing admission: that as a youngster, the idea of feminism was near anathema to her. Like many women of her age, the thirtysomething writer believed in her teens that the fight for gender equality was over, and had been all but won by a previous generation of joyless, brittle feminists.

"At 17 I was Not A Feminist - but for all the intellectual justifications I could try to make now, the reason was pretty simple," she writes. "I was overwhelmingly scared of how it would make other people think of me. And when I say 'other people', I mean 'boys'."

Ford weaves much personal and confessional writing through Fight Like a Girl, and for a firebrand like her, the result is startlingly intimate. The candour and vulnerability of her personal writing is at odds with her supposed combative style, and should put the reader in mind of Lindy West, another feminist who has delivered a title that's part call to arms, part personal memoir.

As a teenager, she felt like a sexless and unattractive 'blob'. She spent time in the Middle East and UK thanks in part to her father's need to relocate for work, and by the time she arrived in the UK, she realised that losing significant amounts of weight made her more visible, and even accomplished, to others.

The realisation kickstarted an eating disorder in her teens, and from there Ford grappled with a number of issues relatable to many women: questioning her sexuality, mental health challenges, online harassment and abortion.

Fight Like a Girl is not a catalogue of girly misery: far from it. It's to her credit that she rarely strays into solipsism. Instead, there's much here for readers, both male and female, to find both valuable and relatable.

In one chapter, Ford writes on the rape and murder of Irishwoman Jill Meagher, who died in Melbourne in 2012.

We have already heard all too often about how the media observes as how "lamentable" it is when a perpetrator's life is destroyed because of "20 minutes of action". Still, it's a particularly rousing and insightful piece of writing. Many of Ford's writings aren't particularly new to those versed in similar writings. Yet anyone hoping for an introduction to the most pressing topics in identity politics would do well to brush up under Ford's tutelage.

Ultimately though, it's the wit and searing honesty of her own personal life laid bare where Fight Like a Girl truly shines.

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