Content warning for both Ford’s book and this review: sexual violence, rape culture, eating disorders, and mental health issues.
Note: Fight Like A Girl was originally printed in Australia by Allen & Unwin in 2016, and was published by Oneworld Publications for the UK on August 2, and will be published in the US on September 20
Part memoir and part manifesto, Fight Like A Girl, Clementine Ford’s debut book, is a must-read for anyone who is paying attention to the world and feels like they’re losing their mind.
Those who are looking with horror at the pussy-grabbing monster in the White House, the youngsters wondering why to be ‘not like the other girls’ is considered commendable, anyone who switches on the morning television to hear that a murdered woman was ‘asking for it’ by wearing a short skirt, teenagers trying to understand why their developing bodies don’t align with the clothes they are being told they must buy to be worthy of attention, women trying to contain the rage growing in their gut every time they’re told to sit down, be quiet, stop making such a fuss.
This is very much a book ‘for the girls’, from the dedication to the final words of the epilogue, concerned with making all women and girls feel seen, heard, reassured, supported. But it’s also a book that I read thinking of the men I’ve had frustrating conversations with about why we need feminism and why they haven’t seen these things happen and why we’re not being ‘overly sensitive’ – and making a mental note of who could benefit from reading Ford’s concise, informed and persuasive text. Partly a work of investigative journalism, statistics, news reports, and interviews sit alongside Ford’s own reflections on the world she perceives – which makes this book accessible and personal, as well as rigorous and informed.
It’s also worth noting that a book that tackles such gut-wrenchingly awful themes – sexual assault, predatory capitalism, domestic violence, the self-hate that women are encouraged to carry within them year after year – really has no right to be as funny as Fight Like A Girl can be. I laughed out loud several times reading this, summoning the attention of my pal – as we worked from our laptops over hot chocolate in a tiny St Alban’s café – to listen as I read out passages from the book.
Fight Like A Girl’s introduction offers a whistle-stop crash course in modern feminism. Ford maps out women’s (and specifically women of colour) mobilisation from the 1991 publication of Susan Faludi’s Backlash through to the election of Trump, the #MeToo campaign, and Time’s Up as a response to Weinstein.
She references the myriad factors that modern women are confronted with as a reminder that they should feel less than: rape culture, domestic abuse, sports culture’s dismissal of abuse, online harassment, victim blaming, attacks on reproductive care and social support systems, the ever-present resistance to women’s rights activism.
When Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman came out in 2011, I was a teenager, recovering from a period of disordered eating and try to make sense of what it meant to have a body like my own in a society such as the one I was growing up in. The book’s humour and irreverence had an unmistakable impact on me, and although I still have my copy and will go back to it from time to time, there are a few aspects which didn’t exactly sit right with me. Likewise for Ford, who problematises the book’s (perhaps) trans exclusionism, linking Moran’s ‘limited scope’ with a reminder of the heightened danger of life for women who are trans. Ford (rightly) places great emphasis on acknowledging our individual privileges – of gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class.
‘We need to tell our girls that their bodies exist for them to use, not for others to look at’. There is something so relatable in the teenage vulnerability Ford describes: the sections of the book in which Ford relates her personal experiences are some of the most impactful, particularly in the earlier chapters which examine body image. The author’s recounting of the easy slip into obsessive mentality – feeling ‘undeserving’ of calories, constant thoughts of food from morning until night, writing diary page after page of self-focused bile – rings true without being upsetting. As an adult I recognise that my own difficulties with eating are related to the expectation that women will take us as little space as possible, that we should aspire to have a body ‘small enough to excuse your womanhood’. As an adult I understand that people line their pockets with the money spent on appetite suppressants, diet pills, waist trainers.
In chapter three, Real Girls, Ford continues her discussion of female bodies in economic society by highlighting the difference between the spectrum of body types and the prescriptive shapes and sizes of clothing made widely available. She links the structural dominance of capitalism with misogyny, stating that ‘capitalism relies on people being constantly unhappy so it can keep selling us the promise that consumerism will make our lives better’.
Social constructs of virginity and gatekeeping women’s sexuality is the topic of chapter four, while chapter five, A League of Their Own, examines internalised misogyny and the desire to be ‘one of the boys’. Patriarchy, Ford correctly identifies, benefits from female in-fighting, rather than unifying against that which actually oppresses us. A particularly lovely part of this chapter is the list of decent female friendships in pop culture – Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, Ilana and Abbi of Broad City – and this positivity is reflected in Ford’s encouraging of readers to find their own ‘girl gang’.
Abortion and societal dismissal of older women form the focus of chapter six, while chapter seven, The Belle Jar, looks at mental health. This is a particularly strong section of the book, linking the psychological difficulties so many of us face with patriarchal societal structures: ‘I viewed and spoke about eating disorders,’ says Ford, ‘through the lens of a performatively horrified society that likes to pretend these maladies are an exception to the tapestry of girlhood and not one of the primary materials used in its creation’. Highlighting the male suicide rate, the author is also quick to establish that boys and men also fall victim to patriarchal standards of performative gender.
Chapter eight, Women Against Feminism, sets forth Ford’s threefold theory of the factors which encourage women to set themselves against the movement: retribution (fear of), negotiation (joining victim-blaming narratives – ‘many women consent to the limiting of their behaviour as a means of negotiating their own safety’), and ‘wilful, selfish ignorance’. As a counterpoint, the following two chapters, Man-Hater and Hate Male, address men, as well as offering a guide to the ‘Not All Men’ types and how to deal with them, and recollecting the time Ford actually did ruin a man’s life
Abuse directed specifically at people who speak out about their feminist leanings is the topic of chapter 11, Dicktionary – a ‘paint-by-numbers list of insults’, while chapter 12, The Good Guys, Ford reflects on when she feels she was wrong in the past, particularly about her involvement with male feminist ambassador movements such as White Ribbon. ‘There are two lessons that are vital to learn if we have any hope of overcoming the sinkhole of action that lives inside the Making Sure Men’s Feelings Aren’t Hurt By Feminism movement,’ says the author. ‘First, we are under no obligation to reward men by being basically okay. […] Secondly, we have to start being okay with saying that’.
As a Brit, I ended up reading this book with Google open to search the names of people that haven’t encountered in the news and media that filters to me. To read Ford’s highlighting of Australian feminist concerns was particularly illuminating, such as her emphasising of the heightened dangers life (and patriarchy) presents to Aboriginal woman. This is also demonstrated in highlighted in chapter 13, When Will You Learn?, which discusses the murder of Jill Meagher. This is a heartbreaking chapter outlining rape culture’s dependence on undermining women. It made me go back and read the statement given by Brock Turner’s rape victim, bringing back the tears I had when first reading about picture of the two bicycles ‘Jane Doe’ sleeps under, the sister she defends.
Knowing full well exactly how uncomfortable female anger seems to make people, it was interesting to see Ford’s suggestion in her final chapter, It’s Okay To Be Angry, that ‘women who express anger are recast as mythically terrifying creatures. Hysterical banshees. Harpies. Fishmongers’ wives. Squawking, screeching, shrieking she-beasts making the world unpleasant for everyone around them.’ Depicting female anger, from the ancient times to the modern – through parodies of suffragettes to that godawful Serena Williams cartoon – invariably seems to become an exercise in misogyny.
It’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay to be angry that you’re told you’ve got nothing to be angry about. Which is good, because although Fight Like A Girl might make you laugh and cry, anger is the emotion I (and, it seems, several other reviewers) felt most frequently while reading this book. That’s alright, though. Feeling anger, Ford reminds us, means that we’re paying attention.