Yes, the outspoken Clem Ford made a joke in poor taste. But while she’s apologised, the reaction to her tweet and the continuing backlash is entirely out of balance.
An outspoken woman said something insensitive and stupid on the internet a few days ago and, despite her honest and humble apology, cyberspace went into meltdown. So, what else is new? Every single one of us who publicly identifies as a feminist and who dares to express herself on the internet, whether we use so-called ‘foul-language’ or not (more about that later), whether we are blunt or measured, sweet or spicy, funny or factual, has copped an avalanche of abuse and criticism at one time or another. We all know that no quarter will be given. No mis-step will go unpunished, no clumsy insensitivity, poor-taste joke or moment of exasperation will either be tolerated or forgiven. Any stupid tweet is proof positive that we are rotten to the core and our attempts at apology will be judged as too-late or self-serving. We have all learnt to keep our heads down and wait until the circus moves on.
Some of this disproportionate response to mistakes by women (but…her emails!) is deliberate. It is a very effective way of frightening many women into silence and all of us into self-censorship. Women watch what happens to the bold and confrontational and they take note, as they are meant to. But some of the response is unconscious. We have a double-standard that is deeply ingrained about what we will tolerate from men and women. We expect women to be nice and sweet and – yes -deferential. We expect men to be up-front and authoritative and we police those boundaries. It is why women find it so hard to get taken seriously. It is also why some react so profoundly to women who swear. Only women seem to cop the description of ‘foul-mouthed’, for example.
Here I am, they say, warts and all. Like me or hate me, it’s up to you. I am not trying to cajole or seduce you in any way. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a woman who swears may have more self-respect than one who doesn’t.
I love swearing. I love words in general and try to use them as effectively as I can. After all, it’s my job. I find swear words to be among the most versatile in our language, capable of expressing a huge range of emotions. From delight “you fucking beauty!” to despair “I am completely fucked” and every emotion in-between. They are also the most informal language we can use and so help to break down hierarchy and establish equality. Swear words are often used as weapons against authority, in fact, which may be why swearing at your teacher or a police officer is a bad idea, while swearing with your mates will help you bond.
I think that may be why women who swear casually are so often attacked for it. Just by using forbidden words (unladylike), they are claiming their equality with men and their right to take up the same space. Women who swear without apology are patently not seeking approval. Quite the opposite. They are daring you to disapprove. This is deeply unsettling for those who like conventional gender relationships. There is an honesty about swear words that has always appealed to me. Here I am, they say, warts and all. Like me or hate me, it’s up to you. I am not trying to cajole or seduce you in any way. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a woman who swears may have more self-respect than one who doesn’t.
The only swearing I dislike is when you swear at someone or use the words to call someone names. However, I don’t like other supposedly polite put-downs and labels either – like idiot, imbecile, fool or clown. Name-calling and personal attacks are bullying, whether the words chosen are socially acceptable or not.
Clementine Ford, the latest woman to find herself in the eye of the storm, is often criticised for her use of swear words. On this occasion, however, her sin – which she has unequivocally acknowledged as a mistake – was to make a bad taste joke about Coronavirus failing to kill enough men. It was in response to an article on the increasing burden on women during COVID19, something which is being much discussed in feminist circles along with concerns about increasing vulnerability to domestic violence. So while it was a bad joke it can from a good place. Interestingly, while she has been castigated by almost all the usual suspects, she is also being vigorously defended by someone unexpected, namely football boss and radio and TV personality Eddie McGuire. He has been vocal in the media defending her motives and recognising the context in which she made her mistake. Context, in my view, is everything. McGuire has form for making sexist remarks in the past and has himself been howled down for bad taste jokes and silly statements. I am impressed that he has obviously learnt from his own experiences and that it has clearly made him think more deeply before rushing to judgment. Would that all of us who have been in the eye of similar storms had learnt such lessons.
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But maybe there is something else going on too, because McGuire is not the only bloke who has come out in Ford’s defence, even though he is the most unlikely. Maybe – and this is something I have observed ever since #Metoo burst a centuries-old bullshit bubble in 2017 – more and more men are noticing the double standard that is applied to women, especially outspoken ones who dare to refuse to try and please, and – to their credit – these blokes are speaking up about it.
Women, like men, should be criticised for their mistakes, of course. But they should not be disproportionately howled at for human frailty or held to a higher standard than anyone else. Can you imagine any female politician having a snowflakes chance in hell of becoming the leader of her country if she had 5 kids from 3 different partners like Donald Trump, or -frankly – faced any of the accusations of sexual misconduct, financial chicanery, nepotism and corruption that have been levelled at Donald Trump? No, nor can I.
We need to accept that women are as fully human as men and do not need to be kinder, nicer or better spoken before we will take them seriously. As my old mum used to say, we will only have true equality when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men. And, given the current crop at the top, that bar has never been lower.