Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 1)

Pic of farm at Williamsdale

A day in the country at Williamsdale

As in 2018, selected Sydney Writers Festival events were live-streamed this year to 35 sites, including Canberra’s National Library of Australia (#SWFLiveAndLocal). I had planned to attend most of Saturday’s events, but then our annual day-trip to our friends’ place in the country came up, and that’s unmissable, so I only attended the last event of the day.

This year’s theme is Lie to Me, which means participants “will discuss the white lies and deceptions that are necessary for survival, as well as malicious lies that are spun with darker intent. They’ll explore the ways that writing can be used to deceive others in an increasingly post-truth world, and look at the lies that we tell ourselves, each other, and those we collectively tell as a country.” A perfect theme, don’t you think?

Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis, Saturday 4 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Clementine Ford, Adam Liaw, Janice Petersen (Convenor)

Book cover of Clementine Ford's Boys will be boysClementine Ford is the feminist author of Fight like a girl, and, more recently, Boys will be boys. An obvious choice, then, for the panel.

Adam Liaw is a lawyer who came to fame as a winner of Australia’s Masterchef. The festival program describes him this way: “As the author of six cookbooks and host of the award-winning SBS television series Destination Flavour, his approachable and family-friendly recipes are influenced by his global travels, but remain focussed on the casual simplicity of contemporary Australian home cooking. In 2016 the Japanese government appointed Adam as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Not such an obvious choice, eh? However, he has been appearing recently on some ABC-TV current affairs programs and has impressed us with his sensible, thoughtful, comments. He didn’t disappoint in this panel.

Janice Petersen, the convenor, is an SBS journalist and news presenter.

Firstly, although the panelists didn’t say this specifically, the topic was a natural for the Lie-to-me theme, since so much of gender is constructed on lies – on assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about what makes a man or a woman. This session focused on these, and how they impact, particularly, contemporary ideas about masculinity. Convenor Petersen did an excellent job, asking such questions as:

  • Why is masculinity in crisis?
  • Why does the mentioning word “masculinity” seem “to set off a bomb”, engendering negative responses?
  • What does it mean to have a son (as both panelists do) and do the panellists fear the influence of peers?
  • Are men and women different?

Clementine Ford spoke, naturally, from a feminist perspective. She argued that masculinity is in crisis, defining toxic masculinity as men being unable to have platonic relationships with each other, being unable to express their feelings. She argued that boys bond over negative attitudes to women because they can’t relate to each over other things. Men, she said, are hostile to discussions about feminism because they don’t see that it works for all, that its aims are to free all people to be themselves. The problem is that although many men hate much about their lives, they don’t want to “see what patriarchy inflicts on them” (at work, say) because they fear losing the benefits of being “men” (such as being the boss at home!)

However, Ford also said that she doesn’t see “masculinity” as negative. She is invested in “healthy masculinity” and has faith in men, but sees the issue being masculinity and power propping each other up.

Adam Liaw spoke, he said, from a non-scholarly perspective, but I must say that I really liked the way he thought. He talked about how every society defines its own understanding of masculinity, and that in our society today, we don’t have a clear idea of what that is. He sees this lack of clarity as a structural problem, one that creates a high level of insecurity in many men. He talked about various male “role models”, like James Bond and Batman. James Bond doesn’t have close friends which is something men can relate to, while Batman is rife with problems, which men can also relate to. Modern men, on the other hand, can’t relate to Superman as they once did. In other words, men are now defined more by their insecurities than by positive ideas or values.

Liaw returned repeatedly to this insecurity issue, and it made sense. When Petersen asked whether men and women are different, Ford was initially a little flummoxed and referred to Liaw, who without hesitation said yes we are different. We are, for a start, physically different, but, he said, we should not weaponise gender. Our biological differences don’t, for example, translate into meaning that men are better CEOs than women. Liaw’s most important point was, for me, that the issue is not things like men spending more time with children – which men have always liked to do – it’s about overcoming their insecurity, meaning, for example, being comfortable with their partners earning more money than they.

I found the conversation about raising children interesting. Ford expressed a more ideological approach, one I related to because of my own child-rearing days. Indeed, it was hard not to feel a bit of “been there, done that”, since we second-wave feminists had tried exactly what she was talking about. In fact, when I look around at our sons, I think we did a pretty good job! They aren’t the men evincing the toxic masculinity that was being discussed, which begs the question in my mind about whether a few enlightened parents raising their children to be free (free to be … you and me, and all that) will effect the change we need.

Both Ford and Liaw, albeit they expressed it slightly differently, eschewed imposing gender expectations on their children – on what they wear, play with, etc. Liaw spoke of wanting his son to be a “good person”, a “good man”. He is not in favour of forcing “reverse” gender activities on children, but on encouraging all children to be able to do all things. (This was in response to a clip Petersen showed from an SBS Dateline film of an Icelandic school.)

Ford spoke of structural oppression (much as Liaw had earlier referred to structural problems). This results in such things as her being trolled if she speaks of boys doing anything “feminine”, like pushing a doll in a pram. It’s seen as her forcing a boy to be a girl, rather than as letting him explore life. We need to “dismantle gender” but Australians, she feels, can’t get their heads away from narrow definitions of what “men” and “women” are. Worse, they don’t actively condemn men for treating women badly. Much trolling comes from packs of teenage boys. (This reminded me of a recent interview I heard with a female Uber driver who said that one drunk young man was manageable, but in a pack they can become abusive to women, showing off in front of their mates.) Toxic masculinity!

If Liaw’s most important point, for me, was about overcoming male insecurity, Ford’s concerned the malleability of humans. If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.

The session ended with a brief Q&A, from which I’ll just share the last question. It concerned overcoming the sense of entitlement (which I understood as encompassing more than male entitlement.) Liaw said it starts with understanding our own weaknesses and biases, while Ford said it’s about listening to others, and checking our responses to what they say. Which is to say, I suppose, that we need to look past the lies we so easily tell ourselves in order to forge more truthful relationships with each other!

PostscriptJonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) has reported on some Friday sessions, which you may like to check out.

24 thoughts on “Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 1)

  1. LOL This year, I thought I should try to find a venue to view this live as well, and Googling it with SWF brought up lots of wrestling sites! I did better on my second try but there are only three venues for the whole of Victoria alas.

    Anyway, thanks for this, I think I’ve heard everything Ford has got to say by now, but Liaw sounds very interesting indeed. I’ve always liked his multicultural view of things, but I’ve never seen him in this sort of context.

    • Haha, Lise. I must say it wasn’t easy to find online. I tried too think ng it would be easier than navigating the NLA’s site. It wasn’t! I wondered if they had any sites outside NSW-ACT.

      Liaw’s been on the drum – and I think somewhere else recently and has been so measured and thoughtful. Very personable, and intelligent.

  2. Hmm, I just lost my comment here, I’m practising with my new laptop and *pout* already I know not to trust it when it sends a n error message saying I’ve posted a duplicate comment.
    So I’ll try again…
    I looked to see if we can access this service but there are only three venues for the whole of Victoria, oh well, fair enough, it’s not as if we are short of festivals in Melbourne:)

    Anyway, thanks for this (I’ve read Jonathan’s too, it’s good he’s back, I missed him last year when he was overseas. Liaw sounds very interesting indeed!

    • Ha ha Lisa – it did post! Those duplicate comment issues are weird, and unsettling aren’t they,

      And yes, I agree re Jonathan’s reports. I used to enjoy John B’s (Musings…) reports too. I’m sorry he’s no longer blogging. He read such similar stuff to us but had another set of perspectives.

    • Yes, refreshing the page makes a difference, but I usually only find that if l’ve had the page open for a long time, like hours, which isn’t the case here given the post was less than 30 minutes old when you commented it. Is it an Operating System issue? Or some sort of preference setting? I wonder vaguely!

      Anyhow they weren’t lost, so some error message is in error!

  3. Fascinating stuff about feminism and gender. I think that the fight against sexism and push for equality are one of the most important areas in the entire spectrum of human relations. I believe that it is vital that all people, men and women, work to help end sexism and oppression of women. With that, I am a bit skeptical of some of the theories about masculinity and other gender issues that are popular these days. I think that, at least some of these theories are philosophy based and not based on data or on science. Either way however, I find discussing and listening to ideas about these things to be so interesting.

    • I think that’s a fair comment, Brian, re the fight against sexism, and, more broadly, the push for equality. The broader issue regarding equality – such as racism – was referred to during the conversation but never directly addressed. It’s all on the spectrum though isn’t it about humans treating all other humans as equal.

      I agree that some of the theoretical discussions can be obfuscating, but not so much that I don’t want to hear them.

    • Thanks Jonathan … it felt a bit like re-inventing the wheel (as in, hang on, that’s exactly what we thought/aimed) which then brought me up short about what we really did achieve. It’s a bit discouraging really, isn’t it, because I really thought we were on the way to a “new” society, but, as they say, reality bites!?

  4. Excellent post….and I am definitely reading Ford’s book.
    But I know you like to hear what your post triggers in my mind.
    Poet, author Dorothy Hewett. I’m reading the very impressive book TILT poems by Hewett’s daughter Kate Lilley. I just won NSW Lit Award 2019 for poetry.
    Unknown to me was Kate Lilley’s back round, her immersion (…being abused by friends of parents, predators) in the Bohemian life of her parents in 1970s. Lilley has suffered for years trying to put her life together after living with a mother who’s mottto was: ” Boys Will Be Boys”.

  5. I gave Fight like a Girl to my daughter but I haven’t asked for it back yet. I used to read Ford a lot, but recently I find her over the top (that could be her, that could be me). Milly and I tried to not impose gender roles on our kids, were we successful, maybe, the boy would have been gentle whatever we did and the girls are both feminine and fiercely feminist. And the most toxicly male boys I ever dealt with were public school (alright we call them private schools now) boys, especially boarders. Where did white lies come in?

    • Yes, we’ll never know really, Bill, I agree. Certainly my daughter is just like yours, and my son is a caring person and very involved father. I haven’t read any of Ford’s books, but have read some writing by her. She has way less over the top than I expected. Maybe she’s mellowing a bit with age, or maybe it was an environment in which she didn’t feel the necessity.

  6. Well, we had live & local here in Toowoomba which I was very excited about. I attended this session too and I agree that Ford wasn’t as over the top as I was expecting. Maybe it’s just her reputation that precedes her or maybe becoming a parent has mellowed her somewhat. I hadn’t read any of her books beforehand, but I have read Boys Will Be Boys since. Putting the language and sarcasm aside, I thought she raised some good points. And it really does come down to treating everybody with respect and consideration.

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to comment Karen. Yes, I wondered, from what she said in fact, whether parenthood had mellowed her a bit.

      And yes, I agree that it’s about respect and consideration – I think too many people don’t realise that that’s fundamentally what feminism is about, and that it should therefore work for all.

  7. “If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.”

    What a good point. And it’s one that so many of us, who are devoted to justice in one sphere, often overlook: where we do have power and where we resist its relinquishment. It’s also an observation which resides in the desire to change, which it’s easy to commit to in theory, but, when it comes to paying a personal price (sometimes literally), then it’s soooo *insert whiny voice* hard.

    I’m impressed that you still managed to attend one of the events that day, when you could have simply tossed in the towel for the whole day.

    • Thanks Buried, it is a good point isn’t it? Makes you stop, think and reassess our thinking.

      BTW I loved your long response to my comment on your blog but I’ve learnt by bitter experience that I can’t comment here on my iPad to your blog, but it’s here on the iPad that I check my notifications every morning over breakfast (like now). So I have to remember in the evening to check on my laptop, but of course I forget. I’ll try to remember tonight.

      • Heheh That’s funny. I have the same issue in various circumstances. Sometimes weeks pass before I return to a conversation and I wonder whether the recipient is rolling her eyes at me but, in my mind, the conversation is still rolling. Take your time, I’m just sipping on a cup of tea for whatever time it takes. *giggles*

        In the ’90s there were T-shirts that simply said UNLEARN in capital letters. In my mind, they now have a magic-markered hashtag in front.

  8. Pingback: #AUSReadingMonth 2019 Clementine Ford | NancyElin

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