David Leser is a prominent Australian journalist, author and public interviewer. A former Middle East and North American correspondent, he is best known for his in-depth profiles and stories on social and political issues, and is the recipient of numerous awards for his journalism.
A staunch supporter of women, David writes frequently on gender-related issues and has spent a good part of his career profiling powerful women like Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Anjelica Huston, Tina Brown, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
David is the son of Bernard Leser, once president of Conde Nast International. David’s recent memoir, To Begin To Know: Walking in the Shadows of my Father, was short-listed for the Australian National Biography Award in 2015.
David, it’s clear from the subjects you choose to write about that you’re very much a supporter of women and of gender equality. What shaped you into becoming such a fierce defender of the fairer sex?
I was surrounded by women, growing up, and our house was always populated by interesting women. My father was a big employer and enabler of women: there was a story told at his memorial in New York that after he started Vogue Australia, there were 90 odd women there and one man… and the man was the chain-smoking driver. Everybody else – accounts, editorial, fashion, photography – everybody was female. Jonathan Newhouse [CEO of Conde Nast International] said, “when they do gender studies at school, they should study Bernie Leser.”
So I had that as a backdrop. I had a very strong grandmother, too. She was a powerful figure, a Jewish matriarch, but she was also a concert pianist, and she came from a line of strong Jewish matriarchs.
Were you brought up specifically to think along feminist lines?
I grew up in the way that most guys grow up, which is about the mating game and the dating game and that dance between boys and girls. But I always loved girls, not just sexually but to talk to. I loved the territory you could explore, because most of the time I found you couldn’t do it with men.
The political aspect of gender never revealed itself strongly to me until I got married. As Germaine Greer said, the true theatre of gender warfare is the domestic hearth. When I married a feminist, I realized how much of my early potty training was how much men grow up as princes in their own homes. Whether it’s a Jewish home like mine, or a Lebanese home, or a Greek home, or an Asian home… the boys, the sons, the fathers are the princes, and the women are their lickspittles.
How did this realization influence you as a journalist?
I found that I was drawn to write stories about strong women. Not just feminists. The Australian Women’s Weekly sent me around the world to write about strong, redoubtable women. And over my life this kind of view, this worldview formed really strongly: that women suffer deeply at the hands of men.
How much of an active role do you think non-violent men should take, in putting a stop to this suffering? Or is it up to women to simply ‘do it for themselves’?
Jimmy Carter said that the mistreatment, maltreatment, violation of women in all its forms is the most pervasive form of violence that exists in the world today. And women are just speaking to themselves unless men get involved.
I want to be involved, and I want to use my voice, that which it is, as a communicator of ideas and narratives, to advance this. It’s actually a holocaust. When you think about how many women are killed by their husbands or their ex partners in a country like Australia… when you think about how many daughters are violated by their fathers, when you think about the burning of widows, and the beheading of women, and the enslavement of young girls … this is happening everywhere. So I think that until men get engaged, then we’re not doing enough.
Where do you think such rage and violence against women comes from? What’s causing it, at the root?
Well a boy doesn’t learn how to become a man from his mother; a boy learns how to become a man from his father. I think most cultures put great store on men being strong, and not collapsing into their emotional life; on being pragmatic, being the breadwinner and the hunter and the provider, and being ruled by reason and logic. The realms of emotion, feeling and intuition, all of those kind of internal paradoxes are a feminine realm. So when a crisis hits, or when a man is dealing with difficult emotional issues, he doesn’t know where to turn because he has no training in it. He only has his father, who was probably equally shut down, if not more so, in his emotional life.
That emotional turmoil is chaos. It’s messy. And that emotional turmoil represents the feminine. And you have to reject that: some part of you has to reject or tame or control that in order to operate successfully as a male. I think this underpins the fear that men have of the feminine. They have somehow severed the feminine from themselves.
It’s as if men are suffering from patriarchy as much as women are, because they have to live up to certain expectations that don’t reflect their internal experience, and they have to fake it.
Absolutely. In a country like Australia, there are a lot of men who hate that ‘blokey’ kind of archetype of what the male should be, and the patriarchy has tyrannized as many men as it’s tyrannized women. And that’s where a lot of defensiveness comes in: men suffer from men as much as women suffer from men.
This brings up a question for me, which is, what is strength really? There are so many displays of false strength around. Violence is a striving to appear strong in a way that is actually just out of control…
I think the best cultures help boys grow into men. And that’s where rites of passage are important. You don’t just become a man because you hit the age of thirteen, or because you drink a lot, or have sex with a lot of girls, or drive a fast car. That doesn’t make you a man. But in the absence of rites of passage that show you that getting shit-faced and screwing your brains out and driving fast are not actually acts of manhood and manliness… that actually treating women with respect and treating yourself with respect are signs of well-adjusted masculinity…
How do you define a healthy masculinity?
A healthy masculinity is a deep respect for the feminine. If you respect the feminine parts of yourself, then you will respect the external feminine.
We’re made up of opposites, and the feminine parts of us are the vulnerable, creative, lyrical, collaborative, perhaps more right-brain, intuitive aspects, in archetypal terms. That’s not to say that women are vulnerable and men aren’t vulnerable. We’ve all got a combination of all those things within us. So I think we have to move towards some kind of integration of all those things.
Do you know many men who have successfully integrated all this?
Most of my best friends are on that track.
Do you discuss ideas of healthy masculinity with them?
Yes. Not all of them, but with my closest male friends, this is stuff we would talk about. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a good father? To be a good friend? What does it mean to be in the world as a man in the early 21st century? How do we work with boys? How do we address the violence against women? How do we take up the cudgels so that it’s not just women talking to each other about this, but it’s actually men making the changes, and men actually calling other men on it?
It’s not ok to call women whores and sluts and cunts and crones and hags… all those words that are in the language that we use all the time. It’s not ok for men to objectify women, and chortle between themselves about women in that way. It’s not ok to remain silent, or to let it pass off as a joke, to not challenge the other guy in the room.
David Leser is an award-winning Australian journalist and author. He is available for public interviews, guest lectures, feature articles, narrative coaching, private mentoring and corporate writing. For more information on David, see davidleser.com