Today is Germaine Greer’s 75th birthday. Charlotte Raven reflects on her life and work.
I first read The Female Eunuch when I was sixteen. There was no aha moment; I couldn’t understand the title – the what? – and didn’t identify with the main protagonists; the manipulative, weak willed, lame brained feminine cipher (the middle class Western woman) or the freewheeling, sexually rapacious liberationist who disdains activists and housewives (Greer). I took this personally – I had tried being promiscuous; it hadn’t agreed with me.
Free love in eighties Brighton wasn’t as warm and comfortable as a Californian commune. When I was 16, the painful reality of promiscuity was eclipsed by revolutionry zeal. Activism had given me a sense of purpose and an excuse not to have sex with anyone who suggested it. I remember sitting uncomfortably in my school assembly with love bites and carpet burns better than The Female Eunuch; I was disinclined to go back to the grind of casual sex at Greer’s behest.
When I re-read it recently, I felt differently alienated. I understand the title – that sexual repression has robbed women of their vitality – but was more aware of the misogyny. I tried not to take Greer’s disdain for the married, monogamous and committed or the ‘bourgeois perversion of motherhood’ personally but failed. I also realised that Greer was a libertarian who proposed herself as the acme of liberation and cared more about showing off her beauty and Reichian sexual energy; she never empathised with those of us with neither.
It is an energetic book, as many have pointed out; poorly argued but greater than the sum of its parts. I read it a couple of months ago and was sure the introduction was the best bit. It should have been a manifesto! Greer can’t sustain the polemic, and her later books also read as if she got bored a couple of chapters in. I know the feeling! Her best work has been short form, exhilarating contributions to live debates, journalism (I remember her piece about Big Brother better than anything about reality TV) and a ‘little book’ that argues that Australia won’t be healed until is accepts its identity as an aboriginal county.
These days I have an intellectual rather than visceral belief that the sexual revolution had been a disaster for women; I’d read accounts of communes and Gay Talese’s book The Neighbour’s Wife about free love and wondered what had happened to the woman next door whom Talese had slept with in a clothing-optional resort in the Sandstone commune as ‘research’ for the book.
I have felt ambivalant about Greer for years but didn’t dare say so in case my green tinted spectacles were affecting my judgment. I am jealous of her articulacy and ability to marshall the mot juste in debates. At times I have been jealous of her childlessness, as it freed her to do the debates and TV programmes that have converted her ubiquity into a cultural currency. She finished her feminist book; mine ran aground because, unlike Greer, I was worried about extrapolating general truths about womankind from my personal experience.
Sometimes this works; she could effectively dismiss the idea of feminist porn because she had been there, done that 40 years ago. But a recent piece in Salon reveals the extent to which her books are self portraits presented as social realism: “Greer’s writing is ostensibly about women, at it’s palpitating heart its just about her.” The funniest illustration is “the supermarket rant from The Whole Woman“, in which Greer describes the general indignities suffered by “typical Everyshopper. The generic woman suddenly embarks on a hypothetical quest for a jar of pimentos. She searches the Tex Mex section then ‘among the pickles’ and finally resorts to asking a man with a company pin who tells her he has never heard of them ‘implying that the customer is mad.’ She shows him red peppers and explains that she wants small seeded pepper in brine.. And so on.”
Greer has more in common with contraversialists than feminists – more like Russell Brand than Lynne Segal. Brand’s recent Newsnight apearance was as thrilling and compelling as Greer’s set-to with Norman Mailer in a debate at New York’s Town Hall. They are both unrooted; Brand has no vanguard party or movement primed to enact his call to arms, and Greer had the same problem in the seventies. Their ideas seem arbitrary so I wasn’t surprised to hear Brand describe himself as a feminist. Ironically, he personified the idea of free love, which Greer abandoned when “sex gave up on her.” Both are mischievous at other people’s expense.
Like Madonna, Greer is constantly reinventing herself. She has been an anarchist, Marxist, and is now a Liberal Democrat. She hasn’t converted to Islam, like Lauren Booth, but nothing would surprise me. We are used to expecting the unexpected. In fact the unexpected has become tediously predictable.
Unlike Grayson Perry, Greer’s ubiquity has been diminishing. I wish Greer had a trusted friend or family member who would tell her not to take part in Big Brother or debate with Toby Young. My daughter would certainly do this, if I was ever asked.
Her transphobia has been the only constant. Greer’s essentialism makes sense the more I think about her. She is the only ‘real’ woman; the rest of us – trans and cis women – are faking it.
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