I said I’d get to Germaine Greer at some point, and here we are. I’ve been having emergent thoughts along the lines of ‘what the hell has happened to her?’ for quite some time now: as I’ve mentioned before her comments on trans women (‘just because you chop off your d*ck doesn’t make you a woman’) and rape (‘most rape is just bad sex’) are at best unhelpful and at worst bloody awful.
And yet she was a hero of mine for a long time. So what the hell happened?
Like most women of my generation ‘The Female Eunuch’ was for me a seminal (perhaps I should say ‘ovulary’) book. Previously I’d been blundering along, half in denial, half aware that there was such a thing as sexism but not having put together all the ways in which misogyny was embedded in society and how this had affected me. My sense of myself, of who I was and what I was capable of – my very self-confidence – had been radically curtailed by growing up female in a patriarchal society. What Germaine did was put it all brutally together and lay it out. It was liberating, devastating and provided me with food for thought to last several decades. But now there is a problem.
I can’t understand why Greer would say, as she has done, that ‘nothing has changed’ since she wrote the book. Things have changed enormously; so much so that I hardly know where to begin. From women sitting on the board to rape suites in police stations; from the #metoo campaign to the sheer unacceptability of so much everyday sexism that used to be taken for granted, there has been a tremendous shift in attitudes. Many men have genuinely taken on board the major demands of feminism; some merely go along with it, but what is certain is that the culture has shifted hugely.
Of course it would be ridiculous to assert that Everything Is Now OK. Everything is not OK: we have upskirting and sexting; we have harassment in the workplace; we have Harvey Weinstein and the Presidents’ Club. But here’s the thing: thirty years ago these would not have been news. Everyone would have just shrugged and said ‘what do you expect? It’s the casting couch/don’t wear short skirts/it’s just a bit of fun/she was asking for it’ and so on ad nauseam. Men invented countless spurious reasons why women couldn’t do certain jobs (like Paul Daniels saying women can’t do magic because ‘they can’t keep a secret’). If he said that now he’d be vilified everywhere. Look at the hassle Christopher Chope got for trashing the Upskirting Bill (he maintains he’s not a dinosaur but I think the jury’s out:)
Sexism still goes on; the difference is that it’s no longer acceptable. Look at the mass reaction by women to Trump’s election; look at the change in the abortion laws in Ireland. Such things would have been unthinkable thirty years ago.
So much for ‘nothing has changed.’ Harder to forgive are the comments on trans women, though it appears here that she’s softened her response a little:
But worse than this were her comments on rape. She began by saying that a lot of rape is just bad sex, meaning really the reverse; that a lot of bad sex (a husband turning over and digging in without eliciting any kind of consent) is basically rape. I would agree with that. But she goes a lot further and claims that rape is not a big deal unless violence is involved. I cannot understand this attitude; it’s as though she’s saying that unless you have physical scars no harm has come to you. This is how the police used to think: unless you could show injuries they didn’t believe anything had happened. Of course there weren’t many female officers back then either…
And there’s more: apparently the #metoo campaign is a load of whinging: if a man harasses you, you should just knee him in the balls. Never mind if you’re alone, scared, intimidated, confused – just knee him in the balls.
There’s a sort of convoluted logic to these arguments but it all ends up too close to victim-blaming for comfort. If Germaine suffers from self-doubt she hides it well, and whilst that in itself is not a weakness she seems utterly lacking in compassion for the timid, the shy, those lacking in confidence. And it is axiomatic in any liberation movement that you stand up for the weak, the shy, the timid and the nervous. You act like Martin Luther King getting a black crowd to chant ‘I am somebody’. You don’t scornfully tell the victim of groping that they should have kneed the guy in the balls.
Perhaps we all become parodies of ourselves as we grow older: or perhaps one characteristic takes over and becomes our defining trait. Greer always could be perverse and critical; she was also incisively intelligent and – most importantly – fun! But now the fun has gone and all we’re left with is the perversity.
Anyway, check out this interesting profile of her on the Beeb: