Dr Greer, I presume
Brilliant, self-assured and bloody angry like its author, The Female Eunuch appeared in 1970 and spoke for a generation of women. Three decades on, can its sequel speak for anyone but Germaine Greer herself?
Wednesday 04 November 1998
I say this not to be bitchy, or to enter the pantheon of women who have experienced her wrath, but because that is what almost everyone I contacted about this book believes. Many would not be quoted because they are, simply, afraid of Dr Greer and her tongue. After all, in 1995 the Evening Standard rang up the columnist Suzanne Moore and asked her opinion about a book called Hippie Hippie Shake. This was by a man - are we surprised? - named Richard Neville, who included a nasty reference to Germaine Greer and her hysterectomy scar. This infuriated Germaine, who spat back: "I have never had a hysterectomy and Richard Neville wouldn't have seen the scar even if I had."
If only it had ended there. But Germaine took exception to Suzanne as well: "Such disloyalty is the outward reflection of the low self-esteem that bedevils all women in our society, especially the ones who won't be seen without their hair bird's-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage." In the end, Richard Neville and his nasty slur were forgotten, but everyone remembers the sisters-at-war.
The press have come to love Germaine for this stuff, but perhaps the media has missed the fact that Germaine is not a sister. Nor, perhaps, has she ever been. You wouldn't catch her bogged down in the politics of the to-creche-or-not-to-creche brigade. Instead, from the moment she burst upon the scene as the wild, beautiful and brilliant lecturer in English at Warwick University, she has been a star. She loved to shock, and shock she did. She was the It Girl who talked dirty about sex, and the ultimate feminist pin-up, having posed for a close-up of her pudendum for the radical sex magazine Suck. At the time there was no such thing as "women's studies". Dr Greer was it. And, as the men couldn't help but notice, she had great legs, too.
The Female Eunuch touched a universal nerve. Marriage, she said, could be seen as a form of legalised slavery. Women's passivity was a sort of castration and politics could and did govern personal relations. Plus, of course, there was sex. We needed lots more of that. On that subject she was positively carnal. The book was a huge hit and, with a million now sold, has never been out of print. "It was the only time that she has been part of the zeitgeist," says a younger feminist. "I think that really is the case."
Since then she has published some half a dozen books, including her autobiography, Daddy We Hardly Knew You, and various takes on women artists. She writes as an intellectual, never as a journalist. Her feminist works mirror her life and, taken together, can seem a sort of argument with herself about the role of sexuality in a woman's life. When she wanted a child, she looked at population control in Sex and Destiny (1979). When she went through the menopause, she wrote The Change (1991), in which she argued that sex need not be a crucial part of life for older women. Speak for yourself, Germaine, some women said.
Now she is seen not only as a catalyst and a star, but as a woman who has the ego to match. "She is an icon, but the trouble with that is that icons do not tend to have the same life experiences as other women have," says one woman. Certainly most women have not had the life of this solitary Australian intellectual. She was wedded once; her marriage in 1968 to Paul du Feu, a construction worker, lasted for all of three weekends. She had several affairs (and abortions), but the great exponent of sex, sex and more sex has also been frank about her own lack of it: "I have a bed as big as a ball park but nothing ever happens there," she said in 1982. "I wish I were a lesbian," she told People magazine, "but it's no go." In a fashion statement that was pure Greer, she wore her old diaphragm springs as bracelets.
She wanted to have children. In the Seventies, she discovered that she could not conceive. A five-hour operation to make her fertile was unsuccessful and, as she said, put her "off sex". She has often said that she could have bought a Picasso with all the money she has spent trying to conceive. So the Sexual Revolution dealt her a difficult hand and now, at 59, she lives alone, famously tending her garden and indulging her cats. She is said to be an exemplary godmother. Some believe that Dr Greer, at heart, has always been a conservative, and certainly she seems to have been adopted by the Establishment as a sort of artistic rent-a-quote. No Booker shortlist is complete if it hasn't been rubbished by Dr Greer.
But is this anything new? After all, she has always been prone to bouts of television. It is said that she has done virtually everything on the box, bar the weather (Powergen, take note). Remember Nice Time, from the Sixties, with Kenny Everett as co-presenter? These days she is a regular on discussion panels and arts programmes. On Late Review she is consistently intelligent and witty, and sometimes hilarious. Her sense of humour is acute and cannot be ignored. Her speeches are great value, and take you over great leaps of logic with equal amounts of inspiration and entertainment.
Take this report, from a recent appearance at University College, Dublin. Men, she said, are "sad, fantasy-ridden, fragile, bizarre creatures" who are interested in racing down motorways and overtaking bigger cars driven by women. Her view is that the relationship between the sexes is still driven by "the fear of the unknown female, the contempt for the known female". Then she turns her attention to handbags: "Getting rid of the handbag is essential to being free." Whenever she sees a woman carrying a particularly large one, she wants to ask, "Are you expecting to be kidnapped?" Then it is onward to the womb: "an inert, passive space, a bag waiting to be filled". The womb, she notes, is not some sort of empty handbag.
Next comes male sexual arousal and the phrase "he found himself erect". "Now, what does that mean? He stood up?" Women are conditioned to fear male genitalia, she says, telling the story about a woman in her village who took to wearing nothing except an old greatcoat that she opened to passers-by. The main reaction was simply "How very nice". "Had it been a man, he would have been arrested pretty quickly after the first couple of flashes." Wombs and ovaries are seen as dispensable, she says, but "the penis is majestic". "Just go try and suggest you want it cut off," she says to the men in the audience. "Say it's bothering you and you would rather be without it, and see what happens - you'll be talked out of it!"
She has nothing positive to say about Barbie. "Women are made of flesh, not silicone. And look at it this way, Pamela Anderson may be the definitive male Barbie fantasy but it doesn't stop her getting eaten up by her husband." Finally, we come to a subject that preoccupies her: penetration. "The penis cannot penetrate the mind." And then after denouncing gender reassignment and defending motherhood, the good doctor ends: "I could go on but I'm going to stop."
Obviously not. Now we have The Whole Woman. So far, this has been trailed as an attack on Lipstick Feminism. "When The Female Eunuch was written, our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. It's time to GET ANGRY again." For many who have felt her wrath - and the list is not short - the question has to be, when did she ever stop? Germaine Greer is brilliant at being angry! What she is angry about now, evidently, is that the sexual revolution has gone too far. Other feminists, such as Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi, may be turning their attention to the subject of men now, but Dr Greer is sticking with women. "Now they have a duty to say yes to whatever their partners may desire, no holds are barred. Women cannot admit to feeling disgust or to not enjoying the stuff that is going on, not if they want to seem cool - even if they have to take muscle relaxants to do it."
Her publishers say The Whole Woman is the book that she vowed that she would never write. So why do it? Perhaps it is for the money; pounds 500,000 is such a nice, round figure. Perhaps it is for the fame. But then again, perhaps it is because she believes she has something to say. And no doubt she does, though whether that is something to say about women in general or about Germaine Greer in particular is up for debate.
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