GERMAINE GREER by Susan Johnson

HEROES & VILLAINS
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
When I first came across Miss Germaine Greer, I used her name as a kind of red rag to enrage the bullish nature of my father. I was 14 or 15 and she did for me what I could not do for myself: articulate arguments in women's defence against the weighty evidence of men.

If I was struggling to throw off the load of an overbearing father (who at the time represented to me the power of all men) then she was already out from under, calling out loud, indeed conducting bullish charges of her own.

It is unbelievable now to recall the hysteria which greeted Miss Greer's The Female Eunuch in our native Australia. She was everywhere, in the newspapers, on television, in public debates, and the men who ran the media then were at fever pitch.

The subtext to all the debate was simply that she was too ugly a sheila to get a decent bloke. "She's got a head on her like a sucked mango seed," my father once said, immortalising a quaint Queensland expression.

In my secret heart I worried that it might be true. At the time I used to draw pictures of girls with large, dewy eyes, their lips glossy and pouting. I thought Miss Greer too large, too toothy; she did not fit my idea of beauty.

In America years later, I came across a collector's copy of Life magazine. Miss Greer was on the cover, at the height of her fame, and she was beautiful. She was perhaps 33 or 34 and in every picture her face was alive, suffused with confidence, ablaze.

Later, of course, the word was out that she had recanted, that she had gone barmy, menopausal. That she believed in Islamic women wearing the veil, in clitoridectomy where appropriate, that she now spat on Gloria and Betty and all her other American and Western sisters.

Of course, this was mostly said by people who had not actually read what she had written. It seemed to me that she was prepared to look at certain unpalatable truths about women's lives and the fall-out from the sexual revolution. For instance, she argued that young women today are burdened with what she called "the duty of sexual accessibility" and that multiple partners were not necessarily good for your psychological or physical health. She was saying that there were costs involved as well as gains, that the whole thing was not as simple as she once thought.

Yet this should hardly have come as a surprise: Miss Greer has always been a maverick, a law unto herself, a woman who has never known the meaning of political correctness. She has frequently scorned the American-created term of address Ms, for example, and insists on being called Miss Greer. Her recent revelation about being raped (how insignificant the actual penis was) is typical Miss Greer, as are her ideas of "outing" rapists via the Internet.

In every way she has proved herself a thinker true to herself, resisting definitive labels. She is unorthodox, cantankerous, maddeningly forthright: everything a woman is not encouraged to be. I remember being shocked when a friend showed me a copy of a magazine called something like Suck or Screw, one of those archetypal magazines which came out of Amsterdam in the Sixties. In it, there was a photograph of Miss Greer at some love- in, buck naked, curled on her back, her legs splayed in the air. She smiled up at the camera between her exposed genitals, flaunting them proudly. I had never witnessed (and still haven't) a public figure prepared to challenge the notions of celebrity, of "good" behaviour, so unabashedly, so confidently.

Now and again, I would hear things about her, from the front line as it were. My first husband had been one of her students at university, where she apparently strode around addressing all straggly young people by their full title of Mr or Miss, spoke eloquently and passionately about English literature and regaled them with talk about going to parties attended by the Rolling Stones. "She was addicted to glamour," he said contemptuously, but I remained enthralled.

She is, of course, too flamboyant and unrestrained to be whole-heartedly admired by the English. Even in our native Australia she is regarded as too loud-mouthed, too threatening, to be enshrined as a national icon. Blonde and safe, Kylie and Olivia Newton-John are favoured instead, leaving the untamed Miss Greer in the cold.

It was only when she published Daddy We Hardly Knew You, a yearning memoir about her father, that, for me at least, some questions about her were answered. The book filled in that vast, murky territory of early childhood on which so many foundations are laid, painfully describing the origins of her long stride out.

Miss Greer is a woman of our age both like and unlike any other. Through her books (which people often forget are beautifully written, her sentences a marvel of con- struction) she is mapping our times, for us and for forthcoming generations.

It seems to me that Virginia Woolf's description of another exceptional writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, might equally be applied to Miss Germaine Greer: "...she is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."

Comments