Big Sisters vs Big Brother: feminists subject Germaine to trial by television

It's the most controversial TV casting since our own Janet Street-Porter did 'I'm a Celebrity'. She approves, but not everyone does ...

By Katy Guest,Andrew Johnson
Sunday 09 January 2005 01:00

Day three in the Big Brother house, and Germaine Greer is wallowing in offal. Yesterday, her reputation as Britain's most celebrated feminist and academic was at risk of being eviscerated too. Her television colleagues warned she may be making the biggest mistake of her career - instead of being known as the author of The Female Eunuch, she is now in danger of becoming famous to a younger generation as a grumpy old woman from a downmarket reality television programme.

Bonnie Greer, a co-panellist on the BBC's highbrow arts review show Newsnight Review, told The Independent on Sunday: "It's a shame for her admirers and a shame for her. If she had asked for my advice I would have said 'don't do it'. Germaine is one of the icons of my life, but because of the way culture is, she will now be known for Big Brother rather than for everything else she's done.

"The first time I heard Orson Welles's name he was advertising Gallo wine. I had no idea he was one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. I spent my childhood thinking he was the fat man who advertised wine."

Rosie Boycott, also a panellist on Newsnight Review, the founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib and a former editor of The Independent on Sunday, agreed. "I'm devoted to Germaine; I think she's wonderful," she said. "But ... it concerns me that younger people will see her as a grumpy, cantankerous, argumentative person rather than the inspirational woman that she is. They've cast her and John McCririck as the old farts. There is a danger that her legacy will become that. She won't be able to preach feminism in the BB house."

As her friends, contemporaries and sparring partners revealed their fears yesterday, the iconic feminist and inspirational author was joining her fellow "celebrities" in a Big Brother task called "Spin for your Dinner". While her housemates wobbled dizzily on a roundabout behind her, one of Britain's leading Shakespeare scholars and most controversial writers launched herself gamely at an assault course made up of "the abattoir", "the compost skip", "the ashtray" and other gruesome obstacles in order to win food for her housemates. The ashtray was full of stale alcohol and cigarette butts; the abattoir consisted of a vat containing a blood-like substance; the compost was just that: a heap of rotting vegetables - not something that impressed fans who admire Greer for her lofty intellectualism and outspoken views. "Big Brother is not set up for a person like Germaine to do her thing," added Greer. "She's going to be defeated by the editing suite. If they see something that's dramatic or ridicules her they will use it. She's not as smart as television."

Even at this early stage in the 18-day TV show, Greer has made her presence felt. For her argumentative ways in the kitchen and her intolerance of smoking, she has already earned the nickname "the Gorgon". During negotiations over the shopping list yesterday, she interrogated the DJ Lisa I'Anson, asking: "How fatty is it? How many in a packet? Do they have pumpernickel?" However, she has also earned a grudging respect. "I disagree with everything she says," announced the racing presenter John McCririck, who said before entering the house that his nightmare housemate would be "flat-chested, bossy women. Someone like Germaine Greer". "She's a left-winger and trendy and environmentalist and women's equality and all that nonsense," he added. "But she's saved us in this house."

Outside the house, she does have support. The feminist writer Beatrix Campbell described her as "quixotic, anarchic, impressive, surprising, game, witty and up for a laugh". "She's full of curiosity and she'll want to make it work," she added, "to show us how a mature, radical woman can be: funny, sexy, serious and capable of managing a complex congregation of people having a good time."

The writer Tim Lott is also a fan. "I couldn't believe it when I heard, but when I thought about it, it made perfect sense," he said. "It's typically eccentric of her. She's wonderfully loopy." But like Campbell, Lott thinks Greer will have a hard time keeping her patience and dealing with the crushing boredom of life in the Big Brother house. "I very much hope she wins it but I can't imagine what she's doing in there with all those losers," he said. "It's like there are all these minnows and this brilliant icon has appeared among them. She's very impatient with people who aren't very clever."

While her supporters are wishing her the very best of luck, the suspicion that Greer has sold her soul to the reality TV devil is gaining currency. Even Ann Widdecombe, the star of ITV's Celebrity Fit Club, sneers at the format. "I hope she'll be herself but I won't be cheering anybody on because I shan't watch Big Brother," she said. "Fit Club has a point because you lose weight. But there's no point to Big Brother. I don't know why she's doing it, whether she's dumbing down. Well, that she must answer for herself."

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