March 2010


The better self?

By Louis Nowra
Germaine Greer © Maggie Hannan/Flickr
Germaine Greer © Maggie Hannan/Flickr
Germaine Greer and ‘The Female Eunuch’

The image has seared itself into my memory. Taken about five years ago, it is a newspaper photograph of Germaine Greer appearing on the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother. Snapped on the set, she looks like a befuddled and exhausted old woman. She reminded me of my demented grandmother who, towards the end of her life, was often in a similarly unruly state. There was also something pathetic about this feminist and provocateur appearing on such a cheap, often-degrading reality TV show. It seemed she would do anything to gain attention.

It’s 40 years since Greer published her first book, The Female Eunuch, and became famous. I first read the book when it came out in paperback. By that stage, I had already read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I was brought up in a world of women and as a boy my playmates were mostly girls. I always felt frustrated that nearly all the girls I knew, including my many female relatives, had babies before they were 19. It seemed such a waste of their potential. And then there was the awful reality of domestic abuse. I had much familiarity with it: my evidence at the trial of my mother’s third husband for domestic violence put him in jail.

But my mother was the main reason I read feminist works. My father, a truck driver, was her second husband. An intelligent woman, she felt frustrated at living on a Housing Commission estate and her dissatisfaction showed itself in her volatile emotional states that ranged from vociferous anger to inarticulate fury at her predicament. From a young age, I knew she should never have married and had children. In my naive way, I hoped that feminism would change the world enough to enable women like my mother to find satisfaction in careers rather than marriage and childrearing.

When I came to read Greer’s book, I admired its brashness and its convincing case that capitalism neutered women by oppressing them, while giving the illusion of freedom. This meant that women lacked the confidence to act and that they had been cut off from their own sexuality. In other words, they had been emotionally and intellectually castrated. The products were women like my mother, whose feelings festered into inexplicable fury. Greer’s chapters were short and the one about women’s isolation in their homes and their monotonous and thankless work was particularly powerful. It changed many a woman’s life dramatically. A journalist friend gave it to her mother, who after reading it left her husband. There were countless similar stories.

Gradually, however, I became disenchanted with Greer’s tract. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I had a chip on my shoulder about having been brought up on a Housing Commission estate while my fellow students belonged to the middle class. One day when I was loading trucks to earn money, I had to pick up goods from a spinning-yarn factory where my Auntie Helen worked. The enormous hangar-like building was filled with spinning-yarn machines, all of them operated by women. The clanking, whining machines made such a noise that everyone had to shout. I saw my widowed aunt sweating in the heat, her hair in a net so it didn’t snag in the machines and scalp her. I realised then that none of the working-class women who worked with her would ever read The Female Eunuch; it would remain always inaccessible to them with its many quotes from Nietzsche, Blake and Shakespeare. The women in the factory rarely read, and then only women’s magazines. Greer’s book suddenly seemed hopelessly middle class, especially its countercultural fantasy of a sexual and social revolution to create a circumstance in which families would live communally in beautiful places like Italy, marijuana would be the drug of choice and women would abandon interest in clothes and cosmetics. Women like my auntie worked hard all day and then went home to care for their kids and feed their families. Clothes and make-up were a way for these women to have fun and indulge themselves. Their most pressing concern was to work less and earn more. Greer failed to consider the lives of women such as this. She underplayed the issue of domestic violence. Instead she called on women to taste their menstrual blood as a way of ridding themselves of a sense of self-disgust about their bodies.

Greer’s overbearing personality and propensity to make outrageous statements made her even more remote from my world. Judging by what she wrote, whether in underground magazines such as OZ and SUCK or broadsheets such as the Guardian, the world she moved in consisted of well-off prats and self-absorbed would-be revolutionaries. In 1970 she said she was so in demand among newspaper editors that “If I peed on the paper, they’d print the stain.” And so she started to churn out opinion pieces, brag about her ability as a rock groupie and even pose nude for photographs.

She wrote more books over the following years, but they were increasingly sidelined by her controversial comments. We learned of her lesbian experiments as a school-girl, her rape, the abortions, how after a very expensive operation to repair her insides she still couldn’t have a baby, and how after turning 50 she gave up on sex. There was great fanfare around certain incidents, as in April 2000 when a 19-year-old student took her hostage in her farmhouse; the mad kidnapper leapt from the bushes onto the back of the feminist crying out “Mummy, Mummy!”

It’s been her comments about other women, however, that have been the most bizarre. She denigrated Betty Friedan as “crazy”, ridiculed Gloria Steinem as naive and clueless, and labelled Cherie Blair a concubine. And as for Victoria Beckham, she was “a scrawny, sabre-toothed beast” and a “velociraptor”. Christine Wallace, who had the temerity to write a biography of her, was a “dung beetle” and “flesh-eating bacterium”. Joanna Murray-Smith, the Australian playwright who wrote a comedy based on Greer’s kidnapping, was similarly savaged. Greer described her fellow newspaper columnist, Suzanne Moore, as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”.

Greer was born in Melbourne in 1939. She was sent to a Catholic convent school and was an intelligent and high-spirited student. She considered her father weak, especially when he wouldn’t defend her against the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon her by her mother, Peggy, who has remained her bête noire throughout her writing career. Greer regarded her mother as a narcissistic despot who used language as a weapon rather than as a tool of communication. After secondary school, Greer studied at the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney, eventually attaching herself to the “Sydney Push”, a blokey and anarchic group of intellectuals who drank a lot, talked bullshit into the night and were promiscuous. Greer was later dismissive of the intellectual pretensions of the Push, but it was one of the few social alternatives to the general suburban conformity of the Menzies years. Greer left Australia to attend Cambridge, where she earned a PhD. Nearing 30, she wrote The Female Eunuch in just a few months.

Re-reading it now is a curious experience. With its 1960s slogans and vacuous catchphrases such as “Right on!”, “Revolution is the festival of the Oppressed” and “The struggle which is not joyous is the wrong struggle”, it’s like opening a time capsule. Greer cites political theorists and exponents of sexual liberation – including Herbert Marcuse, Norman O Brown and Wilhelm Reich – whose names have long since dropped soundlessly into the River Lethe of history. And as for gays, Greer constantly jars by calling them faggots and making her dislike of them obvious.

But it’s the chapter entitled ‘Work’ that fascinates most. After spending most of the chapter establishing how women are paid less and have no chance of promotion, and bemoaning the fact that only a tiny minority of professional women who marry continue to work, Greer relates some female success stories. It is a desultory, brief list that includes an investment analyst, the first woman pilot employed by a commercial airline, a director of a major cleaning firm, a couple of journalists and clothes designers such as Mary Quant.

One is immediately struck by how much the Western world has changed for women, who now run corporations and are heads of government bureaucracies, as well as being business leaders, film directors and soldiers. Few occupations are denied women. Even men’s jaundiced attitudes to their wives working, being more educated and earning more than their husbands have changed. When Greer wrote her seminal book only 4% of American wives earned more than their husbands; now this figure is verging on 20%. And today most women are as well or better educated than their partners.

But Greer’s polemic was about more than the importance of women having a good education and a career. She wanted women to undergo a profound change in the way they viewed themselves and their relationships with men. If you look at how Greer thought this could happen and what actually did, then our contemporary world must come as a disappointment to her.

At the time she wrote the book, Greer thought women’s sexual organs were “shrouded in mystery”; the minimisation of the genital area in pin-ups was, according to her, “partly motivated by a disgust for the organ itself”. Really, this was about the social norms of the 1960s; contemporary pornography is obsessed with showing the vagina. In The Female Eunuch, she mentions that women shave their pubic area “in extreme cases”. Now ‘Brazilians’ are common among young women. Her exhortation to women not to marry hasn’t been taken up. And as for women opting out of their roles as principal consumers in the capitalist system, young women today love shopping more than ever. A woman’s enemies, as far as Greer was concerned, were doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, marriage counsellors, priests, health visitors and popular moralists. If these people continue to be the enemy of the contemporary woman, her frequent use of the services they provide would suggest she doesn’t know it.

Not content with admonishing women for seeking out the help of experts, Greer scolded couples for having planned children. Her idea was that couples forget contraception and gamble on unplanned children, because then they have “the advantages of contingency”. The contention that many couples could only afford two children was to her “squalid argument”. On that score alone, modern life and its economic realities have passed her by. Perhaps it is in Greer’s assertion women should give up such “fripperies” as clothes, make-up and cosmetic surgery that she most clearly reveals her misunderstanding of women’s desires and urge for self-fulfilment. Cosmetic surgery was a rare operation when Greer wrote her book, but now it’s common and Botox injections are virtually a woman’s rite of passage. I live in the 24-hour entertainment area of Kings Cross and the girls who go to nightclubs and bars there flounce around in short skirts and high-heels so tall that they are forced to walk like drunkards. At the end of the evening – like the boys – they swear, vomit and, if in a foul drunken mood, they even fight. They are free to be as violent and laddish as men. Few young women want to identify with feminism. Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem ‘I Am Woman’ seems to have been superseded by Cindi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

In The Female Eunuch, Greer lectured her readers about not adopting masculine methods to succeed in a man’s world. Her notion that women would use power differently from men was hopelessly idealistic. In the future society of Greer’s fantasy, there would be no hierarchies and women would bond to create peace and undermine the capitalist system. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain, she proved what any true cynic always suspected about human society: power has no gender. Once in possession of it, women are just as likely as men to enforce hierarchies and use power for corrupt or ignoble ends.

But in Greer’s projected future, the woman would live in a farmhouse in Italy and have her children there. Thankfully, a local live-in peasant family would look after the house and garden. Greer calls it “an ersatz household” with people of both sexes coming and going and occasionally helping out. Children would be cared for by a revolving door of friends, relatives and local peasants. She also believed that the child didn’t even need to know who “his womb-mother” was.

This communal vision was part of the New Left hippie ideology. Greer was mimicking much of its twaddle, as in: “My fantasy is that it might be possible to leap the steps of revolution and arrive somehow at liberty and communism without strategy or revolutionary discipline.” The Female Eunuch’s theoretical template was based on Herbert Marcuse’s theory that supposedly happy and free individuals in the capitalist system are not really free but living an illusion of freedom. All Greer did was apply Marcuse’s ideas to women. But she doesn’t explain how the “revolutionary woman” can become a reality. She is good at analysing the position of women in society, but her methods for change are so vague as to be meaningless: “Women must hold out not just for orgasm but for ecstasy”. She frequently refers to “external reality”, as in: “Perhaps woman, like the child, retains some power of connecting freely with external reality.” This sort of gibberish winds its way through the text like an unintended laugh-track.

Re-reading the book, I began to feel I was in an English lit tutorial. Much space is devoted to the likes of Blake, Shakespeare, Eliot, Strindberg and Woolf, and even the literary critic FR Leavis makes an appearance. Occasionally, as in the chapters on love and romance, Greer quotes from popular culture, but she finds the emotions involved too unruly to analyse. She’s so puzzled by the potency of romance and its prominence in the imaginations of women that she resorts to parodying romantic songs.

Perhaps the best feature of The Female Eunuch is Greer’s attempt to communicate with a non-academic readership. She tries to write without condescension and there are a couple of self-mocking asides. The book is repetitive, like most polemical works, but Greer is refreshingly honest about the way she has played fast and loose with facts and ideas. As she says, “Perhaps my treatment of highly sophisticated arguments has been brutal.” Unfortunately, however, her hyperbolic style quickly palls (“Nervous diseases, painful menstruation, unwanted pregnancies, accidents of all kinds, are all evidence of women’s energy destroying them.”) She tries to liven up her prose with aphorisms such as “Wife-swapping [is] the twentieth-century form of incest” and “A sterilised parent is a eunuch in a children’s harem”, but these are neither insightful nor witty. Non sequiturs, such as “the cunt must come into its own”, pop up at in-appropriate intervals. Her dull and graceless prose corrodes the reader’s interest.

An unsettling theme flowing through the book like a toxic undercurrent is Greer’s attitude towards her mother. As far as Greer’s concerned, Peggy terrorised her children (Greer in particular), was self-absorbed, listened to no one and belittled her husband. Peggy appears frequently like a pantomime villain brought on to scare the audience and so they can boo her like her daughter does. Even Peggy’s attempt to undertake an adult-education course is derided.

The demon-figure of the mother in a sense encapsulates Greer’s view of womanhood; the portrait of women created in The Female Eunuch is by far the book’s most disturbing feature. Women are insecure; women suppress all aspects of their vigour and libido; women’s essential quality is castratedness; women are transvestites and female impersonators; women have destructive energies; women wreak havoc upon the personalities and achievements of others, especially their husbands and children; women are passive and condemned to observe; women feel rejected without male attention and degraded by anything less than total involvement; women who boast of their love for their own sex are really disloyal, unreliable and tension-ridden; women are impotent, insecure, inferior beings that can never love generously; women are masochists and their altruism is really disguised egotism; mothers are the dead heart of the family, spending all the family’s earnings on consumer goods; many of the vile and cruel things that men do to women are done at women’s instigation; women vilify an immoral woman more than men do; women caricature themselves; wives carp at their husbands, driving them away from making love; women are incapable of making conversation; wives are lying, manipulating dissemblers. Even an ardent misogynist would be hard pressed to come up with such a depressing catalogue, though Greer’s puzzling attitude towards her own sex developed yet further in the work that came after her first book.

In her survey of women painters, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (1979), she concludes that the reason why there have been no great women artists of the calibre of Titian or da Vinci is that women are damaged and have defective wills, and that their sexual energy has been diverted into neurotic channels. (Somehow male artistic neurosis, unlike women’s defective psychological make-up, has the potential to create great art.) In the turgid Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet (1995), Greer conducts a vast survey of women poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, concluding that there hasn’t been a single great female poet. The reader is left wondering why she even undertook this study, given that most – if not all – the poetry she examines is so goddamn awful. It’s almost as if she has gone out of her way to prove that female poets are no good. Greer would sooner disparage than praise her own sex.

Most of her books have an autobiographical character. She couldn’t have children, so she wrote about women’s infertility in Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984); she approached menopause, so she churned out The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause (1991). But her most autobiographical book is her 1989 memoir Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, which takes the form of an investigation into mysteries about her father’s life. His origins were obscure and he was aloof from his family (again, especially from daughter Germaine). Of course, Peggy figures as a narcissistic tyrant who constantly puts Greer down. Greer finds out that her father lied and exaggerated about many of the events of his life. He was a great fantasist – not unlike his famous daughter, who recognises that trait in herself. The idea of a feminist exploring the father–daughter relationship is potentially fascinating, but Greer’s memoir is hobbled by her constant criticism of – and withering sarcasm towards – her mother. Also, Greer’s weird play on the concept of duel-ling halves of the self is hardly edifying. There’s “The Better Self” that engages in acrimonious dialogue about the truth with her other self, “Fury”. In this blandly written memoir, Greer’s angry and unforgiving nature always gets in the way of the narrative. Fury wins out and, because it does, the book dribbles away to finish in a muddy puddle of clichés (“I was never his boon companion, but a full-on pain in his neck. In finding him, I lost him. Sleepless nights are long.”)

Anger also propelled her follow up to The Female Eunuch some 30 years later with The Whole Woman. The 1999 book is based on two conceits: the concern that, even in the area of sex, both “equality and liberation are further off than ever” and the contrast between the idealised peasant woman and her damaged and foolish Western counterpart. There are the customary wacky ideas, as when Greer declares, “Women should consider the possibility of deploying grief as a subversive force”, as well as too many clichés, such as, “We do not exist to serve technology; technology exists to serve us.” Despite the book’s defiant opening, “It’s time to get angry again”, this is a tired treatise. Unable as ever to make concrete suggestions about how to improve women’s lot, Greer falls back on such hollow rhetoric as, “Women’s liberation must be mothers’ liberation or nothing at all.”

Greer’s work after The Female Eunuch falls into two categories: the increasingly shrill and unconvincing polemical books and essays, and the dry and dutiful academic work on women poets and Shakespeare. There’s no doubt that the Bard of Avon has been very important to her ever since her student days. At the height of her fame, Greer announced, “I’d fuck Shakespeare except that he especially asked that his bones be not disturbed.” Her fascination with him resulted in the peculiar biography Shakespeare’s Wife (2008), her most recent full-length book. We know even less about Anne Shakespeare than her husband, but that doesn’t stop Greer. The book is full of her usual potted histories and, with no new historical detail, Greer invents Anne Shakespeare as the love of her husband’s life. She imagines that William taught Anne to read and write, and that he read out his poems to her. Later, Greer’s Anne reads the sonnets (“When she began to read them she was shaken, moved and impressed.”) My favourite moment of this kitsch self-identification with Anne is when the playwright’s wife “indulged in fantasies of disguising herself as a boy and riding to London to feel Will’s arms around her again, only to reflect ruefully that she might find him with someone else.”

This is a silly biography, littered with words such as “if”, “could”, “probably”, “might” and “perhaps” as it careers down the slippery highway of implausibility. Out of its risible fantasies emerges a portrait of Anne as intelligent and resourceful: a skilful malt-maker and brewer, and an attentive reader of poetry who may have been a sounding board for her husband’s poems and plays. Greer may not have fucked Shakespeare, but she has surely imagined herself as his wife; if she can’t possess him through her un-inspired writing on his work, then she can own him vicariously. Like most biographies of Shakespeare, the study is really about the biographer. Anne is Greer’s fantasy of her-self as Shakespeare’s lover and wife.

Greer’s 2003 Quarterly Essay, ‘Whitefella Jump Up’, was similarly odd. It pushed the idea that white Australians have no identity and that this has resulted in a shallow culture and a sense that the population does not belong on this continent. The answer Greer posits is for us to embrace Aboriginality in order to be an authentic part of the land. The long essay is filled with hyperbolic statements that don’t seem to be factually based, for instance: “From the beginning of colonisation the authorities’ deepest fear was that settlers would degenerate and go native.” Much of her evidence depends on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers such as Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy. She shows scant knowledge of recent research and contemporary Australian fiction. She fails to define Aboriginality, saying simply that if we manage to incorporate it into our national identity, we will be transformed into a hunter-gatherer nation. Another component of her vision is a Council of Elders, which would comment on legislation “from the point of view of Aboriginal laws and customs”. She ends her incoherent rave not with Aborigines centrestage, but rather with herself there. Apparently, what we need to do is “sit on the ground” with Greer and be lectured on her views. The narcissism is breathtaking, but completely in keeping with her life and career.

There is no doubt that fame and celebrity have seduced Greer. She is a TV producer’s and newspaper editor’s dream. She will say and do anything to get noticed, even if this means whingeing and moaning her way through shows such as Grumpy Old Women. Indeed, she was right when she said editors would publish even her stains. Her prose is dreary and, read in quantity, acts as a soporific. A toss-off book like The Boy (2003), written in Greer’s sixty-fourth year, about the sexual allure of young men, fails because she lacks the subtle descriptive powers to explain exactly why she loves perving on sexy lads. Her boast that she doesn’t read fiction is unfortunate – if she had she may have learnt to write better.

Greer’s real talent is as a polemicist. Her ideas are contradictory and her mind is coarse, but her ability to popularise complex elements of the Zeitgeist, especially in The Female Eunuch and The Change, is astonishing. Unfortunately, it seems that she believes her fury and rage are enough to justify a book. Indeed, On Rage (2008) is the title of her latest work (a short essay published last year as part of MUP’s Little Books on Big Themes series). But Greer’s violent and impulsive tendencies have become empty theatrical gestures, and her abrasive comments have become like the irrelevant noise of a shock jock few people listen to anymore. As she’s grown older, her writings have become increasingly daft; there’s now a sense that she is impersonating – even parodying – herself. She has become a grotesque character called Germaine Greer.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

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