The Life and Times of Germaine Greer

ARTS, Books

Writers & Readers Week
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | March 12

It’s hard to deny the impact that Germaine Greer had in terms of cultural dialogue in the ’70s. Today though, after the sensation of 1970’s The Female Eunuch, and a number of scene-stealing performances around the world (including being arrested in New Zealand for the public use of the word “bullshit”), it’s become an easy argument to make that her take on feminism has outlived its usefulness. To use an equivalent comparison, while the Sex Pistols may have been a culturally significant band back in the ’70s, that doesn’t mean seeing them live in a stadium now would be particularly interesting. But to Greer’s credit, she held a capacity Wellington Town Hall audience captive with a humorous and engaging look back at her life and work. She was assisted in a couple of key ways: patsy and insipid questions, and, an almost bewildering ability to contradict herself cheerfully.

Melbourne-raised Greer started off by running through her childhood: “I think, very early on, I decided I didn’t want to be my mother,” followed by “I was too tall, pale, flat-footed—I was never seduced into thinking I’d been glam,” and lastly, an implied dysfunctional parental relationship. She discussed the lasting impact of being part of a Melbourne University English literature year that “needed to challenge authority, never took anything on trust.” She would meet before a seminar with her peers to have an “anti-seminar” in order to work out ways to challenge the lecturers. A subsequent move to Sydney resulted in falling into the “Sydney Push,” an intellectual left-wing group that was purportedly based on libertarianism. She claims they were driven by “extreme scepticism [and a] refusal to use morally and emotionally loaded language which was absolute.”

But that was precisely what Greer did throughout the seminar. Women were, and are, an absolutist concept that can be generalised. She discussed how The Female Eunuch came about. “Women had been desexualised, not sexualised.” “You [women] don’t go around asking questions, you pretend you understand the off-side rule.” “The book I wrote, all around me, women were thinking.” She joked when asked about hunters and gatherers. “Women are gatherers, that’s why we leave the house with a handbag, an external uterus. You will not be kidnapped, you will not have to camp for three weeks, you’re not going to be able to find your key anyway.”

She talked about a visit in the early ’70s to Calabria, Italy, where confronted by a bucolic paradise, poor “peasant people” were happy and pitied her (“with all of our demands for luxury and consumer goods, maybe we’ve missed the boat”), where there was this great “sexual energy—the thing we [in the West] lost was passion” (despite being spat on and stalked in Calabria—apparently a sign of a more raw and more passionate form of sexuality), and where her own “assumed superiority was ridiculous, over-weaning arrogance.” Was she merely fetishising poverty, lauding simple peasant folk and their somehow more real, “uncomplicated”, sexuality? (No different to the stereotypes used to simplify and colonise the “child-like” “earthy” non-European peoples over the last few hundred years or so.) Her claim that the southern Italians were happy and didn’t need the trappings of consumerism ignores the inconvenient issue that most of the Italian immigrants to chase the capitalist dreams promised by the United States and Australia came from the poor, southern parts of Italy.

Greer then moved to discuss issues of indigenous peoples—potentially interesting subject matter if her past controversy is anything to go by. But she was left unchallenged. She claimed New Zealand “is the smartest English-speaking country in the world,” but corrected herself by saying “it does not mean you’re very smart.” She praised Pakeha for apparently acknowledging that “this is a Maori country,” and supposedly preserving the foreshore, while criticised Australia as a “country laid waste.” She then proceeded to paternalistically lambast indigenous Australians for accepting money from mining companies and who “no matter how much the mining companies throw, are still destroying themselves.” (Though curiously, defends her acceptance onto Celebrity Big Brother as “it was a lot of money,” and talked about how she still got paid all her money despite walking off after five days as a great achievement.)

Greer concluded by saying that she didn’t believe in equality: “I didn’t see the situation of men under capitalism as something to aspire to.” She made a devastating point about a female member in the armed services in Australia, who was subjected to horrific treatment by her male colleagues and then made herself to apologise publicly. However, she added that according to that logic, women shouldn’t occupy boardrooms for the same reason. For a self-professed Marxist, she didn’t seem too interested in the concept of hegemony, the ability to change or subvert power structures, or that meaning isn’t a fixed idea (after all, she admitted that she didn’t carry a handbag). She excoriated contemporary society as “besotted with celebrity culture, [women] terrified of eating anything, fourteen-year-olds with breast augmentation, [having] blonde long hair—there’s never been a feminine stereotype more oppressive than this one, a perpetual childhood.” (Though, as someone who studied literature, she would clearly have seen this same obsession with youth play out over millennia of stereotypes.) She closed by urging her audience to “resist and to resist and to resist.” One immediate standing ovation from the bulk of the audience later, it was all over.

There was talk of feminist groups boycotting Greer’s appearance, particularly based around Greer’s problematic transphobia. Unfortunately, at least in the public setting, her views weren’t put to the test. Instead, we were left with a bunch of contradictory and self-congratulatory statements from her and her interviewer. This is not to deny the importance that Greer has in terms in contemporary feminist discourse, but it’s hard not to see why her views—and the views of some of her contemporaries—were quickly overtaken for being patronisingly Eurocentric, crudely essentialist (both biologically and culturally), and unable to account for the plurality of viewpoints on the definitions of gender and sex.

But that was arguably the lasting impression from Greer’s conversation. Through her own contradictions, she unwittingly highlighted how laughable and problematic the notion is that gender could exist as a fixed, definable idea. Whether it is perpetuated by the advertisers, “men” in boardrooms, or the pornographers that Greer excoriates, or the approach that she herself took to discussing ‘women” and “men”, the inability to define what it is to be a woman (and a man, by that same approach) isn’t actually that bad a thing. Revel in the contradictions. Revel in the contradictions to the point that terms such as “men” and “women” become meaningless. In fact, that could be the next step—to progress the fight that people like Germaine Greer once had.