Germaine Greer can be loutish, attention seeking and condescending, but she does have some undesirable qualities too. My first experience of Greer was as a 16 year old in 2006, some old man hating bat had desecrated the memory of Steve Irwin, or so I was told. The news coverage was sensationalist and justifiably so, Professor Greer had said what she said to be a contrarian, a gadfly, a Hitchens without the sexism. I didn’t particularly care for what she said per se, but I was a contrarian too and I liked that she was getting up the nose of people like John Howard and Alan Jones whose jingoist nationalism was for me a source of constant irritation. Like an atheist who could not empathise with a believer I was bewildered by nationalism when I was younger. As I grew older and read of Benedict Anderson and his imagined communities I came to understand and even embrace elements of patriotism, somewhat unusually given Anderson tends to have the opposite effect on people. But at the time I saw the canonizing of Saint Irwin of Australia Zoo as emblematic of this irrational nationalism with the vague rhetoric about mateship and Australian spirit and I quietly sympathised with Professor Greer. That was not to say I had or have any dislike of Steve Irwin, I don’t know enough about the man to have an opinion one way or the other but I interpreted her criticism of Irwin as a resistance to this atmosphere of parochialism which was for this 16 year old, suffocating.
In the aftermath of Irwin Greer became a deposit in which Australians discharged their unhappiness over the death of Irwin, she inherited the antipathy that could not so rationally be directed towards the culpable stingray. I now know that this is what Australia does with Germaine Greer, in a thinly veiled exercise of enmification it implores her to say something it doesn’t like, then hurls torrents of vitriol in her direction. From my experience Professor Greer doesn’t normally produce the unequivocal provocation many would like from her but leaves herself open to be misinterpreted. Why she does that is a question for psychologists to debate, for my money in a world where more people have read Mein Kampf than Long Walk to Freedom there is probably a great deal of egotistic gratification to be gained from pitching oneself against the world.
Since 2006 I have matured spectacularly: where once I would happily abuse someone over a debate I had known precious little about (The Afghanistan War for example)I now tend to hold my tongue on matters which I am not particularly well read. In particular I’ve made it a rule not to challenge an academics position without first reading their published work in the area. I was astonished last night to witness Dr Leslie Cannold patiently responding to a raft of spectacularly ill informed criticisms from people who had clearly never read her published articles on the subject, much less understood them. I mention that because over the past two or three years I’ve made my way through the Female Eunuch, The Full Woman, Shakespeare’s Wife and a handful of journal articles published by Professor Greer and have found her very difficult to disagree with. On the rare occasions I have disagreed with her it’s required a fair bit of external reading before I could formulate a cogent argument against what she’d written, and in the context of what I’d read I began to find her controversial tidbits on QandA and Question Time were actually far less incendiary than they were incomplete. Now for the lay observers of QandA last night it was perfectly healthy and natural that they find some of her comments to be outrageous, but I was appalled today to see Tanja Kovac amidst a litany of other enlightened feminist writers launching one of the most pathetically fallacious, ad hominem attacks against Greer that I’d ever seen.
Kovac has an impressive resume to her name and ordinarily I devour her writing with relish but on this occasion she seemed so consumed with a rage that it clouded her ability to construct a cogent argument. Funnily enough her complaints about Greer soaking up the air time which network managers were prepared to allot feminists seemed curiously endemic of what Greer herself has described as a predisposition among women to undercut and tear down their sisters out of a socially constructed perception that they are in competition with each other for…actually never mind.
From her second sentence Kovac tips her hand as a sanctimonious fraud. “She speaks a type of feminism palatable to the fellas; body and sex centric; trivial and titillating.” What a crass, vulgar generalisation to make about the male population! Perhaps the use of the word “fellas” as opposed to men implies that she was referring to a very specific manifestation of man rather than the broader male community, but given she is in the business of deliberately misinterpreting Greer at every corner I’m not particularly inclined to assign Kovac any benefit of the doubt here. Over the past three years I have gone to enormous lengths to acquaint myself with the tenants of feminism and with the exception of one fashion editor whom I may have been unfair on I have refrained from challenging anything much I’ve read. I’d make the point I haven’t just been reading Greer either. Cannold, Cox, Summers and Boyle all feature and for Kovac to so crassly tar all fellas with the same sexist brush is grossly offensive. And this idea that Greer is famous because she likes to talk about sex, based upon her performance on QandA last night is utterly predicated on a fiction that is that Greer chose the topics of discussion. In the real universe that runs so parallel to Kovac’s, the public asked questions, often not of Greer but of the entire panel, often the questions were asked by women and to trivialize female genital mutilation as a sexy hook to get the fellas to pay attention is abhorrent.( I realize I might be drawing slightly exaggerated assumptions about Kovac here, but given the nature of her article that only seems appropriate. )
Of course fifty years in public life, dozens of peer reviewed publications and 55 minutes of QandA all pale into insignificance when someone raises the question of Germaine Greer and Julia Gillard’s jackets. The wilful ignorance from observers, twice now about jacketgate is absolutely astounding and endemic of this bizarre phenomenon in Australia where we construct this awful strawman, project it onto Greer and then declare some sort of schadenfreudian war upon it. I didn’t watch the first instalment of jacketgate but was shortly informed by the friend and foe alike that Greer had suggested Julia Gillard should be embarrassed by her dress sense and in particular by her weight. This didn’t sound like the Professor Greer I knew and loved. Greer can be obnoxious but making fun of someone’s weight is a mean spirited display of bitchiness I’d hitherto thought she was incapable of. Then my friend who was recollecting her performance used the magic words “you’ve got a big arse, get over it.”
As fortune would have it not two weeks earlier I’d been watching this wonderful lecture by Professor Greer about Anne Hathaway which is oddly bereft of sex to hook in the fellas. At the conclusion of her lecture Professor Greer took questions as she always does and invariably after lots of questions about Shakespeare and Hathaway someone asked her about feminism. She spoke about a number of things and then she spoke about the woman physique. She said that she disliked this fear of eating among many young women lest they accrue a “fat behind” and argued that women should not be afraid of having a womanly physique. That this ritual of starvation and wearing oddly designed clothes in order to play down the fact that women were creatures with “fat behinds” was a most undesirable practice. And in fact anybody who has read or seen much of the good professor would know that this is a recurring theme with her. Women should not be made to feel inadequate or ugly because of their natural feminine physique, there should not be a social pressure upon them to hide their natural feminine physique.
Germaine Greer delivers a lecture on Anne Hathaway. When asked about feminist practices she laments that young women often feel embarassed about having “fat bottoms.”
In spite of my misgivings I acquiesced to watch jacketgate chapter I and was absolutely bemused as to what all the hysteria was about. Greer was asked what advice she would give the Prime Minister, she responded by spending the better part of five minutes praising Gillard. At the end of her contribution to demonstrate how highly she thought of the Prime Mininster, Professor Greer suggested that the only advice she could give Gillard would be something trivial like fashion advice, that Gillard’s attempt to conceal her feminine physique were unneeded and silly. With the background knowledge of Greer that I have I immediately interpreted it that way but even someone who had never heard Greer speak before in their life must have been able to see that she wasn’t criticising the Gillard, but that she was praising the her by demonstrating that no serious criticism could be made. In this respect I might add Professor Greer and I are poles apart. My personal view is that Gillard is the second worst Prime Minister in the post Menzies era. I happily welcome anyone to challenge me on this but for my opinion I have successfully exonerated Greer of any wrongdoing in jacketgate chapter I which brings me to Chapter II.
Last night on QandA someone felt the need to revisit jacketgate ChII and invited the good professor to apologize. Questioner Caroline Zielinski implied that Greer had refocussed the public on the fashion and physical appearance of Gillard when feminists are trying to move the focus away from such things. I must have missed a recent article which reversed a practically uniform consensus among feminist academics that feminism did not have a single identity, that it was diverse and wide ranging and came in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colours and flavours. My very limited understanding of feminism was that virtually rule number one upon which every other rule is built is that feminists are individuals not a collective. I’m very reluctant to tell a woman that she’s doing feminism wrong but I’ll make an exception where she is making that very attack on one of the pioneers of first wave feminism. Predictably Greer treated the question with an incendiary mixture of ridicule, humour, disdain and playfulness and predictably raised the ire of, pretty much everyone I know.
What the good professor did not do as one Tanja Kovac alleges in what must frankly border upon libel, is express a belief that “a substantial derrière is a disability for a woman in public life.” I didn’t realize being a good feminist involves completely misrepresenting the views of a more famous feminist but then I’m not a proper feminist, I’ve still got way too much to learn before I’d feel comfortable claiming the accolade. Professor Greer’s actual words included “Go for it, Julia. You don’t understand how tough it is for little girls who think that to have a fat arse is to be dead, is to be finished. Women are fat-arsed creatures. Go right ahead, Julia. Wave that ass.” Far from suggesting the Prime Ministers proportions are a disability I’m inclined to think Greer was unequivocally stating that they are something that Gillard shouldn’t be ashamed of. What’s more I could have sworn Greer was suggesting that Gillard was in a unique position as Prime Minister to show some leadership for young women across Australia who are insecure about the feminine physique and embrace it rather than try to mitigate it with stupid jackets.
Another quote that seems to have escaped Greer’s critics was “Abrade away, a woman is not her jacket.”What a lovely and succinct way to clarify what was always plain to see for anyone that had any sense, that Greer criticised the jacket BECAUSE it was insignificant. It was a rhetorical device to praise Gillard’s performance as Prime Minister, yet from the tone of Kovac and those like minded one would get the impression that she had reaffirmed a view that a woman was in fact no more than her jacket. It’s just unfathomable, Germaine Greer is accused of reducing a woman to clothing for doing the exact opposite meanwhile fashion magazine editor Ita Buttrose is waved about as some sort of feminist hero, whoops there I go again.
Finally Kovac’s complaint that Greer was chosen over other feminists to fill the spot on the QandA panel last night conveniently overlooks the fact that it was a literature edition of QandA and she was there in her capacity as a Professor of English Literature. Judging by Kovac’s suggestion that Greer is given air time because she talks about, the sex, Kovac has little knowledge of Greer’s wonderful work on Lord Byron and Shakespeare, it’s a pity too because they’re absolutely fabulous; if lacking in the sex. Maybe all those good feminists out there like Kovac could care to explain why they constantly reduce Professor Greer to nothing more than her views on sex. Not very sisterly I would have thought.
Various statistical reports I’ve seen from Australia and the UK have shown that something in the vicinity of 90% of violent crime is committed by men. For billions of men world wide there is an entrenched process of social conditioning that raises boys to perceive physical force as a legitimate means of resolving a dispute. They are smacked by dad for misbehaving, they are encouraged to play contact sports, they’re called sooks for showing vulnerability and they are showed through the example of adults that masculinity involves force and violence. Many great men and women are taking up the cudgels to fight against this social construction but we’re miles away from being able to come close to reversing it.
By contrast if you remove prostitution from the equation, women statistically commit virtually no crimes at all let alone violent crime. Women have not been socially conditioned over the past half millennium and more to look to physical violence as a solution. I believe that the growth of numbers of women in senior government, public service, business and academic positions has the potential to precipitate a shift in the attitudes of global politics towards a more constructive and humanistic way of resolving dispute conflict. It’s often said half jokingly that if women ruled the world there would be no war. Obviously this is an exaggeration which can’t be substantiated but I think there is an enormous tide of evidence to suggest that there would be significantly less war, less violence and less entrenched hatred if they did.
The challenge is of course how do we empower women when almost every industry is dominated by men, socially conditioned to perceive the status quo as desirable? I can’t answer that but someone who has committed her life to trying to answer that is Germaine Greer and whilst it is perfectly legitimate to suggest that there are better means of achieving this than Greer’s favoured methods, to misrepresent Professor Greer and launch an extraordinary ad hominem attack against her whilst claiming to be a feminist is absolutely disgusting. In 2009 Greer called upon her feminist comrades to take one lesson from entrenched masculine culture and to close ranks when one of their own was threatened or under attack. Regardless of what their private views were they should respond hastily and in unison to an assault on female liberation to defend their cause. With this in mind I really do find it depressingly tragic to see so many feminists line up behind the chauvinists and the sexists and join in launching a string of fallacy riddled attacks on the most well known face feminism has.