Sunday 14 November 2010

History and Icons: Germaine Greer

Last night Germaine Greer was in town as the star turn of Literary Leicester 2010. Her performance was both intellectually engaging and honestly funny. I was left in no doubt that she has earned a place as one of the most iconic thinkers of the last 40 years, with the roots of her commentary historically located in discussions of sexual politics and ‘second wave’ feminism.
Greer has always been at her best as an individualist and perhaps her greatest success is her construction of herself as an iconic woman. Last night, she firmly distanced herself from associations with collective organisation, women’s libbers and ‘angry feminists’. From some of her points, her message sounded like a twenty-first century version of the ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ hippie politics of the 1960s, which could be construed as politically conservative. But to criticise her on these grounds would miss the point of her work, which has always been very simple, but yet very difficult to put in to practice. At the risk of horribly misquoting her, I think her message is this:
“Women, tell that bloke to shut up, and while you’re at it, tell him why he should shut up.”
This message applies to ‘the bloke’ in the pub trying to chat you up, ‘the bloke’ in office who tries you undermine your work and get you make his tea, and ‘him indoors’ who assumes he knows what your all about.
Behave how you want to behave, not how you’re expected to behave...something easier said than done.
Now, Greer’s comments are located in the hetro-sexual politics of relationships between women and men (and for many historically pertinent reasons, rightly so). None the less, I think everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, can take something from this message. Greer is urging us all to fight for freedom, everyday and wherever we are, especially those who are not expected to fight.
Below I’ve summarised three of Greer’s most thought provoking points:
Greer suggested that feminism has yet to start because we haven’t decided what we want yet, and that the conflicting messages of the equality-difference debate are proof of this. What’s the point in equality if it doesn’t deliver a better life?
The proliferation of images of flawless white female bodies across the globe has had a eugenic effect on ideas of female beauty. This has resulted in women going under the knife to change the shape of their breasts, and facial features to achieve a Western-Barbie-Doll look regardless of their ethnicity.
The porn industry is massive and rarely expresses women’s sexual fantasies. Attempts to legislate against it, or campaigns to 'shut it down' in the name of feminism miss the point. If a female readership drove newspaper sales ‘page 3 girls’ would disappear (unless, of course, an important part of female sexuality is based on exhibitionism?). Popular culture usually provides tired representations of various kinds of female sexuality-options. Don’t be one of the Spice Girls, Sex in the City gals, or Desperate Housewives. Think about it and have the kind of sex you want to have, it's an important part of being the person you want to be.
You are all very welcome to argue with me on these points. Indeed Greer herself would probably disagree with how I’ve evaluated her performance. What was great about listening to her though, was that she encouraged me to keep thinking and keep arguing, in a way few academics do. Because she’s a woman...?!