20th century / Humanities

Germaine Greer – Feminist Icon of the Twentieth Century?

By Mathura Umachandran

In the 44th US presidential election, gender politics constituted a vital stimulus for debate. From Senator Clinton’s stand for the Democratic Nomination, through to Senator McCain’s controversial choice of running mate in Sarah Palin and the high profile role that Michelle Obama played in her husband’s campaign, women were dynamic and influential political agents in their own right. The old paradigms for discussing politically prominent women should have been superseded by new terms of discourse – how did they present argument, how did they defend policy, were they connected and prepared enough for the offices to which they were aiming to be elected..

The reluctance to adjust to the demands made by the mere political visibility of these women was manifest in some surprising quarters. Across the political spectrum some commentators desperately clung to patronising and reductive analyses – enter Germaine Greer.

Michelle Obama’s Dress

Feminist icon extraordinaire, fiercely outspoken cultural commentator and academic, Marxist and pioneer – this is how Greer has entered popular culture. She is a living trailblazer of the feminist cause and her early body of work constitutes essential reading for any student of gender theory in the 20th century. In terms of cultural impact she is on a par with Wollstencraft or De Beauvoir. So what comment did she offer on the cultural watershed that saw the election of America’s first black president? A spectacular, jaw dropping volte face. In The Guardian on 17th November, Greer wrote a comment piece on the dress which Michelle Obama wore on election night. Surely the premise behind it would be to point to this dress as a symptom of cultural change or comment? Or, to pose a more fundamental question, why bother writing a vitriolic and bitchy piece about another woman’s clothes? Greer emphatically reinforced the fictions of patriarchally constructed and enforced beauty standards by her stunningly misogynistic comments. For example, ‘the effect of the strong contrast [of black and red] was to turn a mere frock into a poster in the most disturbing colours known to man, the colours of chaos’. Elsewhere, she feels it appropriate to call the dress ‘saturnine… a geometrical haemorrhage… a butcher’s apron’. Greer builds to the magnificent climax of discussing how the dress was actually an alteration of a Narciso Rodriguez original. ‘The Grant Park version of this cute and sexy dress’ she claims, ‘was a travesty.’ Without irony, sarcasm or parody, Greer in one statement undermined decades of feminist struggle that she herself inspired and agitated. By making this statement Greer confirmed the suspicions of every antifeminist – that feminists are just women too insecure, old or unattractive to conform to ‘society’s’ standards and secretly they too judge women by these standards.

Germaine Greer

But perhaps we should give Greer the benefit of the doubt – she is a writer after all, and amidst the near-blanket ecstatic media approval that the Obama victory received, one’s generosity might be stretched to see her trying to find something original to say. One might argue that this was an aberration, a provocative bucking of expectations – but these arguments are half hearted and ring false. This is all the more true in the light of Greer’s recent comments on who constituted a modern feminist icon. On the suggestion of Cheryl Cole, Greer dismissed her saying that a ‘healthy girl is a fat bottomed creature’ – read: this woman is too thin to be a feminist icon. To my knowledge, weight has never been the crucial differentiating factor in determining feminism. Dispel the illusion, but I believe it is what one says rather than one’s weight that establishes one’s profile as a feminist. The thoughtlessness and illogic of this statement continues to reveal itself – Greer uses objectifying and degrading language that is more appropriate to taking cattle to market. To take a more explicitly feminist stance, this statement only approves those women who have the appearance of fertility or reproductive potential i.e. those of most use for propagating heterosexual patriarchy (the I-love-a-girl-with-a-little-meat-on her-bones brand of misogyny.) Finally, it is the context of this comment that is upsetting – she addressed them to Gordon Ramsay, a man whose public persona is one of hyper masculinity through his swearing, swaggering and domination over his demarcated territory (his kitchen). Was Germaine trying to be ‘one of the lads’, to assimilate herself to his expectations, to downplay her feminism, to play ‘Woman’?

This final question leads to a broader scrutiny of Greer as feminist icon. Does she continue to deserve the commendation she receives? She has revealed in the past that her conceptions of gender are narrow to the point of backwardness. She decided to step down from the board of Newnham College Cambridge, an all female college, because a trans-woman was nominated to join the board. Greer objected to this claiming that she wasn’t a real woman. The only women that counted were the natural ones, the way that they were created. Did someone neglect to tell Greer that essentialism is somewhat old hat these days? Greer believed so strongly in biology as a gender determinant that she was prepared to put her neck on the line for it. Biological determinism has been the argument for keeping women ‘in their place’ i.e. at home or in the kitchen for millennia. It is a recurrent and fertile resource for patriarchy. It is an unacceptable position for a feminist to support.

This article was not intended as a cheap swipe at a prominent feminist. As such I have not maliciously twisted words, deliberately misunderstood meaning or quoted out of context. But I have wanted to express my sadness at what seems to me to be the demise of a once strident and stimulating cultural figure. I have wanted to show my shock at hypocrisy on scale this magnificent. I have wanted to expose the latest incarnation of Greer as a feminist fraud.