Hostile Witness

It's time to get angry again." So writes Germaine Greer in her introduction to The Whole Woman. She may have intended it as a wake-up call, but more than anything, this book appears to be Greer's bid to matter again. In 1970, The Female Eunuch made the Australian expat an international star, as funny as she was fierce, far and away more sexually outrageous and scandalously outspoken than her American counterparts, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. And much of what she wrote— such as envisioning an active female sexuality and celebrating feminine fury— predated a variety of feminists to come.

But in The Whole Woman, supposedly a follow-up to that earlier work, Greer marches her readers through contemporary culture like a cranky camp counselor, pointing out oppression and sexism around every corner like so much poison ivy. And while Greer tosses off a few zingers— at such obvious targets as Bridget Jones's Diary, teen girls' magazines, and breast implants, along with less likely ones such as anal sex, supermarkets, and sonograms— it's often difficult to discern what, exactly, she is trying to say. The book is such a hodgepodge of hostility that trying to pull a thesis from it is like looking for an antiporn feminist at a strip club. When Greer sees symptoms of oppression in even the British practice of offering free breast-cancer screenings to women over 50 ("They will be invited . . . to undergo ordeal by mammogram, in which each breast is squashed . . . to the thickness of an English ham sandwich"), her arguments begin to sound more pointless than pointed.

Nevertheless, a few themes manage to squeeze their way through. Greer seems particularly pissed about where feminism has taken us in the last 30 years, and she finds fault with exactly those things that most people would consider evidence of second-wave feminism's success. For example, she contends that the widespread practice of easy-access abortions should not be taken as an indication of women's sexual liberation, but rather as "the direct result of the insistence upon the accessibility of the cervix to the ejaculating penis." And though I'd have to agree that women are much more comfortable these days saying "yes" than "put a sock on it," taking away the right to abortion would seem to be the least desirable way to improve this situation. In fact, Greer doesn't go quite so far as to say that, either; but she never really suggests anything else. And since she condemns all contraceptive technology, from the birth control pill to abortion, as causing "all this suffering, all this mess," it's not hard to conclude that she'd prefer to see us girls go back to just saying no.

Woman behaving badly: Germaine Greer
photo: Carolyn Djanogly
Woman behaving badly: Germaine Greer

Details

The Whole Woman
By Germaine Greer
Knopf, 373 pp., $25
Buy this book

Greer is also dissatisfied with the results of the second-wavers' campaign to get more women into the workplace. She points out that we've accepted an idea of equality that requires women to embrace the male mandate to "put the job first." If women are to be truly liberated, argues Greer, the entire culture of work needs to change so that women don't have to choose between having a job and having a life. A kinder, gentler corporate culture is something feminists have dreamed of ever since the first bra was set aflame. Rather than restating the case, Greer would've done better to investigate why women have failed to transform the workplace.

With her sense of humor and fuck-you feistiness, Greer could have been a contender for the title of original grrrl. Yet she's no more supportive of the new generation of feminists than she is of her second-wave sisters. When she writes, regarding "girlpower," that "the career of the individual bad girl is likely to be a brief succession of episodes of chaotic drinking, casual sex, venereal infection and unwanted pregnancy, with consequences she will have to struggle with all her life," Greer starts to sound like some sort of mother superior. And it's impossible to follow her logic when, in the same chapter, she writes off Madonna, Chryssie Hynde, Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and Björk as no more than a bunch of women behaving badly, but applauds the Spice Girls for "mak[ing] a difference." Greer seems to be engaging in simple feminist-baiting; her sweeping statements sound neither well thought-out nor even well-researched. When she argues that neither Love nor PJ Harvey can be taken as credible feminist icons because more boys than girls are buying their records, one has to wonder where Greer is getting her information. As far as I can remember, Miss Love was never a huge hit among the penis-and-balls crowd.

That's not to say that Greer's latest contribution to feminist thought has no merit. Even Ally McBeal would have to agree with her main point: that being a woman still sucks. But the challenge for today's feminist is not just to point out the wrongs that are done to women; it is also to suggest fresh strategies for righting them. When Greer concludes that the feminist revolution will not be powered by theorists or academicians or middle-class women but by Third World women "who have nothing to lose," she's just passing the buck; 30 years down the line, those women may find themselves in the same mire that First World feminism is stuck in today. The urgency of the women's lib movement has been lost as women have gained more rights, but our older problems have given way to new, complex ones that deserve more careful analysis than just another round of "I am woman, hear me roar." While I'd never begrudge any feminist the right to make like a dragon lady, Greer's fire-breathing in The Whole Woman comes off as just a lot of hot air.

 
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