Funnily enough, the Flickr caption for the picture I decided to use for this post was, “so smart in some places, so stupid in others. a great, challenging book full of rage.” Had I been asked to summarize this in as few words, my response would have been pretty similar.
Confession of a bad feminist: though I practically inhale pop feminism books, and can get through four or five a month if the going’s good… I had never read any Germaine Greer until now. I bought a collection of her essays while on holiday over the summer, shipped it back from Canada (I bought about ten times my baggage weight in books and thus gave Canada Post a lot of very lucrative business), and then promptly forgot about it. I was, of course, aware of The Female Eunuch, as it’s cited — not always kindly — in just about every pop feminist book there is. In fact, annoyingly, no one seems able to say the dreaded f word without automatically getting Germaine on speed-dial. I think I’ve yet to see a TV panel debate or review of a new feminist book where she is not invoked, or at least mentioned. I’ve heard, seen and read a lot of the very silly things she’s said in the past (accusing JRR Tolkien of being a fascist sympathiser was, oddly enough, my least favourite piece of Germaine-snark, rather than any women’s issues comment), and I’ve heard, seen and read a lot of very uncharitable things said about her by other people — often people in the women’s movement who know what they’re on about. Needless to say, I did not have desperately high hopes for this book. I was expecting a hike in my blood pressure levels, at the very least.
So actually, I was pleasantly surprised. The Whole Woman is shockingly pleasant to read — well written, well structured, far far less academic and stuffy than say, Susan Faludi’s Backlash which, essential reading or not, sent me to sleep and got put back on the shelf after two chapters. And Germaine says a lot of very sensible stuff about a lot of things. Many times — at first in a kind of horrified way, then less so — I found myself nodding at her ‘this is the grim reality of what it’s like, sometimes, being a woman’ -type statements. The book is extremely well researched. For me, the most enlightening, shocking and educational sections were those on the state of women’s health, and the treatment of women by pharmaceutical companies and health providers; the sections that provided statistics and case-studies on “real” rape conviction rates, domestic violence, the ratio of caesarean sections to natural births, etc. Germaine isn’t messing around here. She knows her stuff and it shows. Since The Female Eunuch, which I hear is so polemical it practically spits on you as you read, she’s obviously learned well the old adage that the plural of anecdote is not data. This is a lesson a lot of pop feminist writers would do well to cotton on to.
However, Germaine does not always cite well. Although most things are meticulously backed up with facts and figures, there are a few points where she’s happy to let stereotype reign. Her mentions of the sexual activities and proclivities of gay men, which are only touched on, are horribly stereotyped (yep, you guessed it: all gay guys are horribly promiscuous and prefer public bathroom stalls to any other venue when it comes to romantic activity. SIGH.). When read alongside her well-articulated, skilfully-justified thoughts on heterosexual female sexuality (and, to some degree, lesbianism, although she spends less time on this), her reliance on tired stereotypes is really gobsmacking. A few times I found myself writing “cite?!” in the margins… on one or two occasions, my marginalia was less polite.
And there are other, major problems with this book. I disagree with big chunks of it, although weirdly, not whole chapters. The funny thing about Germaine is, she’ll start a train of thought and for about three quarters of the way, you’re totally with her: you’re nodding, you’re excited to see where this theory is going. And then all of a sudden she takes things into territory so alien that you’re running for cover. How did you ever agree with this woman?! you find yourself wondering by the time the paragraph is finished. It’s a bewildering experience. Just a few examples: she makes some very interesting points about FTM transsexuals and their treatment by cisgendered men, but she then goes on to be pretty damn hateful about MTF transsexuals, or ‘men in sheep’s clothing’, as she seems to see them, and their rapist-like desire to penetrate the few women-only spaces we have (yes really. What the hell, Germaine?!). Or her very sensible chat about women controlling their own reproductive systems from cradle to grave without any kind of help or suggestion from men: oh, except all women who use chemical contraception or have legal abortions or indeed campaign for legal abortions are all misguided schmucks (I’ve read the contraception bit several times and still fail to see how she can legitimately join the dots on that one). There are parts of the chapters on these issues where Germaine is just off in cloud cuckoo land, having a rant about something that no progressive in their right mind would be swayed by… but then, elsewhere in the same chapter, she’ll be saying something I’d never have thought of, something that actually opened my eyes to a brand new idea about the women’s movement (and let me tell you, with so many pop feminism books recycling and repackaging the same old soundbites, that is a big, big deal).
I think mainly, there are just times when Germaine forgets to check her privilege. She seems to think that the only privilege that exists (among white people at least), is male. Therefore, she fails to take into account that some women are just not capable of doing as she does and thinking as she thinks, simply as a result of their background or biology. She has never had to really think twice about her own gender identity, so she feels totally cool telling those whose gender identity renders them an outcast from the gender binary how they ought to behave. This is not OK, but Germaine seems to forget sometimes that being cisgender is also a privilege, even if you’re female; that being white is also a privilege, even if you’re female; so is being able, English-speaking, middle class, college educated, etc. I’m actually a big fan of this book, and a far bigger fan of Germaine than I was before. I even like some of her (less horrendous) runaway, borderline-offensive rants — it shows that just like the rest of us, she is capable of speaking, and writing, without thinking. This isn’t the goody-goody academic feminism I’ve read elsewhere. This is one woman having a good, long, reasonably well-informed, occasionally-privileged kvetch. I can relate to that.
What are you reading this week?