I always suspected Morrissey was a terrible human being. It’s not as though he made much effort to hide it. It’s there on The Smiths’ first album – the ghoulishness of “Suffer Little Children”, the misogyny of “Pretty Girls Make Graves” (“yes,” I’d tell myself, “but he doesn’t women like mean me”).
Now that he’s come out as a fully-fledged controversialist – since “Bengali In Platforms” and “National Front Disco” were deemed insufficiently damning evidence – it’s time for former fans to face up to all the crap they excused. As someone who once identified “I Know It’s Over” as a personal anthem (for what, I don’t know), it’s shaming. Moments of sensitivity, even genius, can’t provide a cover for hate. “Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly?” I’ll try not to, if it’s all the same.
Today we find that feminism has its very own Morrissey: Germaine Greer. Back in the day, we all tell ourselves, she was great. She expressed the things we couldn’t. If only she’d shut up now!
Why is Greer ruining her legacy with statements such as “most rapes are just lazy, just careless, insensitive”? Why is she condemning the #metoo movement when she could be standing shoulder to shoulder with those calling for accountability after sexual assault?
Why, in other words, has she changed so much? We loved her! She was one of us! Except, as with Union Jack-draped Morrissey, the signs were always there.
As many feminists of her generation have testified, Greer has always played the enfant terrible. Already, in 1974’s Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin describes an article Greer wrote for Suck, in which the latter described women as rescuing others through sex.
“Greer’s alliance with the sexual revolution,” writes Dworkin, “Is, sadly but implicitly, an alliance with male chauvinism because it does not speak to the basic condition of women, which remains the same if we fuck one man a week or twenty.”
Growing up in the 1980s, I absorbed the idea that Greer’s feminism was superior to Dworkin’s. I hadn’t read anything by either, but I knew that one was sexy, the other was not. Greer was a far more marketable feminist back then, at least to those who didn’t bother to read any feminism whatsoever. It’s one thing to play the enfant terrible when you’re young(ish). The older you get, the more the child recedes and you’re left fully exposed.
I finally picked up 1999’s The Whole Woman four years ago. I read it fully aware of the amount of abuse Greer receives today, and of how much of it is fuelled by that supercharged mix of misogyny and ageism reserved for any woman who ceases to menstruate while continuing to have opinions.
I was determined to find the book good. I found it both brilliant and awful. Flashes of perfect, pure anger, the painstaking dismantling of that brutal, insane hierarchy we consider “normal”, mixed with passages which could only have been written to offend and alienate. It felt almost pathological. A feminism that invites you in, offers you womb-like security, then screams at you to fuck off.
Many people decry The Whole Woman’s chapter on trans politics – which namedrops Norman Bates from Psycho all the better to cause hurt and help precisely no one – but the section on female genital mutilation and self-harm is equally appalling (“the woman who cuts her body asserts undeniably and emphatically that there is a self that has power over that body”). And yet what Greer writes on the fallacy of equality that self-same book is just wonderful (“if we accept that men are not free, and that masculinity is as partial an account of maleness as femininity is of femaleness, then equality must be seen to be a poor substitute for liberation“).
Of course, this manner of jumping between the good and the bad is not exclusive to Greer’s feminism. Woman Hating sees Dworkin drift from razor-sharp analyses of fairy tales, pornography and foot binding to chapters in which she suggest that fairies were real “little people” and that incest and bestiality can be imagined alternatives to sexual hierarchies. I suspect Dworkin is trying to push boundaries rather than shock; with Greer I am always less certain.
What, then, should one do about the likes of Greer today? Her Hay Festival comments on rape have naturally provoked a response from feminists and, just as naturally, will have delighted popcorn-munching anti-feminists who like nothing better to think that the sisterhood is tearing itself apart.
The inclination to insist “no, everything’s fine, mad old Auntie Germaine’s just been on the gin again and anyhow, she’s never been a real feminist” is incredibly tempting. Then again, if feminists are not being accused of inconsistency, we’re being accused of groupthink and a mob mentality (thanks, Ian McEwan!).
Since we’re damned either way, whether or not we present a united front is irrelevant. The only meaningful question is, was this particular instance one in which Greer was offering us misunderstood brilliance, or one in which she was purposefully pulling rank?
To be honest, I’m not sure. Listening to her recent Channel 4 interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy, in which she talks extensively about her rape, #metoo and the imposition of femininity, I feel genuine sympathy, which I can imagine Greer would hate. From a logical standpoint, it baffles me that she can understand that men have used “muscle” to claim their rights, yet go on to condemn the spokeswomen of #metoo as “dishonourable” for refusing to play by rules they didn’t set up. This is not feminism one simply can drink in; the filtering process is hard work.
Greer’s condemnation of the sheer craziness of equality as an aspiration makes her sound crazy to some. On this, though, I think she is right. With rape, on the other hand, the drive the reframe the narrative feels terribly muddle-headed. Is it a reframing of personal experience? A desperate attempt to shake up a system that isn’t working? A misjudged effort to transform the way women see themselves? It is impossible to believe that someone as sharp as Greer does not understand the impact of her own words.
Remembering my love for The Smiths, I can see now that what moved me was not just compassion for the lonely (i.e. me), but bitterness and misanthropy at the non-lonely (i.e. everyone else). With Greer, I’m reminded that for many of us, myself included, feminism isn’t just about love for other women. It can be about our own anger at what was done to use, our own sense of exceptionality within a system that doesn’t recognise it, even our own fury at the women who we see as embracing a victimhood we’d rather forget.
It’s a difficult thing, realising that our heroes might have been fighting not for us, but for themselves all along. Is that what we’re doing, too? How can we be sure? I don’t think we can be. We can only try, and pause, and be willing to change course when needed. Our personal legacies do not matter; what matters is not how those who come after us see us, but what their lives can be.