Germaine Greer has always refused to be “nice” – if only there were more of her

The difference with Greer is that she doesn’t get into trouble occasionally, but consistently and with the attitude of a tank rolling directly into a crowd of infantry. 

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Professor Greer isn’t doing print interviews,” an assistant tells me when I call to ask about the latest Germaine Greer furore – this time, telling the Hay Festival that “most rape is just lazy, just careless, insensitive,” and arguing for reduced sentences for most rapists (she also argued for a reduced burden of evidence, and said that rapists should be tattooed with the letter “R”). Maybe the interview-aversion is because when things Professor Greer says end up in print, they have a habit of running away from her: becoming outrageous headlines, feeding Twitterstorms and inspiring op-ed columns.

Not that this has put a crimp on her willingness to say such things. Before the comments at Hay, she said that women – not men – are the main audience for scenes of rape and torture perpetrated on women in crime dramas and fiction. And before that, it was calling #MeToo “whinging”. Then there was “just because you lop off your penis, it doesn’t make you a woman”; walking out of the Big Brother house and calling it a “fascist prison”; being in the Big Brother house in the first place; saying attempts to outlaw FGM were “an attack on cultural identity”; and so on, a catalogue of shocks stretching over the decades.

The Tracey Ullman impersonation of Greer has her, unkindly, as a loudmouth old bag at a bus stop who won’t shut up about her vagina – a Sheela-na-gig shouting, “It’s because I’m an old woman, isn’t it!” as the extras playing disinterested members of the public shuffle away, embarrassed. The punchline of the sketch is that people aren’t repulsed because she’s old, but because she’s obviously dreadful. (Although, cake-and-eat-it style, her age is part of the joke too: there’s no archetype of the young, attractive woman ranting at bus stops.)

But then, at 79, Germaine Greer is old. Unapologetically old, and coolly aware of where this leaves her in the economy of female value. (Unlike some other second-wave stagers, she’s held a hard line against cosmetic surgery – the occasion of more Greerisms, including saying of Fay Weldon: “I know she has had a facelift and I know she’s on HRT, but would that have such a devastating effect on the cerebellum?”)

Is there any other feminist who has the same currency Greer does? Who else you could imagine being impersonated in a peak-time BBC One comedy show? Whose house could show up on Through the Keyhole, alongside some bloke from TOWIE and Lou “Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno? Maybe Andrea Dworkin, who retains a certain bogeywoman stature – but the dead cannot keep up with the living. Gloria Steinem is certainly famous, but she’s an activist rather than a provocateur, with a knack for staying the right side of respectable. Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to expose workplace abuses; Greer showed her whole vagina in Suck magazine because… well, because she is Germaine Greer.

Not that Greer is the only feminist to draw criticism. In the feverish mother-eating world of feminism, any real or perceived slip will be punished with a fiery shower beyond parallel. When bell hooks criticised Beyoncé’s sexualised self-presentation, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie committed the apparently unendurable solecism of saying “trans women are trans women”, both were subjected to furious hazing – much of it from young women whose criticisms carried the barely veiled subtext that it was time for a new guard to take over.

The difference with Greer is that she doesn’t get into trouble occasionally or inadvertently, but consistently and with the attitude of a tank rolling directly into a crowd of infantry. Which is why responses of the “it’s-sad-when-your-fave-becomes- problematic” kind miss the point. Greer has always been a volley of problems, and she’s never seemed wildly troubled about being anyone’s fave. Her entire career has been an experiment in the refusal to be “nice”.

She is ferociously intelligent when you agree with her, infuriatingly wrong when you don’t. Shockingly open (anyone else would surely have kept that love letter to Martin Amis sealed in their lifetime) and disarmingly vulnerable (her comments about the treatment of elderly women and the deficiencies of social care get far less attention than they should).

She is invigoratingly vulgar (it’s remarkable that in the arguments about gender identity, Greer is one of the few people who isn’t too polite to say “penis”) – and she is never, ever nice. What she said at Hay was not nice. Her dismissal of rape victims’ trauma seems, if we are to be generous, like the survivor bias of someone who made it through the sexual revolution.

But was she entirely wrong? If she was saying that the system for investigating and trying rape isn’t working (victims are reduced to “bits of evidence”), then she’s right. If she was saying that women’s pleasure has been totally alienated from the idea of sex then she’s right: “Women love men, more than they [men] love women,” she said. “We are more aware of our men, more than they are aware of us. We are more easily pressured into pleasing them, or trying to please them.”

What it means for reforming the legal system is a different matter. But thank Christ she isn’t too decorous to point out this much: that consent is a desperately unsatisfactory concept, both legally and emotionally, when the party doing the consenting is subordinate to the party being consented to. That is something worth talking about, rather than hurriedly trying to bundle the feminist analysis of sex back into safe and established bounds. Who, though, is big enough to take on Professor Greer, instead of simply dismissing her? What if the trouble with Greer isn’t that she’s too much, but that there’s only one of her? 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family