THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

THE FEMALE BARRY HUMPHRIES

GERMAINE GREER, the whole woman, Doubleday, 1999, with a massive print run at 16.99 in hardback] is angry again. A woman with an Aga and a comfortable professorship, after all, can afford to be angry. This time she is angry about 'Barbie' and Baywatch.

Pamela Lee Anderson and her plastic sister, it appears, are ruining the lives of women the world over. Women have only to gaze on those improbable contours and, Greer assures us, they are overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to mutilate themselves accordingly. This, says Dr Greer, is proof of the iniquity of men. Men, in their fear and hatred of the awesome reproductive capacity of women have created these travesties of femininity for their own delectation, and are foisting them (through their control of the media and the toy industry) on the innocent women of all four continents.

Greer has come up with some horrifying statistics: American girls now own eight Babies apiece, British girls six. If this is true, things are certainly serious. Add to that the number of 'Polly Pocket ' miniatures (each a tiny universe where everything is the colour of poisoned sugar almonds); and worse still, the stables upon stables full of 'My Little Pony' (each equine disaster-area sporting an acid-green luminescent mane), and it is clear that an explosion of bad taste, of proportions previously unencountered, is overwhelming womankind. There is little wonder that later in life these same people sport the absurd creations of Galliano and Vivienne Westwood.

But it is nonsense to blame men for these aberrations. 'Blokes like you to wear really high heels - so keep stum about aching calf muscles and crippled toes', Greer sneeringly quotes from 'Sun Woman', February 1998 (thus assiduously fuelling accusations of a conspiracy as vicious and extensive as foot-binding).

But the truth is that the 'blokes' who like 'that sort of thing' (as we say over a bottle of imported lager in the 'Sports Bars' of South London) are in the minority. For every man with a taste for stilettos there are three who, watching women in unsuitable shoes attempting to navigate a moving escalator, wonder why they do it. The problem is not that men with sick sexual fantasies impose themselves on women, but rather that significant numbers of women appear not to have grasped that if you look like Claudia Schiffer you will probably end up with Peter Stringfellow.

Rather predictably all the anger in this book is directed at men, who are responsible, it appears for everything, including the failures and absurdities of feminism. Laddish magazines about nothing but personal freshness, Hom underwear and bonking demonstrate the shallowness and depravity of men - as, of course, do the female magazines of the same sort, about bonking, bright nail varnish and personal freshness.

Men are responsible for the tragedies which have resulted from silicone breast implants and cosmetic surgery; for the social horrors of mass abortion, oral contraceptives and in-vitro fertilisation. Men in short, are the Frankensteins who have made women what they are; and women, in consequence have, in Dr Greer's rather sixties phrase, 'no alternative but to turn and fight'.

This is both improbable and tragic. Improbable because there has seldom, if ever, been a culture which has idealised the 'real, smelly, bloody, noisy, hairy women' who are Dr Greer's heroines; improbable because ours is certainly not that culture; and improbable because Greer is certainly not one of them. 'Femininity' is not wholly or even primarily a male concept foisted upon women; and a refusal by women to accept moral responsibility for their own actions, choices and preferences is a prima facie abdication of common humanity. A 'victim culture' ultimately exalts only the imagined aggressor. It is, after all, women who bring up men.

It is tragic because of its origins in Dr Greer's own interesting and remarkably public psychopathology are all too obvious. Philip Larkin was famously 'f*cked-up' by both his 'mum and dad'. Mr Greer by all accounts managed the job single-handed.

But it was not merely the 'daddy' she never 'knew' who contributed to the gothick complexities of Greer's personality - there was also the alienation. Greer was one of a whole brilliant generation of young Australian cultural anarchists who hated the provincialism of their native land and longed for wider horizons and more exotic shores; which for Australians of that era (who had not yet discovered Lombok, Sulawesi and back-packing to Kathmandu) meant the boat to England.

They came, they saw and they became entertainers (which, after all, if you are by nature an exhibitionist, is a sensible thing to do). England caught its earliest glimpses of the young Germaine on 'Candid Camera'.

And Greer remains, before all else, an entertainer. Her prose style is that of the stand-up comedian, and her social criticism owes a good deal to Barry Humphries. Mr Greer and Mr Everidge are cousins. It is from the sanitised suburbia and tasteful tastelessness of the egregious Edna that the Doctor is in full flight. Somewhere between the Dame of Melbourne and Ben Elton come 'The Female Eunuch' and 'the whole woman'.

But there are two other sides to Greer which should be noted: the establishment figure and the creature of darkness.

Just as Barry Humphries is the first drag artist to be an authority on modern painting, so Dr Greer takes time off - from seventeenth century English literature, the wholemeal bread proving in the bottom oven of the Aga, and the long walks with the labradors (to whom she speaks in French) - to be feminism's oldest enfant terrible. It is a kind of drag act in its own right. There is something comic (and sinister) about this slightly crumpled spinster wowing an audience of post-teenagers, in the Methodist Central Hall, with dirty words that their mothers would only admit to using in circumstances of extreme stress.

It makes one wonder if, after all, there was any truth in the persistent stories, during her early years at the University of Warwick, that she turned up for tutorials with the extensive bruises of her nocturnal assignations clearly visible on her then still tender flesh.

Of course, we will never know. Greer is now essentially a mythopoeic figure. Only Camille Paglia can be allowed to be the Aaron to her Moses.

 

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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