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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A Look Back in Anger
Germaine Greer is angry. She is mainly angry that women's liberation turned into sexual equality, with "women running around in little red suits," imitating men, rather than trying to figure out how to liberate themselves entirely from the gender role trap.
To this end, Greer argues in The Whole Woman against all that has been developed during the past 30 years (by the pharmaceutical, judicial, and medical establishments) to "equalize" the sexes. Birth control is not a fabulous thing, she says, because it allows women to be as promiscuous as men. It is a dehumanizing, nasty thing that alienates women from their own bodies, that has them shoving man-made devices (pills, diaphragms, etc.) into their bodies, and that creates a legion of women who, not having had babies in their 20s and 30s when nature meant them to, must rely once again on artificial devices to get them pregnant when nature did not mean them to be.
Greer has equally vicious and surprising things to say about abortion, transsexuals, and eating disorders, and if it all sounds strangely essentialist, that's because it is (readers of The Female Eunuch, Greer's first landmark feminist work, will not be surprised by this). Greer believes that the current crises in women's lives — anorexia, excessive plastic surgery, lack of day care — have been caused by the erroneous assumption that making institutional sexism illegal would somehow set women free. In fact, Greer says, "equality legislation could not give me the right to have broad hips."
Greer seems tobearguing for two mutually exclusive things: that we pay attention to our bodies and that we don't pay attention to gender roles. A crucial in-between step seems to be missing: How exactly do we do away with gender roles that were developed over millennia precisely because of our bodies? (Greer would probably say that our gender roles have been forced upon us by the ruling patriarchy, rather than by our ovaries.) But disagreeing with Greer while reading The Whole Woman is a pleasure, because the reader knows she is up against an extraordinarily agile mind as well as a sharp wit: "Why is it that most women will not go out of the house without bags loaded with objects of no immediate use? Is the tote bag an exterior uterus," Greer asks slyly, "the outward sign of the unmentionable burden?" Unlike many 'feminism lite' books published these days, The Whole Woman has depth and focus, and is likely to become a touchstone for feminist studies.
Like the cantankerous woman she is (and many of us wish we could be, if we could only not worry about who would mind our unshaven legs), Greer is not at all afraid to speak her mind. And while it is fun to disagree with her, it's also satisfying to come across passages we agree with but were unable to articulate ourselves. This happened to me when I read her "Girlpower" chapter. There was something about the riotgrrl movement that had always left me unconvinced — girls in baby-doll T-shirts, with exposed navels and teeny barrettes, claiming their bodies as their own and then proceeding to flash their tits at anyone who was interested.
Greer, too, is unconvinced by such grrls as Courtney Love and Drew Barrymore. While she agrees with the idea that "to deny a woman's sexuality is...to oppress her," she is mostly troubled by the manifestation of this ethos in commercial magazines (such as Bliss, Minx, and Sugar in England, Teen and Jane in the U.S.), whose message seems to be not so different from that of adult women's magazines like Cosmo: Sex is good; do whatever you can to get more of it. These magazines are filled with articles on makeup, clothing, and how to attract boys. Greer says, "From [girls' magazines] the emerging girl learns that the only life worth living is a life totally out of control, disrupted by debt, disordered eating, drunkenness, drugs and casual sex...boys are represented as infinitely desirable and at the same time worthless, treacherous and crap in bed. The preceptors of girldom would say that they are empowering heterosexual girls to express their own sexuality and telling them the truth about male perfidy.... In fact they are telling them that any sexual interaction is better than none; that a cool girl gives hand jobs and head, fakes orgasm and has less flesh on her limbs than a sparrow."
Yes, Germaine Greer is angry, and through sheer force of will and intellect, she can make us angry, too.
Gail Jaitin is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.
— Gail Jaitlin