There’s a wonderful 1971 cover of Life magazine which shows Germaine Greer laughing and flaunting those famous lanky legs. What a woman she was - and privately probably still is. Intelligent, liberated, sexy, funny. The kind of woman men and women want to be around.
Greer built her career on persona. She knew early on that the media was not necessarily her enemy, that the camera loved her and that making witty remarks on television was a far more effective way of getting feminist ideas across than chaining yourself to a fence. The woman responsible for one of the most readable books of feminism’s second wave changed the lives of many women through her media appearances. She also changed her own by becoming one of the world’s most famous feminists.
The lure of fame and the power of popular culture are forces you would expect Greer to understand. It’s something she’s not only lived, but analysed. And she’s one savvy woman. So how did she become the Michael Jackson of feminism?
Greer’s high-handed and confusing entry and exit from the British Celebrity Big Brother show on Wednesday is only the most recent example of her cultural identity crisis.
In the late ‘90s, she delivered a speech at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival which was both shockingly patronising to younger women and amazingly ignorant. She went on and on about the terrible things women do in bed because men and popular culture tell them to. Her claims were ridiculously large and her evidence was laughable.
Women, Greer told her audience, feel they “have a duty to say yes to whatever their partners may desire” regardless of how much a particular sexual act might disgust them. This kind of relationship, she argued, is bred by women’s magazines that encourage their readers to go to any length to accommodate male desires.
Greer’s claims about the advice women’s magazines offer to their readers are simply wrong. Lurid coverlines aside, the focus of many articles is on encouraging women to stand up for themselves, to explore their own sexuality and not to put up with violence or harassment from men. Just ask Mia Freedman, a bright young feminist, who edits Cosmopolitan.
Greer’s original criticisms of Big Brother - which she offered some years before her decision to go on the show - are another example of her tendency to jump to conclusions about pop culture. She famously noted that the kind of people who like watching the show are the same kind of people who would enjoy watching torture - and she wasn’t joking.
Given that teenage girls make up a substantial slice of Big Brother viewers, it’s a pretty damning assessment of young women. And it’s also absolutely wrong, as demonstrated by extensive research I conducted with Professor Elspeth Probyn into young women’s attitudes to the media.
In our three-year research project, Big Brother emerged as one of the most popular shows with girls aged 12 to 18. And why did they love it? Because they face a lot of the same dilemmas as the housemates. They are constantly under surveillance from parents, teachers and experts. They spend a lot of time trying to work out how to be an individual while fitting into a group. And they wonder a lot about how far you should go in telling other people what you think of them.
If you take the time to talk to young women about the media they consume, you realise they are not value-free or brainwashed. In fact, they are very aware that people see them that way and they resent the assumption.
It’s an enormous shame that someone of Greer’s stature is prepared to rely on stereotypical generalisations about young women and the culture they consume. If feminism has any relevance, it has to start with empathy for other women and a desire to listen to them, not talk at them.
The problem doesn’t start and stop with Greer, of course. A lamentably purse-lipped approach to the pleasures of popular culture and sexuality continues to dog some strands of women’s lib. At its heart is a very old, patriarchal view of female sexuality and culture. It’s a view of the world which splits power along very simple lines - there’s always an oppressor and a victim.
Greer didn’t think like that in her early work. And she didn’t behave like that either. She used the media as a stage on which to perform her own liberation. And in drawing attention to herself, she drew attention to ideas which changed the world.
It’s a shame she didn’t last longer in the Big Brother house. The world needs feminists of all persuasions on public display - whether as prime ministers or reality TV contestants. If younger women are to find feminism relevant, feminists need to show they are open to understanding the lives young women live and the culture they embrace.