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Germaine Greer and the performance of womanhood

Germaine Greer at the 2006 Humber Mouth Literature Festival by Colin Hurst,_Germaine_-_Humber_Mouth_-_2006_(219901503).jpgAh, Germaine Greer. When we last visited what she had become a couple of years ago, it was on the occasion of some ill-judged remarks about rape. That in mind, what are we to make of attempts to no platform her from giving a talk at Cardiff University because of her transphobic view of trans people, and transwomen in particular? Is it merely another sorry symptom of the censorious spectre stalking the student body up and down the country? Yes, but it’s always more complex than that. Part of the problem is Greer is now hopelessly out of step with where contemporary feminism is at.

What is sad about Greer’s trajectory is her morphing into an objectionable human being. It’s frustrating as well. Her work has charted the positioning of, for want of a better phrase, ‘hegemonic femininity’ for almost 50 years. Her analysis has proved cutting, witty, and hugely influential. From the passive, reserved womanhood of 50s/60s to the girl-powered independent woman, as femininity has changed she uncovered the oppressions, unfreedoms, hypocrisies, and damages that have remained the constant lot for women generally. This isn’t to say she denies things haven’t changed and for the better, but all the same women continue to face uphill battles in all walks of life. Greer shows a sensitivity to the nuance of how women are positioned and policed and argues that shifting gender relations requires relentless struggle, of feminism permanently revolting against received practice and power. Apart from Aboriginal issues in her native Australia, that is pretty much the limit of her analytical acuity. It’s as if her feminist work is boxed away in her mind. When that box is open she understands the full complexity of the gendered domination of women. When closed, she articulates all the sensitivity of a brick. And this is typically the case when she’s not looking at issues in which gender does not predominate. For example, commenting on the closure of SSI in Redcar and the government’s indifference to the collapsing steel industry on 22nd October’s edition of Question Time, she noted “we” had benefited from globalisation, so we “shouldn’t moan” when we get caught by an ill wind. Exactly the sort of thing you’d expect a Tory MP to say in a rare honest moment.

And then there are those comments about transwomen. Her recent “clarifications” are a mite less stridently worded than previous comments, but the thrust is the same. Transwomen are “parodies” that aren’t even genuine about transitioning: “No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight.” Transwomen cannot ever be women because they’ve never lived with “a big, hairy, smelly vagina” either. And lastly, transphobia doesn’t really exist. Ah, for want of a mirror. If she was so moved, it only takes an internet connection and 30 seconds to find evidence of appalling crimes inflicted against transwomen, how they too find themselves injured and murdered by, overwhelmingly, men. I suspect, however, Greer knows all this. She just doesn’t care. Women are xx and men are forever xy.

This is the root of some of the animus Greer has inspired. It’s not just the crass terms in which she vents her transphobia, but rather the philosophical assumptions behind it. During the 80s and 90s, feminism in the academy was very interested in subject and agency. What is ‘woman’? What should woman do to overcome her oppression? For the activists of feminism’s second wave in the 60s and 70s, the question was unproblematic.There was no question. The revolutionary subject was women-in-general. The enemy wasnot men-in-general, but patriarchy, that set of diffuse but pernicious social relations that cast the genders in an asymmetrical relationship. It was the feminism of black women that started upsetting this picture. While gender was a key axis of oppression and power, black women’s experience of being-female was also conditioned by their race. Mainstream feminism won important victories, but it did not speak to the complex oppression endured by women feeling the sharp end of racism too. The second wave with its valorisation of universal sisterhood unconsciously spoke to women who were mostly white, and mostly middle class. Soon similar criticisms followed in black feminism’s wake, drawing attention to class, sexuality, disability, nationality. Some tried articulating essentialist redoubts that attempted to hold onto woman as a collective subject, but it proved untenable, philosophically speaking.

Feminism tried thinking through the impasse. On the one hand, there was postfeminism and its claims that women’s struggles were largely obsolete. All that was needed was a mopping up operation of episodic alliances around occasional hot button issues. The bulk of postmodern feminism tried reconciling itself to many different feminisms for many different (female) subject positions through a radicalised pragmatism, of seeking out momentary alliances between groups of women around common objectives – an orientation not a million miles away from those for whom feminism was obsolete. Meanwhile, interesting things were happening in the academy. Judith Butler’s work revolutionised the understanding of gender by emphasising the performative – not just the individual acts of men and women, but the repetition of meanings by institutions and juridico-medical discourses over time to the point where these categories appear natural. This was also true of the gender and sex distinction. This is routine to the point of banality – sex is the anatomical difference between female and male bodies, gender the cultural constructions cohering about this basic difference. This binarism, however, is entirely cultural or, as she puts it, discursive. Biologically, while most infant bodies present as ifthey fall into one of two sexes, there is actually a continuum. As far as Butler was concerned, sexing the body was a discursive, not a pre-discursive (or, if you prefer, a social as opposed to pre-social) accomplishment. Biological sex is retrospective, not a natural given. Politically, it meant any attempt to hang essential female qualities on the female body reproduces the binarism at the root of patriarchal power relations. In other words, biological essentialism (“smelly vaginas”) of the Greer sort naturalises gender and sex, and despite itself provides patriarchy ideological cover.

The problem with this position, however, is it can neglect the materiality of women’s bodies. As gender is performed by institutions and discourses, and through the presentation of the self in the everyday, the classifying of bodies has material consequences. Or, rather, because bodies are gendered from the moment a child’s sex is known in utero, it’s born into the world with the full weight of of that legacy, that history. Bodies are disciplined, inscribed, conditioned. Each individual is thrust into a perilous social world of gendered negotiation. Accepting prescribed performances is a case of constant project management that for many, both women and men, can be fraught and anxious. And for those who deviate, either because their body types are a distance from the norm, or because they reject their received gender script (trans people, non-binary, genderqueers), they are – depending on the culture – at the mercy of social sanction. Women therefore are positioned, performed, and policed not because nature ordains it, but because deeply embedded social practices code certain bodies as female, and that coding comes with baggage.

Doesn’t this just reproduce a specificity of women’s experience common to all women? Isn’t this just a roundabout way of bringing essentialism back in and therefore providing grounds for rejecting transwomen as women? Not necessarily. What’s also missing from Butler’s performative account and its supplementing by the materialisation of this on physical bodies is a notion of interest. Or, rather, who benefits? Society is neither racket nor machine, a front for conspiratorial elites or automaton that blindly and autonomously reproduces sex/gender and gendered inequality. It’s a fusion of both. What, historically has benefited from the subordination of women? Men-in-general have, but so has capital accumulation. So it has also benefited from the reconfiguration of femininity since the 1960s, empowering women as consumers and active participants in labour markets. Lesbian, gay, and bi people are enjoying the freedom growing acceptance is bringing, and so is capital. Lastly, as the movement for trans freedom gathers speed, so too will new opportunities open for capital. To abstract the changing performativity and materialisation of gendered practices from the prevailing socio-economic system is a glaring oversight. However, that does not mean the struggle for equality or, if you prefer, liberation along these lines is hopeless because they do not directly confront capital. Through difference, identity can be established. As the oppression of older modes of performativity are washed away, as the oppressed become more variegated, so the oppressor is homogenised and the possibility of a united project of liberation becomes greater.

This is where the new third/fourth wave of feminism is currently at. It’s getting on with the business of causing trouble while marrying the activism of the second wave to the sophisticated anti-essentialism of 1990s theorising. Hence why, in general, it is open and, for the most part, absolutely welcoming of transwomen. It recognises that the diversity of women, whether cis or trans, is a strength. And ultimately why it’s so impatient with the likes of Germaine Greer. If a commitment to inclusivity is the watchword of contemporary feminism, small wonder it has no time for those who actively work against it – even if that involves women who played a key role in getting the feminist movement off the ground in the first place.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: Germaine Greer at the 2006 Humber Mouth Literature Festival by Colin Hurst 


  1. gerry says:

    Interesting article, though I shudder at the mention of the dreaded “intersectionality” debate, which – though you don’t spell it out – has been used to silence dissenting voices in the last few years, including that of Greer. And you need to know that most people, including me, do not think of gender as “performed” . If you, and those attacking Greer, say that scientific evidence ( genes, chromosomes, internal and external sexual organs) can be ignored and that if a man says that he is in fact a woman, that’s all the proof you need, then this is truly the world turned upside down….until biological facts are disproved, then Greer is right to opine that men who have had “sex change surgery” may be transexual, but they are not and never will be women/female.

  2. David Ellis says:

    If gender is purely a performance which the male or female child slips into seemingly naturally but really under the oppressive weight of social conventions based ultimately in exploitation then the objection of feminists like Greer to transgender women is that they play up to the very stereotypes or archetypes that they see themselves as battling against and in so doing massively reinforcing them. She literally sees these women as men playing at men’s idea of what it means to be a woman. Perhaps instead of denying that transgendered women are actually women she should simply argue with them about their notions of what constitues womanhood. Anyway it’s a debate that needs having. It’s not like Greer is advocating violence against transgender women or even that they should not be allowed gender reassignment surgery and therapy. But apart from that as the article says in other matters she does seem to be a bit of an old tory.

  3. Mervyn Hyde says:

    My feelings about Germaine Greer is that she is comfortable in the arms of the establishment, which sits uncomfortably with her views on feminism.

  4. David Pavett says:

    I read this article several times to try to see what it was about it that made me feel that it did not advance discussion one bit.

    First there is the level of invective. We are told that Greer is “hopelessly out of step” with where current feminism “is at” (as if that had some kind of ready meaning). To this is added that she has “morphed” into an “objectionalble human being”. Greer, it is allowed, can speak with insight into the situation of women and maybe also Australian aborigines but that is the “limit of her analytical acuity”. Beyon that she has “the sensitivity of a brick” and “vents her tranphobia” in “crass terms”.

    Second, there is the avalanche of jargon which presumably has appeal to an ‘in crowd’ but says little, if anything, to those not party to the secret. Greer has “charted the positioning” of “hegemonic femininity”. We are informed that “Second wave feminism” with its “valorisation of universal sisterhood” focuses on middle-class white women. This led to some to try “articulating essentialist redoubts that attempted to hold on to woman as a collective subjet”. And that, we learn, was “philosophically untenable”.

    At this point I am screaming in my head “speak English, there is no need for all this verbiage”. But unfortunately there is much more of the like thoughout the piece.

    And just what is it that is “philosophically untenable”. I could find no hint of this. Instead, all I could see was a basic philosophical error of questioning the objectivity of the distinction between male and female on the basis that there are people who are intermediate between those categories. The existence of intermediate case does not invalidate the distinction. The fact that we think of them as intermediate actually confirms the distinction. The fact that there are intermediate social layers between the ruling class and the working class does not invalidate the objectivity of the distinction of ruling class and working class.

    Similarly the undoubted social construction of ideas of what it is to be male or female does not mean that the construction is not placed on something real. Gender is a biological fact. It exists throughout the animal world and we are also animals. That we build social constructions on that, many of which are oppressive, does not make gender itself into a pure social creation. The fact that something is socially created does not mean that it is purely arbitrary and purely subjective.

    It is difficult to discuss subjects like this into which some people have invested a great deal of time and effort in creating often dubious analyses and distinctions. I think that in such cases it becomes especially important that we try to speak in a jargon-free way.

  5. David Ellis says:

    There is a great song on one of The Unthanks records called The Testiomony of Patience Kershaw which is based on evidence given to a House of Commons Commission in the mid 19th Century about her life in the coal mines as a young woman pushing coal wagons back and forth to the coal face. The testiomny appears in Marx’s Capital somewhere I believe. She describes her balding head where she has to use it to help her push the wagons the enormous masculine muscles she has developed on her arms and legs and how she has aged terribly and can’t bare to look at herself in the mirror and how she is surrounded by naked sweating men who beat her when she is slow because they are on piece work. All she wants to be is feminine, the bourgeois notion of feminine prevelant at the time no doubt because there is no other, but capitalism is making her perform not even like a man, not a gender, but as an animal.

    1. gerry says:

      Yes, just listened to it on youtube and it is superb – I had heard of the unthanks sisters but never really explored their songs. Great stuff.

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