By Jacob Whitehead
Bigmouth Strikes Again. Or so we thought when Morrissey piped up a few months ago, having evolved from barstool prophet to pub bore. Pointing to the St George’s Cross on the wall, surrounded by vanquished bottles of London Pride, spinning yarns to an echo chamber, one of the greatest lyricists of his generation has experienced quite the fall from grace. Morrissey has the right, of course, to throw his weight behind whatever cause takes his fancy. Yet when youthful progressivism depreciates to an impassioned defense of Anne Marie Waters, we must wonder: how soon is (it time to say) ciao?
As debilitating as it is when a cultural phenom disappoints us in an intellectual capacity, is it not more tragic when the same fate befalls a respected academic? Germaine Greer, writer of The Female Eunuch and leading second-wave feminist, shocked the twee gentility of the Hay Festival last month during the promotion of her new book On Rape. Should we be shocked? Would Emmeline Pankhurst or Simone de Beauvoir have claimed “women are fat-arsed creatures” and “just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress [it] doesn’t make you a fucking woman”? The Australian is perfectly capable of sounding as uncouth as The Sage of Salford, but her previous cognisance starkly damns her current work. Kinda like Morrissey’s recent album then.
Is it not tragic when a respected academic disappoints us?
The comments that attracted deserved castigation centred around her definition of rape. Or, as she calls it, “bad sex”. Yup. Having written in The Female Eunuch that she was “sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex”, she now proceeds to contravene each of the three in one fell swoop.
In her view, most rape is “lazy, just careless, insensitive”: “Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights he is raping her.” In cases of violent rape, she argued that it is the violence that should be punished, rather than the sexual element of the assault.
Most jarringly, Greer told the Hay audience that her own attitude towards rape cannot be considered flippant: she herself was violently raped as a student at university in Melbourne. But this assertion leads to the deeply troubling insinuation that her personal experience and response can be extrapolated to demean the gravity of every subsequent rape allegation.
In this sense, it’s not the attitude itself which is saddening, but rather the fact that it originates from a previously-lauded figure, whose comments denigrate the very movement they endeavoured to create.
Greer’s comments are even more disappointing through the lens of #MeToo
“Typical,” one might comment. “Another author courting controversy to sell a book.” Perhaps Greer is like Kanye West, aligning himself with Trump the week before ‘Ye vs. The People’ dropped; perhaps she believes that this is how to attract attention in the digital age.
Yet Greer’s view is even more depressing, owing to the timing of her comments and the explosion of #MeToo into the popular domain. Previously, Greer had addressed this topic with typical insight and tact. Speaking of Harvey Weinstein, she claimed: “If you spread your legs because he said ‘Be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.” Progressivism personified.
When women search for a respected voice on #MeToo, they may be inclined to read one of the feminist movement’s most famous historical intellectuals. Greer’s recent comments will stare back at them from the screen.
We need to get better at separating creation from creator
Perhaps this is partially the problem: that where society looks for guidance is usually a ‘who’ instead of a ‘what’; that more credence is given to who speaks than what is said. When Greer claims that rape is “bad sex”, her ideas are given air by the success of her previous work. But by the same reasoning, it would be foolish to let the rashness of the recent tarnish the acuity of the past.
As hard as it is to separate the speaker from the sentiment, Morrissey, Greer, and even Kanye West, all demonstrate the need for such an understanding. We must be cynical enough to be able to divide Galatea from Pygmalion, creation from creator. You might find it difficult to accept that the same person who argued that most rape is “bad sex” also suggested that the nuclear family can repress women sexually. But they did. And we can still accept one of these statements while dismissing the other.
Photograph: Helen Morgan via Flickr and Creative Commons.