Germaine Greer at the Festival of Politics

This article is from 2009.

Germaine Greer

Combative. Prickly. Insensitive. Just some of the kinder things her critics have said of Germaine Greer. Camilla Pia tells of her own lifelong obsession as The Female Eunuch author goes to Holyrood

If anyone can get punters fired up about politics it’s Germaine Greer. Relations between MPs and the electorate are at an all-time low; kids can’t be bothered to get off the computer to vote; and our PM’s position is looking decidedly precarious. So it’s up to events like the Festival of Politics to inspire debate about subjects that many wrongly perceive as dry and pointless. This year it’s the tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament and the FoP’s fifth birthday, so the organisers have scheduled an extra special programme of events by way of celebration.

One of the undoubted highlights is a forthcoming appearance from Professor Germaine Greer, who drops in to the Parliament’s Debating Chamber to take part in a discussion chaired by Lesley Riddoch on sustainable communities. Other panellists include director of the Design Museum Deyan Sudjic and Peter Clegg of FCB Architects. Greer’s views on sustainability in the built environment are typically strong, and she has already spoken out about a variety of related issues in the media, whipping up certain cynics into a frenzy; something which seems to come naturally to her.

And it is precisely for that reason that Riddoch is looking forward to her appearance. ‘Some believe Germaine has morphed into a Grumpy Old Woman, reduced from analysing the battle of the sexes to criticising the behaviour of its weaker combatants. And yet in a Radio Scotland interview I did with her last year, she was on top form,’ Riddoch says before going on to list some classic quotable Greer. ‘On the new ladette culture, she opined: ‘girls want an adventure. They want something to happen and in our risk-averse, anaesthetised culture the only exciting thing left to do is to go out and get blind, motherless drunk.’ On work: ‘girls do well at school because someone tells them what to do. They win prizes and go to university. And they think the world will be like that. In fact they’re being trained to become cannon fodder for the executive world, where they’ll work twice as hard as men – just as they did at school – just to reach middle management, while the gambler men whisk past them to the boardroom”. What’s not to like? I’m looking forward to this event enormously. I just hope her male opponents are too.’

From a young age I’ve been a bit obsessed with Germaine Greer. After reading The Female Eunuch (thanks mum) I subsequently devoured reams of articles and interviews both with and by her. And whether I agreed with it all was irrelevant to me. In a sea of repugnant lad mags and Page Three girls, weeklies obsessed with diets and vacuous female pop stars, she was and still is a beacon of hope; a fiercely intelligent woman speaking her mind in the public eye. And what’s more, she was doing it in a charismatic, incredibly funny and fearless manner.

So what is it about Greer that makes her so compelling? Well, there aren’t many academics who will try their hand at nude photoshoots, reality TV, columns of biting social commentary, bigging up pretty boys and openly admitting to having been a ‘supergroupie’, as well as finding time to complete a PhD, gain a professorship, pen papers on a diverse range of subjects and write a small library of books.

And all of this life experience has made her eminently quotable. Just look up any collection of legendary phrase-makers and you’ll come across a plethora of excellent Greerisms. From light, frivolous and contrary (‘there are two shows on TV that I cannot watch and for the same reason. They are Celebrity Big Brother and Chimp Week’) to the impassioned and controversial (‘yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?’), Greer has a way with words and a delivery that both inspires and provokes at the same time; in other words a killer combination for someone with so much to say.

In addition to this, she has been no stranger to kicking up a stink throughout her career; in fact this seems to be a pretty constant theme. As Lesley Riddoch puts it: ‘Germaine Greer has perfected the art of being able to shock.’ In the 1970s she re-invented herself as an art historian and, following a period of research, discovered a section of the feminist movement that wanted to change every place name in Australia to represent a wider cross-section of society and remove the focus from men. So Greer opted to lobby the City of Dandenong to have the name of her home suburb Mentone changed to ‘Tone’.

In 2004 she had another pop at her homeland describing Australians as ‘too relaxed to give a damn’ and the country as being ‘defined by suburban mediocrity’, with the then Prime Minister John Howard responding by calling her comments ‘pathetic’. ‘She shocked broadsheet readers by savaging columnist Suzanne Moore for her sexually provocative choice of shoes,’ recalls Riddoch. ‘Though she herself had appeared nude in the 1970s. She also shocked fellow Australians by saying animals had taken their revenge after the death of naturalist Steve Irwin.’

It is precisely these types of fiery comments and impassioned beliefs that make Greer such an important figure of modern times. She has frequently spoken in the media about her anarchist and Marxist tendencies, with opposition to hierarchy and capitalism being at the centre of her politics. Her writing is confrontational, plucky and exhilarating and, perhaps most importantly, she doesn’t hide it all away in robes and ivory towers. Greer takes her views to very public platforms in an attempt to reach the masses, having appeared frequently on Have I Got News for You and Newsnight Review and popped up in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ Extras. But most notoriously, she cropped up on her hated Celebrity Big Brother, exiting the show after just five days in disgust at what she saw as the psychological cruelty and bullying of the show’s producers. She wasn’t much keen on the attention-seeking behaviour of her fellow housemates either.

Greer is now retired but you wouldn’t know it. She still frequently writes essays and newspaper columns on a vast range of topics, takes part in public debates and spews out vitriol at anyone and anywhere she sees fit. It seems that the ageing process suits her, and Riddoch agrees. ‘After calling the late Princess Diana a “devious moron” at the Book Festival last year, many observers suggested she had lost the plot. Not a bit of it.’ Indeed, at 70, Greer’s views and arguments seem more robust than ever, and this next period in her life will perhaps make for some of her most significant contributions to date. While it is often argued that when women reach a certain age they become invisible, there’s no chance of that with Germaine Greer.

The Future Scotland Debates: Sustainable Places, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 21 Aug, 11.30am, £6 (£3.50).

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