Comment: Germaine Greer feeling the heat again – feminist icon getting left behind

By: Dom Borghino

After working her whole life dragging the feminist movement miles forward and into the late 20th century, Germaine Greer, it seems, is stuck there.

Something of a patron saint of contemporary feminism – but just how saintly are her views?

Germaine Greer, a household name since 1970, and commonly seen as the embodiment of the second-wave feminist movement, recently graced La Châtaigneraie with her profound and invaluable level of knowledge and experience. She’s become such a hot-topic speaker of late, that she was almost no-platformed by Cardiff University after its student body rose up in outrage over some comments that Greer made against the transgender community. She has become, all over again, notorious for her controversial views, refilling her familiar and comfortable past position as infamous activist. However, no-platforming someone on the basis that their views do not sit snugly beside your own is, in my opinion, not the way to go: we should be encouraging debate, rather than silencing opinions we don’t share. Thankfully, the former  is the direction in which the La Chât campus went, and the school was treated to an hour-long talk with feminist legend, Germaine Greer herself.

Middle-aged feminists everywhere revere the Greer – she’s become something close to a patron saint of contemporary feminism; she is such an iconic figure that there are people who will take her word on just about everything, using her opinions as grounds for their own. While I utterly respect Ms Greer for the immense progress she has made for the feminist movement, and while I acknowledge all that she has done for women everywhere – her influence being such that the world would quite possibly be a different place without it – lately she has come out saying some things that make me question just how saintly her views really are.

In the past, Greer was criticised spectacularly on the basis that her views were “too progressive”; she was controversial because people felt she was taking things too far. Nowadays, it seems, Greer’s views are being criticised for not being progressive enough.

In 2015, a year during which the world has made incredible strides on its way to accepting the transgender community, some things Greer has said in regard to this community are enough to highlight just how far it still has yet to come. In a recent interview with The Update, Greer touched on the subject on transgenderism, trivialising it to the point where she related gender reassignment surgery to people “starting off as Ken, and then [wanting] to become Barbie”. In the talk that she gave directly following this interview, she went and repeated herself and used the exact same crude joke, perhaps in a delightfully ironic representation of just how stagnant her views have become.


Cracking jokes at the expense of a community already persecuted as much as the transgender community, as well as being offensive, is just getting really old now – fewer and fewer people these days would dare to outwardly criticise the transgender community, regardless of their own personal views towards it. Not only this, but her opposition to men in particular undergoing all kinds of therapy, and sometimes even surgery, so that they can finally feel comfortable in a own body that actually lines up with their gender, completely contradicts her own views on some other related issues.

Does Greer believe herself to be so entitled that she feels she can just outright deny the existence of gender identity dysphoria, a clinically accepted psychological condition?

In both the interview and the succeeding talk, Greer diverted questions on transgenderism towards the topic of intersex people, an important but quite seperate issue, stating that this is what true transgenderism is. She spoke about how the European Council has recently outlawed the performance of surgery on newborns who have ambiguous genitalia; in the past, these intersex babies (known formerly as hermaphrodites) underwent gender reassignment surgery at a very young age so that they may fit the “male/female” norm. Thankfully this practice is no longer legal. I am in complete agreement with Greer on her view that it’s a good thing that now it is up to the child who makes the decision: once they reach the age of 14, they may decide which sex and gender, if any, they identify most closely with, and thus which sexual organs they would like removed, if they decide to have surgery at all.

Interestingly, however, Greer implies that it is wrong to just arbitrarily assign an intersex child either one sex or the other at birth before they have time to properly experience sex and gender, but that this process is completely fine to impose on transgender people: these are people who are also assigned a sex and gender at birth before they have time to properly experience sex and gender, and are ignored if they believe that this assignment may have been wrong. If an intersex person can claim they were assigned the wrong gender and sex at birth, why are transgender people ignored when they make similar claims? Does Greer believe herself to be so entitled that she feels she can just outright deny the existence of gender identity dysphoria, a clinically accepted psychological condition?

Greer was once seen as too progressive, now she is seen as not progressive enough.

Ms Greer claims to understand the ways in which society inflicts gender roles onto people from they day they are born, yet somehow still manages to misunderstand the very relevance of the issue of transgenderism. In the interview, Greer says that if a person has grown up and lead a life as a man, but believes they’ve been women all along, that this person cannot be a woman – to people like this, Greer says, “I don’t believe them – sorry, you can hold a knife to my throat, I don’t believe you”. In the talk she gave after the interview, she said something similar, that if a person lives as a man, “is a truck driver” (as though only men can be truck drivers), “has four children, and is an astrophysicist” (as though only men can be astrophysicists), that having surgery performed after all that does not make you a woman.

Perhaps Greer does not understand the sheer weight with which society’s gender roles can sit upon someone their entire life, this weight augmented by all kinds of stigmas surrounding transgenderism (stigmas propagated by the lovely Germaine Greer herself). Perhaps Greer cannot comprehend that all this weight can cause someone to feel that the only way they can fit into society and live a happy life is to suppress any confusion of their gender identity, and just buckle down and accept the gender roles, leading them to live a life as a truck driver, and have four kids, and be an astrophysicist (because according to people like Greer, that’s what men do), despite the fact that truly they identify with women more than they do with men. Assuming this mindset, would Germaine Greer say “you can hold a knife to my throat, I don’t believe you” to gay people who act ‘straight’ their whole lives in an effort to fit in with society’s idea of masculinity and to avoid stigmas surrounding being gay, and then turn around and say “actually, I was gay this whole time”? If the answer is no, she wouldn’t,  then along the line she’s seriously missing something crucial. Greer in the past has also said that transphobia does not exist, despite the fact that more than 20 transgender women have been killed in the past year in the US alone.

In the interview, when asked to explain why the eradication of sayings like “you throw like a girl” is still important, Greer said that she doesn’t think it is important to eradicate such sexist and offensively stereotypical expressions, and that “if you do throw like a girl, someone should tell you”. She clearly has no problem with the fact that sayings such as “you throw like a girl” have a negative connotation (to throw like a girl is to throw weakly or poorly), and that perpetuating the idea that girls, as a general rule, throw weakly is “perfectly obvious”, and that even women should make such remarks to other women. She then changed the direction of the question completely, and went on to pose the question of why all the games that women want to play were invented by men, and that the answer is probably because “we [women] just don’t know how to invent a game” – because remember everyone, she’s a liberation feminist, not an equality feminist.

In Conversation with Germaine Greer - March 13, 2008
Photo: Getty Images

A similarly cringe-worthy remark Greer made during the talk she gave was on her opinion towards teenage pregnancies. She said that she believes we should value all births, and that we need all the babies we can get now that the population growth rate has slowed and will start to decline in years to come; she went on implied that for this reason, teenage pregnancies should come come to term: yikes.

Germaine Greer has done some truly astonishing and crucial work for the feminist movement and for the status of women everywhere, and the world owes her an enormous debt for the help she has given. Unfortunately for Ms Greer, however, feminism has moved on, and I personally believe that a large part of what she is now saying is actually doing more harm than it is helping. Greer needs to keep up with with the society she worked so hard to shove forward, else sooner or later she be left behind – who knows, it might have already happened . . .

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1 Comment

  1. I agree that the views Germaine Greer has expressed this century are a bizarre kettle of fish. Where I differ with the author of this interesting comment is that I do not agree with gender feminism — the feminist mainstream is as deplorable as Greer’s views. Having read or read about Germaine Greer for over 40 years, I do not agree that she has had much influence on social change anywhere. She is too much of an intellectual maverick. Greer was born into a working class Australian family of Irish Catholic ancestry. Some things Greer says or writes strongly hint that she can be quirkily loyal to her roots. I am not confident that she has any self-awareness about this.

    If it is wrong to surgically alter the genitalia of child born with ambiguous genitalia (a position with which I warmly concur), then it is also wrong to alter the genitalia of a “normal” child for any nontherapeutic reason. In a book published in the late 1990s, Greer revealed that she more or less accepted that routine and ritual male circumcision, as well as FGM, were deplorable. But Greer is no ally of the intactivist movement (and more’s the pity). I surmise that her silence this century about male circumcision stems from her never having had children, and from it being decades since she has been intimate with a man.


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