Book Review

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

If Greer - who doesn't believe in non-binary genders - is correct, then I am a woman.

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I contemplate my manhood in a urinal bowl

The Female Eunuch is a seminal book. It is famous for being a radical feminist text, and was published in 1970. A bestseller whose title became a buzzphrase and whose writer still remains a noted media figure, a “popular intellectual”, if you will. Greer’s famous (I’m not calling it infamous) book discusses the problems with longstanding societal ideas about normalised gender roles, about how the (still current) traditional idea of marriage is detrimental to both men and women, how love and sexuality are viewed in inherently different and incompatible ways by both genders (Greer firmly states that there are only two, we’ll come back to this), how contemporary (nothing much has changed) child-rearing, business, culture, politics, actually society itself are all rooted in destructive and painful oppression, bolstered by the collusion of the oppressed alongside the self-serving actions of those who are not. Society, Greer argues, needs desperately to change, and maybe, just maybe, the presidency of Donald Trump will be the catalyst the revolution needs to get going.1

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trousers up / trousers down

Greer has fallen out of favour over the last few years due to her outspoken transphobia. This, I’m afraid to report, is nothing new, as right back in 1970 she was sneering at men who “mutilate themselves” into presumed womanhood. There are passages in The Female Eunuch that are genuinely difficult to read as a whiney 2017 liberal (I’m not calling myself a fucking snowflake, I’m grey rain), as there are a several “old school” references to homosexuality, a tone of gentle dismissal, like Freud describing it as “a certain arrest of sexual development”. It is a phase, not inherently bad, Greer implies, but useless, pointless, its seemingly growing popularity evidence of a society that is no longer fecund, that lacks inertia, that lacks cohesion. Greer sees homosexuality as evidence of gender identity keeping men and women apart – a man or a woman who enjoys sex with someone of his or her own gender does so because their lover can get the sexual experience that they want, more directly. If gender identities are as solid as Greer believe they are, every man is conditioned to want a very specific kind of sex – i.e. intimacy free, penetrative – while every woman wants to be kissed whilst gently massaged on the clitoris with no terrifying penis in sight. Summarising Greer makes me sound quite crass and simplistic, and her argument is one that only seems lacking in nuance now due to the success she had in dispersing it.

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illustration of penetrative fingering with one hand and gentle massage with the other

To enjoy The Female Eunuch, one must – like with MOST books from before about 1997 – ignore statements that would today be considered unprintable, at least by the kind of people who read books that aren’t military history. Greer makes sweeping generalisations about the gay community, and basically denies the existence of anyone who isn’t cisgendered. For Greer, man is Man and woman is Woman. Biologically they are irreversibly different, psychologically they are built the same but taught from infancy to feel and think in a certain way. There are no aberrations, there are no escapes – one is either one or the other. And what this means, though, is that even though I have a penis, testicles and destructive early baldness, my mind – by Greer’s standards – is female. I have been psychologically conditioned as a woman. For all the occasional moments of familiarity I felt when Greer discussed men, I felt a constant wave of understanding whenever she spoke about how women feel and how women think. Greer has described many of my tics, fears, anxieties, ideals, etc, as definitively female. I have the mind of an unemancipated woman. I feel about my body, my social life, romance, love, pets, children, work, housework, responsibilities and my place within society like a “woman” does, in Greer’s binary world. By espousing such rigid ideas, she has convinced me that I may be trans, that I may be Woman trapped in the body of Man. It’s not something I’d ever thought about before, but as someone who’s had destructive depression for about a decade there is definitely something wrong at the core of my being, and it might be this. Then again, if gender isn’t as on/off an issue as Greer writes that it is, then cutting my willy off won’t solve any of my problems. Maybe this is an idea for me to discuss seriously with a therapist rather than offhand here. Cool.

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as a society, we expect women to have breasts

Let’s look at Greer’s theory. Women have been marginalised within society by the oppressive patriarchy. They have been conditioned to work for free in the home and this work has been devalued. They have been encouraged to not take part in business or politics, and they have been taught from a young age that what matters most to them is being pretty and being a mother. Society does not like unmarried women, it wants them neutered and attached, tied to a long term, unconfrontational role as a Mother and a Wife. When a woman has a child/children to worry about, and societal pressure for that worry to be all that she ever worries about, she will stop trying to get all up and involved in male preserves of politics, wealth, etc.. Wives – just to clarify, this is Greer’s opinion, I’m not stating this as “fact”, I know plenty of women who are both mothers and politically engaged – are trapped by domesticity, their work unrewarded by money so trapping them, deeply, as vassals, possessions, of an earner-husband. Women are encouraged to spend more money – on cosmetics, perfumes, magazines, books, white goods (as in home appliances), hair cuts, clothes – than men, yet are discouraged from earning it. A woman, a wife, is made to exist merely as a status symbol of a Person, i.e. a Man. A Man earns money, shows off his beautiful home and children, all of which are lovingly crafted by his trapped slave, his slave, his wife, who is trapped by her own internalised ideas of what it means for her to exist. You can understand why Greer’s book created a massive reaction when it was new, right?

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#cheeky

The following point is one Greer labours for quite some time, but it echoes loudly, perhaps most pointedly out of everything she says here. The difference – and it is real – between how media aimed at different genders represents sexuality, relationships and love itself. The simple point she uses is the gross gap between the narratives of Romances (aimed at the ladies) and Thrillers (aimed at the fellahs). Women are encouraged to seek out fictional worlds that deify love, deify heteronormative power structures and ideals, where what is important is tenderness, the couple as a unit, a kiss, “making love”. In contrast to this, narratives for men describe women as either villains or rewards, using sexuality either as a weapon (i.e. seducing the hero in an attempt to kill him) or as a prize after she’s been rescued. Women in both of these types of narrative idolise their men, they forgive transgressions and help their wounds to heal. Male violence is seen as usual, normal, and women are impressed by strong men in these tales. Generalising Greer’s theory: the heroes of fiction for men get a shag, and they’re technically proficient at the fucking; the heroes of fiction for women get a kiss and a husband. These are very different tropes, and very different ideals. Male sexuality is encouraged to be wanton, overflowing, taking any opportunity to escape, whilst female sexuality is about the pursuit of security. This is another idea Greer discusses in detail, as there is nothing “secure” about losing your earning potential and yoking yourself to another person, a person who has far more freedoms than you and is able to leave if he wants while you – burdened with children – may not. She compares a traditional marriage (which includes those where the man leaves for a much younger woman when he’s in his mid-40s) to a factory worker agreeing to work, for the rest of his or her life, for the same employer. This means that the worker loses all heft, weight and ability to create change – the factory owner, the husband, is in power. The worker, the woman, is disenfranchised, trapped, and has nothing to bargain with. The ability to withdraw labour is the worker’s only power, and if this has been rescinded then the worker has nothing.

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vegetable shirt by Kit Neale

Another societal idea that disempowers women is the focus on clitoral rather than vaginal stimulation for feminine sexual pleasure. Greer talks about how choosing to cite a man’s favourite way to reach orgasm – pumping into a vajajay – in contrast to a woman’s – clitoral stimulation, either digital (that means by a finger) or oral (that means by an ear)2 similarly creates incompatibility. When men pride themselves on sexual skill as another method of ranking themselves against other men, and when society conditions people to see penetrative sex as something for procreation or the satiation of male desire only, women lose out. The idea of penetrative sex as being inherently for men disempowers women, reduces their notion of autonomy. This idea is still prevalent today, see for example the recent BBC smash (rightly so) Fleabag, where the very sexual protagonist is only visibly seen to reach orgasm when masturbating alone – though she clearly enjoys vaginal sex, she is often seen to be bored by it – the pleasure she takes from sex itself is not an orgasmic one. “The cunt”, Greer writes, “must come into its own”:

At all events a clitoral orgasm with a full cunt is nicer than a clitoral orgasm with an empty one, as far as I can tell at least. […] Besides, a man is more than a dildo. 

To allow vaginal sex to be seen as something reproductive for women and something imperative for men creates stark differences in sexual intention and sexual motivation. Sex is always a conflict, a means of taking or asserting power, rather than a mutual erotic experience where both parties get what they want. Greer is pro-sex, but not as she thinks most people are having it. Not just sex, but everything is rooted in patriarchal power structures that keep Women trapped in drugged-up, depressed, domestic solitude and Men trapped in eternal employment and oneupmanship against other Men. Women, Greer believes, only break through to male preserves of power if they adopt male patterns of behaviour. Greer points out how rare it is – in 1970 – for female politicians to do anything to improve the lives of other women. I’m sure Greer made lots of cash in the 1980s writing op-ed pieces about how Thatcher proved her right.

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🎶open yer fly / let me peer inside / let me see how big the penis is you keep tryna hide🎶

Greer’s ideas are aggressive, but they’re well constructed, based on evidential statistics and many of the points she raises are (depressingly) still relevant today. Yes, there has been “progress”: more women work, higher education is far more evenly undertaken, divorce is easier, abortion is not frowned upon (in England, at least), but many women are still trapped in abusive relationships, and these are the people whose opinions we don’t see in newspapers: the real people still trapped by the patriarchy are still lonely, are still scared. However, the real omission is engagement with the lives of gay people and trans people, whose displacement and abuse is also the result of dominant heteronormative patriarchy. To fully be on board with what she’s saying, the reader has to accept Greer’s dismissive ideology, at least temporarily, and that’s a shame, because her writing is great, witty and intelligent, and what she has to say about gender is still very important. Here are some choice quotations from the book:

If you think you’re emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go, baby.

It is commonplace in the music industry that the stars stuff their crutches [sic], and that the girls wet the seat covers.

It is not usually the assumption that women are promiscuous which provokes male jealousy in our society but rather the assumption that they are merely acquiescent in sexual relations.

There are hundreds of cases in England where wives consent to dress up in leather or rubber, and beat their husbands or shit upon them or whatever they require, because the compulsivity of the activity is their security.

Adultery and fornication are still more exciting than marriage, but our culture is committed to maintaining the contrary.

No boy who has ever masturbated, whether into a baseball mitt in a burlesque show or on to a clean sheet of white paper, would be tempted to describe orgasm [like female orgasm is described in Romance novels].

It was considered better for a priest to have a hundred whores than one wife.

As long as man is at odds with his own sexuality and as long as he keeps woman as a solely sexual creature, he will hate her

The Romantic taste for the moribund heroine is itself a manifestations of sexual disgust and woman-hatred.

Who wants to ‘tear off a piece of ass’? ‘get his greens’? ‘stretch a bit of leather’? ‘knock off a bit of belly or crumpet’? ‘have it away’?

A cosmonaut’s wife cannot be fat and frumpish, so she must express her misery in drunkenness and promiscuity, which are at least modish and expensive habits.

Certainly a Mars Bar costs less than a divorce.

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doing a male orgasm into the urinal

I read Greer’s text over quite a busy week, often on the Tube, which – especially given the edition (see pics) – got me lots of funny looks. Greer’s very valid and once revolutionary points are often ignored now due to her conservative attitudes towards other marginalised groups. To give her the benefit of the doubt, though, she was writing in a period where the oppression of women was just beginning to become a mainstream issue, whereas transgender issues have only been zeitgeisty for the last few years. It is a text from a different time, and though it is sad that yesterday’s liberals often share opinions with today’s villains, it is true and eternal: consider the casual misogyny in To Pimp A Butterfly. Protest is most successful when it is specific. No one can fight every battle, and often people deeply committed to a particular cause ignore the valid causes of others due to a strong focus on their own ideology. Greer does have problematic opinions, yes, but it was her comments on the equality and value of women that were controversial in 1970, not her dismissal of gay and trans communities. Greer is not of our generation, not of our time, not of our liberal European culture (she’s Australian) and she is a spirited and intelligent writer, who made me feel deep emotion, regularly, as she described the reality of many women’s lives. This is a funny book, a sad book, an important book, and though it is no longer aligned with the general liberal consensus, that doesn’t mean that it has become invalid. The people who set up the NHS probably had discriminatory opinions, likewise the people who banned slavery and defeated the Nazis. Opinions change and – until 2016 – the world looked like it was getting more tolerant, rather than less so. By Greer’s reckonings, I am more woman than man, despite that being an impossibility in her eyes. You can thus laugh at her ignorant denial of gender as non-binary, but you cannot laugh at her accurate description of the destructive nature of gender relations that very much exists in the real world. This is still a relevant book, even if it is flawed in some significant ways. At 400 pages, though, not a casual undertaking.

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on my knees in a public toilet

1. Certainly the Kiwi singer Lorde thinks so:

2. That is a joke. The fact that I’m including a footnote to explain that shows my lack of confidence and fear I am unable to accurately express my thoughts and feelings to other, which is a woman’s trait. (According to The Female Eunuch, anyway.)

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