Wednesday, February 09, 2011
The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer
Before I opened this book, I went to Amazon to read the reviews of the book in order to get some kind of inkling what this book was all about and what Germaine Greer, a person I've never read before, could possibly say in it. As I have said, there is no one feminism, but several feminisms and one feminist writer does not represent them all, so I wanted to know what kind of feminism I was going to encounter in this book. The reviews were interesting, it was everything from the types where Greer is claimed to have completely changed someone's world to accusing her of hating all but homosexual women. Both are quite expected when dealing with feminism, but I was happy to see that it was a provocative book as these usually make for interesting reading. I was not disappointed.
The book is structured in four sections called "body," "mind," "love," and "power," each section dealing with topics that, not so surprisingly fall under those headings. I shall structure my thinking according to these sections below in order to get some kind of coherent text instead of loads of brain splatter.
I think my favourite part of the book, and the one that was thought-provocative in a way that I could grasp was this section. In it, Greer discusses everything from body ideals to abortion and female genital mutilation (FGM). Actually, one of the things I had read about this book before I read it was how Greer had been under heavy criticism as it comes of as if she is defending FGM in this book, and I will explain why I disagree with this assessment.
In this section, Greer talks about manmade women, plastic surgery and the strive to look as unnatural and unwomanly as possibly can. From the position where Greer stands, all this shaving, use of make up, obsessive striving to become thinner than is healthy and the consequent widespread use of plastic surgery to look as 'perfect' as possible, is nothing but a result of mainly male thinking that the female is not female enough and so has to be altered in order to fit their imaginings of the female. She rightly argues that a woman is a woman in her natural state. The armpit hair, the leg hair, the often asymmetrical breasts and the body fat is all woman. A woman is never more woman than before she alters her appearance, because that is what the woman is - nothing more, nothing less. No one can be more woman than woman herself in her natural state. It is an interesting thought and one that a lot of feminists have argued, but one that is nevertheless important to be reminded of. Women themselves take part in the reproduction of this culture, Greer argues, but it is imposed by men.
This ties into where people have (perhaps mistakenly) argued that she is a proponent of FGM. In the section talking about plastic surgery as a self-mutilation, Greer mentions FGM. Why is it, she asks, that in our culture we accept that women go through vaginoplasty (plastic surgery on the vagina) to ensure that they look like what they think is culturally appropriate and acceptable, while we do not accept this argument with people in non-Western civilisations? She not only draws parallels to vaginoplasty, but also other forms of plastic surgery like breast augmentation. She invokes the argument of cultural relativism to prove how absurd this entire plastic culture has become and reminds us that we are really morally opposed to it. Of course, Greer fails to acknowledge that plastic surgery is legally supposed to be done to an adult with her consent, but FGM is done by adults to children, which makes a helluva difference. With regards to health risks, distorted body ideals and the danger in trying to fit a narrow description of 'perfect', she is, however, right.
It is also in this section Greer tries to rally up feminists not to accept trans people as female, arguing that at the end of the day, trans people can never be female because they do not have the sex chromosomes for it. This argument really surprised me as generally feminists are very pro trans people out of a very simple explanation - feminists believe that gender is a social construct, that is to say that femininities and masculinities are something that we are taught, something we are socialised into, rather than something that is biologically determined. Therefore gender is fluid, and the key issue is what gender someone identifies as, not what they were born as. If someone who was not born biologically female identifies as a female, this person will be female to most feminists. That Greer, who has been one of the most prominent feminists for a long time, would fail to make this separation between sex and gender is just unbelievable. As the book goes on, however, it is not so shocking anymore, as Greer seems to take a more "back to nature" stance with sex and genders, putting much emphasis on woman as a sex and gender as well as gender as a social construct. To me, the extent to which she focuses on the female sex in the first section somewhat contradicts her thoughts on gender in the social later on. But it does raise an important point even though it perhaps does not explicitly say so - the point of the third gender, or rather the lack thereof everywhere but in Australia.
I will not go through the entire section, because even though it's a non-fiction book, I don't want to recount everything for people that might possibly want to read this book. Suffice to say that the section deals with most things that have to do with the female body and in a very interesting and thought-provoking way.
This is also a section where Greer focuses heavily on the difference between men and women, both biologically and socially. In her chapter on oestrogen, she questions the need for it in menopausal women and also questions why there is only chemical contraception for women and not for men. Greer argues, and I have heard this argument elsewhere as well, that there are ways to create chemical contraception for men, but as this would emasculate them, this is not done.
I also enjoyed the chapter on soldiers and violence as this is what I am currently writing my dissertation on and something I am considering looking further into when I will hopefully study gender further. (Fingers crossed that I will meet my conditions!) I will not go into this as I have written about gendered violence before.
Here Greer writes about women's capacity to love, and women's apparently insatiable need to be loved back. She writes about how women always love but are never loved back, beginning with the relationship between the daughter and the father and continuing on in later life up until death. Greer claims that a woman will never receive the amount of love back that she gives; to a father, to a partner, to her children. Interestingly, she also claims that mothers will always love their children unconditionally but implies over and over again that it is their sons that will receive the attention, not the daughters. If this is because mothers, according to Greer, cannot love their daughters as much as their sons, or if it is due to a girl child's apparent utter disinterest in their mothers, she fails to make clear. In either case, it is a contradiction. Either mothers love their children more than they will ever be loved back, as Greer claims at one point, and this will include their daughters; or they are not capable of the unstoppable, indefinite love that she claims that they are. This is one of many times where I feel Greer is more out after glorifying the female species rather than understanding why things are as they are.
There is nothing wrong in aiming to increase the status and view of women - on the contrary. This is one of the things that I really enjoyed with the Whole Woman; the attempt to view woman as a beautiful being instead of an incurable, screwed up, weak mess that deserves to be stomped on and forgotten. All human beings deserve to be seen and heard and loved, but all human beings are also at the same time flawed in that beautiful way that makes us who we are. We are capable of being both at the same time. Making out one gender to be above the other or worthy of being viewed as 'perfect' is not beneficial to any human being. That is what got is into this whole mess with gender roles and gender hierarchies in the first place.
I really enjoyed how Greer put sex in the "mind" section, pointing to the bond between the mental and the physical that often exists in sexual relations for both men and women. This mental bond does not have to include love, that is not at all what I am saying here, but it does have to include trust and respect for it to be enjoyable for both or all parts. Her critique of the quick jumping to penetrative sex is exquisite. She raises some really good points in that section, but what they are, I shall leave for you to find out.
This brings us to the final section which deals with the structural inequalities in society and Greer continues to be controversial and thought-provoking up until the last page. Here she deals with the somewhat irrational fear of male violence, arguing that society has led us to constantly fear male sexuality, male violence and male aggression when we often do not have to. This disproportional fear gives men more power and control over women. Liz Kelly in Surviving Sexual Violence argues much the same. The disproportionate fear by women of men leads to women not daring to act in certain ways and do certain things in fear of the possible consequences which happen in a minority of cases. This is comparable to the victim blaming that all too often happens after rape, where women are cautioned they should have been more careful, and that next time they should think before they act/dress themselves/speak lest they get hurt again. Women's fear of men is an oppression in itself, and while men are partly responsible for it, not all of them are, and women are actively reproducing these fears as well. At the same time it is quite interesting how Greer at one point in the book makes all men into sexual predators through saying that a father's love for a daughter will inevitably become inappropriate at one point or another (a claim I am not even going to discuss because that's how little I agree with it - don't feed the troll).
As always, I am always happy when masculinities are discussed, and Greer delivers in this area. She talks throughout the book about the gendered pressure on men, like that on women, that exists in society - the pressure to perform sexually, the pressure to act aggressively, to protect, to earn money etc. Once again we are back to gender as a social construct. Although, Greer points out in the very last few pages that her aim is not to order people to be in a certain way, but rather for herself and others to feel comfortable in their own skin, in their natural beauty - both internal an external. She wants to make the Whole Woman. That is an aim I can relate to and that I will support.
These points made above are just a tiny piece of all what is thought-provoking, controversial and wise in Greer's book. It is a book of 425 pages dealing with everything female and women. There is a lot that I disagree with that I haven't brought up, a lot of arguments that I still need time to digest before I can make up my mind on them, and a lot of arguments that I will remember, use and be grateful to Greer that she reminded me of or pointed out to me. It is definitely a book that requires an open mind; there is no point in reading it if you already have your opinions set in stone. If you are, however, curious about feminism, this particular feminist, or are someone already immersed in the gender debate who wants to explore and find out more, I would recommend you read this book! It should be noted, though, that this book is kind of a sequel to the Female Eunuch, Greer's debut book written in the '70s. I have not read this, so I can safely say that you do not need to read it before you read the Whole Woman, but if you want a bit of background on Greer and the arguments she expands in the Whole Woman, I am sure it is interesting reading.
Books mentioned in this post:
This book is registered on BookCrossing.com. Here is the journal for it. As more people read the book, the journal will grow with their thoughts and reactions to this book.