Sunday 1 November 2015

Germaine Greer and the Performance of Womanhood

Ah, Germaine Greer. When we last visited what she had become a couple of years ago, it was on the occasion of some ill-judged remarks about rape. That in mind, what are we to make of attempts to no platform her from giving a talk at Cardiff University because of her transphobic view of trans people, and transwomen in particular? Is it merely another sorry symptom of the censorious spectre stalking the student body up and down the country? Yes, but it's always more complex than that. Part of the problem is Greer is now hopelessly out of step with where contemporary feminism is at.

What is sad about Greer's trajectory is her morphing into an objectionable human being. It's frustrating as well. Her work has charted the positioning of, for want of a better phrase, 'hegemonic femininity' for almost 50 years. Her analysis has proved cutting, witty, and hugely influential. From the passive, reserved womanhood of 50s/60s to the girl-powered independent woman, as femininity has changed she uncovered the oppressions, unfreedoms, hypocrisies, and damages that have remained the constant lot for women generally. This isn't to say she denies things haven't changed and for the better, but all the same women continue to face uphill battles in all walks of life. Greer shows a sensitivity to the nuance of how women are positioned and policed and argues that shifting gender relations requires relentless struggle, of feminism permanently revolting against received practice and power. Apart from Aboriginal issues in her native Australia, that is pretty much the limit of her analytical acuity. It's as if her feminist work is boxed away in her mind. When that box is open she understands the full complexity of the gendered domination of women. When closed, she articulates all the sensitivity of a brick. And this is typically the case when she's not looking at issues in which gender does not predominate. For example, commenting on the closure of SSI in Redcar and the government's indifference to the collapsing steel industry on 22nd October's edition of Question Time, she noted "we" had benefited from globalisation, so we "shouldn't moan" when we get caught by an ill wind. Exactly the sort of thing you'd expect a Tory MP to say in a rare honest moment.

And then there are those comments about transwomen. Her recent "clarifications" are a mite less stridently worded than previous comments, but the thrust is the same. Transwomen are "parodies" that aren't even genuine about transitioning: "No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight." Transwomen cannot ever be women because they've never lived with "a big, hairy, smelly vagina" either. And lastly, transphobia doesn't really exist. Ah, for want of a mirror. If she was so moved, it only takes an internet connection and 30 seconds to find evidence of appalling crimes inflicted against transwomen, how they too find themselves injured and murdered by, overwhelmingly, men. I suspect, however, Greer knows all this. She just doesn't care. Women are xx and men are forever xy.

This is the root of some of the animus Greer has inspired. It's not just the crass terms in which she vents her transphobia, but rather the philosophical assumptions behind it. During the 80s and 90s, feminism in the academy was very interested in subject and agency. What is 'woman'? What should woman do to overcome her oppression? For the activists of feminism's second wave in the 60s and 70s, the question was unproblematic. There was no question. The revolutionary subject was women-in-general. The enemy was not men-in-general, but patriarchy, that set of diffuse but pernicious social relations that cast the genders in an asymmetrical relationship. It was the feminism of black women that started upsetting this picture. While gender was a key axis of oppression and power, black women's experience of being-female was also conditioned by their race. Mainstream feminism won important victories, but it did not speak to the complex oppression endured by women feeling the sharp end of racism too. The second wave with its valorisation of universal sisterhood unconsciously spoke to women who were mostly white, and mostly middle class. Soon similar criticisms followed in black feminism's wake, drawing attention to class, sexuality, disability, nationality. Some tried articulating essentialist redoubts that attempted to hold onto woman as a collective subject, but it proved untenable, philosophically speaking.

Feminism tried thinking through the impasse. On the one hand, there was postfeminism and its claims that women's struggles were largely obsolete. All that was needed was a mopping up operation of episodic alliances around occasional hot button issues. The bulk of postmodern feminism tried reconciling itself to many different feminisms for many different (female) subject positions through a radicalised pragmatism, of seeking out momentary alliances between groups of women around common objectives - an orientation not a million miles away from those for whom feminism was obsolete. Meanwhile, interesting things were happening in the academy. Judith Butler's work revolutionised the understanding of gender by emphasising the performative - not just the individual acts of men and women, but the repetition of meanings by institutions and juridico-medical discourses over time to the point where these categories appear natural. This was also true of the gender and sex distinction. This is routine to the point of banality - sex is the anatomical difference between female and male bodies, gender the cultural constructions cohering about this basic difference. This binarism, however, is entirely cultural or, as she puts it, discursive. Biologically, while most infant bodies present as if they fall into one of two sexes, there is actually a continuum. As far as Butler was concerned, sexing the body was a discursive, not a pre-discursive (or, if you prefer, a social as opposed to pre-social) accomplishment. Biological sex is retrospective, not a natural given. Politically, it meant any attempt to hang essential female qualities on the female body reproduces the binarism at the root of patriarchal power relations. In other words, biological essentialism ("smelly vaginas") of the Greer sort naturalises gender and sex, and despite itself provides patriarchy ideological cover.

The problem with this position, however, is it can neglect the materiality of women's bodies. As gender is performed by institutions and discourses, and through the presentation of the self in the everyday, the classifying of bodies has material consequences. Or, rather, because bodies are gendered from the moment a child's sex is known in utero, it's born into the world with the full weight of of that legacy, that history. Bodies are disciplined, inscribed, conditioned. Each individual is thrust into a perilous social world of gendered negotiation. Accepting prescribed performances is a case of constant project management that for many, both women and men, can be fraught and anxious. And for those who deviate, either because their body types are a distance from the norm, or because they reject their received gender script (trans people, non-binary, genderqueers), they are - depending on the culture - at the mercy of social sanction. Women therefore are positioned, performed, and policed not because nature ordains it, but because deeply embedded social practices code certain bodies as female, and that coding comes with baggage.

Doesn't this just reproduce a specificity of women's experience common to all women? Isn't this just a roundabout way of bringing essentialism back in and therefore providing grounds for rejecting transwomen as women? Not necessarily. What's also missing from Butler's performative account and its supplementing by the materialisation of this on physical bodies is a notion of interest. Or, rather, who benefits? Society is neither racket nor machine, a front for conspiratorial elites or automaton that blindly and autonomously reproduces sex/gender and gendered inequality. It's a fusion of both. What, historically has benefited from the subordination of women? Men-in-general have, but so has capital accumulation. So it has also benefited from the reconfiguration of femininity since the 1960s, empowering women as consumers and active participants in labour markets. Lesbian, gay, and bi people are enjoying the freedom growing acceptance is bringing, and so is capital. Lastly, as the movement for trans freedom gathers speed, so too will new opportunities open for capital. To abstract the changing performativity and materialisation of gendered practices from the prevailing socio-economic system is a glaring oversight. However, that does not mean the struggle for equality or, if you prefer, liberation along these lines is hopeless because they do not directly confront capital. Through difference, identity can be established. As the oppression of older modes of performativity are washed away, as the oppressed become more variegated, so the oppressor is homogenised and the possibility of a united project of liberation becomes greater.

This is where the new third/fourth wave of feminism is currently at. It's getting on with the business of causing trouble while marrying the activism of the second wave to the sophisticated anti-essentialism of 1990s theorising. Hence why, in general, it is open and, for the most part, absolutely welcoming of transwomen. It recognises that the diversity of women, whether cis or trans, is a strength. And ultimately why it's so impatient with the likes of Germaine Greer. If a commitment to inclusivity is the watchword of contemporary feminism, small wonder it has no time for those who actively work against it - even if that involves women who played a key role in getting the feminist movement off the ground in the first place.


Phil said...

Well done, comrade. You've just mansplained feminism to Germaine Greer.

Speedy said...

I don't have any view about whether she is right or wrong (wrong, probably) but I think i can see where she is coming from - category erosion. It's like that check your privilege thing, whatever you call it: everyone's gotta be a victim, so no one's a victim. It's a tool for whatever marginal group to get ahead, and thereby cloud the big picture (which is always class/ power).

There's a nasty streak of cultural revolution to it too - the young getting rid of the old, in the age old struggle to claw their way on top. It's evolutionary, not theoretical. Never forget we're just a bunch of chimps at the end of the day. Or chumps.

Stuart said...

All we need to know is that the attempt to shut Greer up for saying something straightforward, pretty obviously true and relatively inoffensive can only be defended in terms of incomprehensible gobbledegook.

Phil said...

I am actually against no platforming Greer. And as for the rest of your sneer, you need to realise that analysing and making sense of complex social processes does not lend itself easily to common sense everyday terms. Can the internal guts of a computer be so understood? Or the application of highly refined techniques in painting? No. And the analysis of human relationships, I'm afraid, are no different.

Stuart said...

True, but then if you ask an artist to explain the painting techniques, or a geek to explain the computer, they are generally able to do so. The same if you ask Tolstoy about human relationships. No one can explain the gobbledegook – or if they do, it suddenly strikes you as trivial. Sorry for sneering – I generally admire your writing and blog very much, but am allergic to this stuff. And pleased to hear you're against no-platforming GG.

Phil said...

If I ever find myself - as a man - explaining feminism, I ask myself if the people I'm talking to genuinely don't know about feminism - and even if the answer's Yes I proceed very, very cautiously. For a man (or anyone who's been born and brought up with male privilege) to tell Germaine Greer she's got it wrong is a bad joke.

Setting that to one side, your entire post - up to the sentence ending "glaring oversight" - seems like a pretty decent argument for socialist feminism, with a few fairly ill-founded sneers at Greer thrown in (not that that sneering at RFs would be anything new for soc fems). You do nothing to explain why the experience of trans people is as important to feminists (or to the rest of us) as it now apparently is; or why the correct answer to the question 'is a trans woman a woman?' is 'incontrovertibly and unarguably yes'; or, for that matter, why so much of the discourse around transgender issues is so personally aggressive and intolerant. (A united project of liberation, intersectionally speaking, would surely embrace people who think differently.) To say that pro-trans activists are "a bit impatient" with Greer & people who think like her is like saying Gerry Healy got a bit impatient with dissenters. If I wanted to fill my social media experience with all the fun of the show trial, it's a toss-up which would be more effective - telling Daily Mail readers I don't wear a poppy, telling Harry's Place I support Corbyn or telling academic feminists I agree with Germaine Greer. (Example.)

septicisle said...

Sadly, I think so much of the debate around intersectionality, whatever the academic grounding, can be explained in a single word: narcissism.

Igor Belanov said...

Why is it unacceptable for a man to discuss feminism? Marxists are allowed to analyse neoliberalism or fascism, and indeed do it more than most other people.

It must be possible for a male to point out that Greer's position is somewhat inconsistent by her own standards and bigoted by the standards of ordinary morality. After all, surely in her own writings she is generalising from her own situation and opinions and claiming to speak for ALL women. If it is judged that men have no business interfering in matters relating to female identity, then Greer should also refrain from deciding the identity of transgender people.

Igor Belanov said...

Shorter comment:

It is wholly unacceptable for man, woman, dog or martian to tell Germaine Greer what HER identity is. It is perfectly acceptable for anyone to debate feminism with her. After all, it is not called 'Greerism'.

Phil said...

That's alright, Stuart. You caught me in an arsy mood.

The thing is when you're talking about very complex social processes in which there are no lines of causation, and when reception and effect can spin off in loads of different ways, there is no easy language to talk this stuff in. I suppose it could be supplemented by plenty of concrete examples but that takes time, whereas this was knocked out in 90 minutes before bed. As you know I try and keep things as plain as possible, and will endeavour to do so in future.

Phil said...

I think you mistake what I was trying to do, Phil. I'm not interested in "mansplaining" Germaine Greer, or telling her where she's got feminism wrong. Not least because doing so is utterly crass. What I was pointing out was the differences her position on transwomen highlights between her feminism and that of what is probably a majority of contemporary feminist activists, and how this might inspire attempts to no-platform - attempts I disagree with, incidentally. I don't think progressive politics is at all served by preventing a woman from speaking publicly about women and power.

Phil said...

It doesn't hang together, that's my problem. There are three separate discussions here, which you've slammed together & declared to be the same thing. So, firstly, Greer is and always was radical feminist rather than soc fem, anarchist rather than Marxist and middle-class rather than working-class; she comes at class issues from an angle that can sometimes sound detached or holier-than-thou. So there are questions to be asked about whether Greer's feminism is going to help us engage with the 21st-century development of capitalism, and how it would need to change if it was going to do so. Then, secondly, identity politics has transformed feminism, for good and ill, and it's arguable that anyone working as a feminist now needs to engage with that reality, if only because everyone else is - although there's no reason not to engage with it on feminist terms, identifying "a specificity of women's experience common to all women" within and beneath the multiplicity of discourses. Which brings us back to where we started - radical feminism's relative indifference to class and the analytical superiority of socialist feminism. (The old tunes are the best.)

What we never get (thirdly) is any justification for celebrating gender dysphoria and 'brain sex', or for using the status of transgender women as a shibboleth to divide and exclude, let alone for doing so in alarmingly intolerant and vituperative ways. Is there some way in which these things are functional to the project of a modern anti-capitalist feminism? I'm not seeing it.

A sophisticated anti-essentialist socialist feminist movement, committed to intersectionality and unity in diversity, would be great, but I don't think that's what's going on out there. Actually existing feminism currently seems to be absorbed in tearing itself apart over whether to admit people born male, and the results look neither progressive nor liberal, nor particularly woman-friendly. See, for example, this article - and read to the end; the views expressed in the final paragraph are shockingly illuminating.

Speedy said...

yeah "intersectionality" that was the word i couldn't remember. All a smoke screen... internal bourgeois power struggle.

Unknown said...

I come at this subject from an admittedly subjective veiwpoint. I was foster carer to a young gay man who is now my trans foster daughter, Its been a very bumpy ride but a privilage to be a support of her transition.

I have other trans friends as well through my activity within UNISON LGBT conferences. I have always been in awe of their bravery.

The arguments I have read from likes of Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have often been very unsympathetic and divisive. I often wonder if they have ever really talked with trans women (or trans men for that matter) instead of talking at them.

back in 1999 when Adam told me on a rock in Central Park that he wanted to stay to live in New York to become a women wasextraordinary. A decade later I was proud to be a guest of honour at Adeles wedding. For Greer et al to disrespect her bravery, her journey, her decisions is very painful for me as I remember her from 1970's as a pivotal figure in the fight for equality.

I also do not wish her to be denied a platform, Rather I would like to see her challenged openly.

Germaine originally led the argument, not she is way behind it

Jim Denham said...

I can agree that Greer's views on a whole range of issues (including her cultural/political relativism on FGM, her support for the Chinese ruling class, etc, etc) are objectionable. But the attempt to 'no platform' her is an outrageous attack on free speech and symptomatic of where petty bourgeois identity politics has led some people, especially in the student milieu.