The end of polemic

Germaine Greer’s feminist politics offer limitless possibilities, but her application of it doesn’t


Germaine Greer at the Tata Literature Live Festival. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Germaine Greer at the Tata Literature Live Festival. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

A memorable line from Germaine Greer’s 1970 book The Female Eunuch exhorts women to taste their menstrual blood, in a bid to see that it is not impure or repulsive as commonly thought, but that it is as regular as the blood that oozes from a cut finger. This is the power of words. They cause intense discomfort, but they also unmask deep-seated prejudices underlying many commonly held beliefs.

Greer, now 76, is currently in Mumbai for the ongoing Tata Literature Live Festival at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Nariman Point. Her session—a conversation with Vikram Seth on the topic ‘Can books change the world?’—opened the four-day festival on Thursday. The topic might as well have been ‘Are words really that powerful?’, for Greer—part of the second wave of feminists who extended the debate for women’s rights to the family and workplace, to the labour force and in healthcare—would know that powerful articulation of personal experience plays a vital, often central role in changing attitudes.

On the sidelines of the fest, Greer spoke to a group of journalists on a range of issues, from goddess Shakti to the politics of negative stereotyping of mothers-in-law, and the fetishization of rape in social and judicial mindsets. Yet, she refused to talk about the one issue that has landed her in the eye of a storm. When Seth attempted to broach it at the start of their conversation, she said, “No, I’d rather not (talk about it). It’s not a subject I am interested in. It’s a subject that’s being forced on me. I don’t want to excite the discourse anymore. I’ll deal with it when I have to. In fact, I may even decide to write a blog.”

The subject that Greer refers to is her opinions on transgenders—more specifically trans women—opinions which prompted a woman’s officer at Cardiff University’s student union to start an online petition to deny a platform to the septuagenarian to speak at the university. Greer has been invited to deliver a lecture on 18 November on ‘Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. When asked to comment on the petition, she told BBC2: “I was going to talk about women and power in the 20th century, because I think there is a lot of triumphalist talk that masks the real historical situation, and apparently people have decided that because I don’t think that post-operative transgender men, i.e, M to F transgender people, are women, I am not to be allowed to talk.” In her opinion trans women are not women. She further told the interviewer that she was considering not going to the university at all. On Thursday, however, Greer clarified that she will deliver the lecture; the subject has nothing to do with trans people.

Though Greer may say otherwise, feminist politics, which demands recognition of rights of a marginalized and oppressed group is powerful precisely because of its ability to be applied to all other groups in a similar situation. Greer limits the application of a politics that is limitless, and in doing so, seems to contradict the very basis of feminist critique.

In The Female Eunuch, Greer argued that women are devalued by a consumerist culture and suburban existence of a nuclear family driven by men’s desires. She argued that women’s self-perception was a victim of this culture. However, this very same feminist argument applies equally to transgenders, victims to the binary division of gender, reified by heteronormative consumerism. Yet, even the highest court of our country now recognizes self-perception as central to determining gender identity and gender expression.

“The argument of The Female Eunuch is that there is a thing called femaleness, and it is not respected. Instead what is imposed is an artificial notion of femininity. There are two ends of the spectrum. One is hyper-masculinity (…) which is intimately connected to the formation of corporations (…) The other end is femaleness, which is Shakti. In the middle, there are all kinds of sexualities. There’s homosexuality, there are people who are XXY, people with XXX chromosomes, people who have anomalies, and people who don’t. As far as I am concerned, they all have a right to exist. They don’t have to decide I must belong to either that end, or this. None of us do. These are notional.”

While one may understand Greer’s hesitation to value the extreme “ends of the spectrum” as anything more than notional, and therefore, constructed to suit vested interests (such as that of corporations, or patriarchal attitudes, to take her examples to their logical conclusions), its blind spot is that it ends up devaluing an individual’s experience and articulation of gender.

This blind spot is dangerous, because it leads to a dehumanization of the transgender person, which in turn, has a human cost as we see all too clearly in India—daily violence and humiliation, denial of educational and healthcare facilities, safe working and living environments, to name a few—that non transgender people don’t have to pay.

By stating that trans women are not women, and do not possess the right to articulate the experience of what it means to be a woman, Greer perpetuates the same mistake that her polemic has always critiqued. If telling women what they ought to be devalues them, telling trans women the same thing, devalues thems too. Indeed, by doing so, she undercuts what is the starting point of queer feminist politics: self-determination of gender and sexuality are inviolable human rights. And by denying trans women the space to articulate their experience of gender—as her book did for cis-gendered women four decades ago—she does the politics of feminism a great disservice.

The Tata Literature Live festival schedule can be accessed here: http://tatalitlive.in/

The Sex Talk is a blog about gender, sexuality and blind spots

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