I apologize in advance for the length of this review. As a pivotal sociological/feminist work, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be thorough. Overall, I found the work to be about 1/3 spot on; about 1/3 very dated; and 1/3 to be questionable in its argument. Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight and the importance of this work is in the fact that it was very much a call to action in 1970.
In her introduction to the 1990 release, Greer notes that she had expected the book would quickly date and disappear. As an optimist, she expected social change to occur and invalidate her work. However, she points out (in 1990) that despite many changes, women still desire “freedom from being the thing looked at rather than the person looking back. Freedom from self-consciousness.” I question whether this is even possible. Can we, as humans, not be self-conscious?
She argues (in 1970) that “Man demands in his arrogance to be loved as he is, and refuses even to prevent the development of the sadder distortions of the human body which might offend the aesthetic sensibilities of his woman.” I wonder about the development of “meterosexualism” (which has taken off in the 2000s) and the changes that have manifest in the relationships between men and women and the expectations that have developed. Instead of moving towards a society that is less critical of one’s appearance and developing fewer demands on bodily presentation, we have upped the ante with plastic surgery (and botox..the ease of an injection) and have simply equalized the playing field by requiring more of men. Rather than liberating anyone, we clearly have just suckered the men into our cage.
Greer seeks for women “the right to express her own sexuality; which is not at all the same thing as the right to capitulate to male advances.” She argues that female libido is not merely responsive and pushes for freedom for women to pursue their own desires without threat of societal disapproval. Certainly, there have been many advancements in women’s opportunities for sexual exploration and more acceptance of female sexual curiosity since 1970. However, Greer’s astute chapter on labeling well describes the (still relevant) double standard that a male who sleeps around is a “stud” while a female who does the same is a “slut”. As long as the “female is considered as a sexual object for the use and appreciation of other sexual beings…her sexuality is both denied and misrepresented by being identified as passivity.” These arguments reminded me of Catlin Moran’s work (see my review on How to be a Woman), in which she reminds the reader that as of 2010, women still are not proud of their sexuality.
Speaking of Moran, I was struck by her mimicry of Greer’s discussion on the usage of the word cunt: “The worst name anyone can be called is cunt. The best thing a cunt can be is small and unobtrusive: the anxiety about the bigness of the penis is only equaled by anxiety about the smallness of the cunt.” I’m not sure that is entirely accurate (I have yet to worry about the size of mine nor hear of any discussion with female friends about this issue. Women worry about the size of their boobs, butts, and thighs; men about their dicks). Further, I was disappointed to see that despite heavy citation, Moran’s discussion was not much different (with the exception of adding the thought that that cunt is divine, a concept of which I was fond).
Quite accurately, Greer points out that “the implication that there is a statistically ideal fuck which will always result in satisfaction if the right procedures are followed is depressing and misled. There is no substitute for excitement: not all the massage in the world will ensure satisfaction, for it is a matter of psycho-sexual release. Real gratification is not enshrined in a tiny cluster of nerves but in the sexual involvement of the whole person.” She argues that the sex education of both men and women is lacking (and leads to guilt and hatred on both sides).
In her discussion of love, Greer advocates for many things of which I approve. She finds love in healthy people to make “no really sharp differentiation between the roles and personalities of the two sexes. That is, they did not assume that the female was passive and the male active, whether in sex or love or anything else. These people were so certain of their maleness or femaleness they did not mind taking on some of the aspects of the opposite sex roles.” She uses Shakespeare’s example of the love between the phoenix and the turtle as “not the lifelong coherence of a mutually bound couple, but the principle of love that is reaffirmed in the relationship of the narcissistic self to the world of which it is a part. It is not the fantasy of annihilation of the self in another’s identity by sexual domination, but it is a spiritual state of comprehension.” Until we are capable of seeing the opposite sex as first and foremost a fellow human, as a potential friend or lover, we will not be able to break from the strings of social expectations about “male” or “female” behaviors.
She also points out the problems with the (again slightly dated) female goal of “capturing” a man. As long as women are concerned with “catching” and men with “avoiding the ball and chain,” we have set up war-like terms for relationships. “If we could stop thinking in terms of capture, we would not have to fear the loosening of the captives’ bonds and our failing beauty, and he would not have ulcers about being outstripped or belittled.” As a fairly egotistical and (if I dare say) literal-minded, outspoken, and able woman, I have given my husband the “freedom” to take a girlfriend. I truly do not want someone in my bed who is not more than happy to be there; if he has interests elsewhere, I encourage him to explore (as Greer notes: “Lovers who are free to go when they are restless always come back; lovers who are free to change remain interesting”). I am of the mind that sex is simply sex, I am confident in the stability of our marriage and the structure of our family. I do not see any issue with exploration. Friends like to point out that this also has to do with my egoism: while I recognize that there are in fact many women who are more attractive than I, and there are many who are more intelligent, I maintain that there are very few that are both and as such I have the freedom to tell him to go with the full confidence that he will not find anything better. Whether I am correct or not, is quite besides the point. I think the fact that I am free from jealous grasping is testament to how far we have traveled since Greer’s writing.
I was not convinced with Greer’s argument (and I’m not entirely sure that she convinced herself) that ultimately men and women are the same biologically. She points out that there are very few actual differences in genetic makeup and argues that the physical differences (curves, for example) are brought on by societal forces (wearing of corsets). Her emphasis is for a good purpose (there is no difference in our brain function); but clearly there are manifest physical differences between not only men and women but among men and women. Personally, I am rather small (about 5 ft. 2 in and 120 lbs); there are women who are much larger than me and there are men who are smaller. I agree and understand and have read about intersexual people (Eugenides’s Middlesex is a great fictional account); male and female is not the dichotomy that society has set up, we are created along a continuum. However, I am not able to buy into the concept that all of our differences are socially created. There are differences in the way men and women become aroused (for example men are more visual) which are hard to explain through socialization.
Along these lines, I was thinking about Hogwild’s book (which is not recommended reading, but has some astute observations you can see my review for more details) Baby, You’re as Sweet as 3.14. He points out that men fall in love with the way a woman looks and then decides if her personality is acceptable (along the lines of “can he tolerate her”); his argument is that the better looking women are able to “get away with” more while the unattractive get less lee-way. Women, on the other hand (per his argument), fall in love with a man for his personality and are less critical of his physical attributes. I agree with this in part. I think for both parties there is an aspect of physical attraction; whether one is willing to “put up with” the other person’s undesirable features is in part according to their attractiveness, but in part according to the extent of the undesirability of the features.
Greer gives a great description of what is more commonly referred to as a trophy wife: “Her value is solely attested by the demand she excites in others. All she must contribute is her existence. She need achieve nothing, for she is the reward of achievement…Because she is the emblem of spending ability and the chief spender, she is also the most effective seller of this world’s goods.” Greer argues that neither sex will be satisfied as long as women aspire to and men desire such a shallow ideal. Clearly, I agree. As I frequently point out, true happiness comes from a feeling of self-efficacy and pride in accomplishment. “Catching” a man is far from accomplishing anything worthwhile. Personally (even in this late date of 2013), I know three women who are “kept”; all three have not worked since the birth of their children and all three are currently experiencing economic troubles. They believe that it is their husband’s job to provide for them and they are three of the most bitter and bored women that I have ever met. Instead of recognizing their own responsibility for their situation and taking action (most simply by going and getting a fucking job), they complain about his inadequacy and his shortcomings. Clearly, this complaint should never have been valid but most especially in current times it is not the job of man to provide for or protect women. It is the job of women to recognize her own needs (in every way) and take action on her own behalf: “Joy does not mean riotous glee, but it does mean the purposive employment of energy in a self-chosen enterprise. It does mean pride and confidence. It does mean communication and cooperation with others based on delight in their company and your own.”
Coupled with this is the argument that children are still a mother’s duty. Clearly, we have come a long way since 1970, but as a working mother I am still the one who provides most of the child-focused duties (driving to and fro, signing them up for activities, scheduling doctor’s appointments, volunteering at the school). I encounter more “stay at home dads” or dads who participate in child focused activities now than I did when I was a new mom 11 years ago, but my husband will still say things like, “Do I have to go to this, I’ll be the only dad there.” Greer reminds us that: “If children are presented to women as a duty and marriage as an inescapable yoke, then the more energy they have the more they will fret and chafe, tearing themselves and their dependents to pieces. When children are falsely presented to women as their only significant contribution, the proper expression of their creativity and their lives’ work, the children and their mothers suffer for it.” Women need to have their own focus and purpose in life: living for one’s children is not enough: “Childbearing was never intended by biology as a compensation for neglecting all other forms of fulfillment and achievement.” Similarly, men need to keep striving towards taking an active role in the child-focused duties. As more and more men “take the plunge” it will be easier for others to follow. Further, we must all strive (and yes, some days it is an effort) to see parenthood as an adventure, rather than a chore: “Parents have no option but to enjoy their children if they want to avoid the cycle of exploitation and recrimination. If they want to enjoy them they must construct a situtation in which such enjoyment is possible.”
I liked that Greer (despite the chapters on hate and war between the sexes) points out that men themselves are not free. I was less than convinced by her call for communism. She sets up the marital relationship as one of employee/employer: “the bargaining between married people generally works unevenly: the wife eventually finds that her life has changed radically, but not her husband’s” and she argues that marriage is akin to signing a life-long employment contract: “Women represent the most oppressed class of life-contracted unpaid workers, for whom slaves is not too melodramatic a description.”
Despite the fact that men did (and still do) have power she notes that movements which focus on vindictiveness and characterizing men as the enemy will only lead to estrangement of the sexes. Despite arguing that “women ought not to enter into socially sanctioned relationships, like marriage, and that once unhappily in they ought not to scruple to run away” and suggesting “that women should be deliberately promiscuous” she still (rightfully in my opinion) states that “the correction of some of the false perspectives which our assumptions about womanhood, sex, love and society have combined to create” will require “the re-deployment of energy, no longer to be used in repression, but in desire, movement and creation. Sex must be rescued from the traffic between powerful and powerless, masterful and mastered, sexual and neutral, to become a form of communication between potent, gentle, tender people”. She points out that “as long as man is at odds with his own sexuality and as long as he keeps women as a solely sexual creature, he will hate her, at least some of the time.” And that “War is the admission of defeat in the face of conflicting interests: by war the issue is left to chance, and the tacit assumption that the best man will win is not at all justified.” Enabling social change means working together, not against each other. We must understand the social constructions and work to liberate both men and women from restrictive roles.
This made me think of a discussion I recently had with my husband about the show Madmen (which I have yet to watch). The show is set during the 1960s and as such embodies many of the points that Greer is making (subservient women in the household given a “not-so-varied-option” of becoming a subservient woman in the workplace). Apparently one of the most misogynistic characters made a comment: “Everything is about sex except sex, which is about power.” I felt like this highlights Greer’s point about the attractive woman who is able to manipulate the male system. She argues that “women who fancy that they manipulate the world by pussy power and gentle cajolery are fools. It is slavery to have to adopt such tactics” and sets up Marilyn Monroe as an example of the failed woman. Certainly Marilyn was not happy (and in more modern times we can point to all the current drug-addled starlets), but I am not quite sure that she is a supreme victim either. As an attractive woman who feels I am adept at manipulating the system to my advantage, I have fewer qualms with it than the unattractive woman with no advantage. However, I am astutely aware of Greer’s point that “pretty women are never unaware that they are aging, even if the process has hardly begun: a decayed beauty is possibly more tormented than any other female stereotype.”
Some of the most dated pieces of this work were the sections on education and workplace. Historically, the glass ceiling has been in place and I am not going to imply that it has been smashed. However, there are notable exceptions: Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are two that pop into mind. Women are also currently graduating college (and with science and math degrees) in larger numbers than men. I am not suggesting that we drop the ball, I’m just noting that the world has become a much more receptive place for women to prove themselves as capable and intelligent and the chauvinistic hiring tendencies which Greer describes as commonplace had decreased dramatically in recent times.
I also found myself quite bored with the romantic literature section. I understand that Greer is trying to make a socio-historical analysis using romance novels, but there are many reasons why I do not read romance novels (most importantly because they are boring). I think she was long winded and unnecessarily repetitive with her discussion of “romantic” (i.e. as described in a romance novel) and “adventurous” love. Although, I see how the Fifty Shades (see that review for my disgust with the stereotypes) is simply emblematic and unfortunately not at all progressive with regards to male/female power and domination in sexual matters.
Overall, this is a pivotal work. Published in 1970, we must forgive Greer for some aspects which are by now (thankfully) dated; however, her foresight was in many ways quite accurate and much is owed by my generation to women of hers for their labors on behalf of all women. Simply a must-read for all.