Here’s my post-election reaction. The public school where I voted on Tuesday was giving books away from its library. I spotted an Important Book lying on the table — Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch —swiped it and browsed its contents on the way to work. I am confident that I will eventually find pearls of wisdom in it to belie the unfortunate stereotype of feminist writing as a petulant and solipsistic embarrassment to the Left. So far, however, the only pearls I’ve found in the book are pearls of hilarity. Like this one:
[A woman’s] breasts are only to be admired for as long as they show no sign of their function: once darkened, stretched of withered they are objects of revulsion. They are not parts of a person but lures slung around her neck, to be kneaded and twisted like magic putty, or mumbled and mouthed like lolly ices. The only way women can opt out of such gross handling is to refuse to wear undergarments which perpetuate the fantasy of pneumatic boobs, so that men must come to terms with the varieties of the real thing.
Translation: Other women should let the breasts flop around like sacks so that mine will be considered more attractive by comparison! Needless to say, women have not and never will take up Ms. Greer’s baldly self-serving invitation. It unwittingly exposes a core fallacy of much feminist thinking, namely, that women are natural allies, whereas, if anything, they are natural rivals. (It’s never even seemed to me that they like each other very much.) The idea that women are going to collude in order to impose on men a more egalitarian standard of beauty is risible. Depond upon it: Cruelly heedless of the humiliation they inflict thereby on their less comely sisters-in-arms, the ladies who have got it will flaunt it until doomsday.
Just to make sure we hear cry for help, Ms. Greer goes on:
Every human body has its optimum weight and contour, which only health and efficiency can establish. Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners. Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art nouveau, they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body, and the limitations and possibilities of being female.
But women whose bodies actually are treated as “aesthetic objects” are all too happy to revel in the attention of powerful men, not to mention the envy of unprepossessing female peers. Ms. Greer simply demands that the sexual marketplace — where female beauty is traded for male power — be abolished. The massive collective action problems that would need to be overcome in order to achieve her goals never seem to have occurred to her. The moment that women stop tirelessly titivating themselves through dress, make-up, diet and exercise is the same moment that a selfish free-rider will exploit her suddenly increased status and monopolize the more desirable men.
To be fair to Ms. Greer, she was writing in a relatively primitive climate of opinion in which it was assumed that sexual norms are socially constructed. Then again, what feminist writer today does not make that same assumption? In the introduction to The Female Eunuch, Ms. Greer all but anoints herself a Prophetess of the Second Feminist Wave (which nowadays I believe is more often referred to as the Third Wave). She confidently predicts that her book “will draw fire from all the articulate sections of the community.” Maybe it did back in 1970. From the perspective of forty years, however, the only reaction the “articulate” reader can muster is bemused pity.