Rape culture

Has Germaine Greer gone from feminist firebrand to professional troll (to promote her new book)?

Germaine Greer's recent comments on rape are glib, ill-informed and potentially dangerous.

Former celebrated feminist turned public polemicist Germaine Greer is no stranger to controversy. In fact, the author seems to court the headlines, especially when promoting a forthcoming book.

You may remember when Greer made transphobic comments in the run-up to the publication of her 1999 book The Whole Woman. She’s reiterated these opinions many times in the years since. And then in 2003, she claimed she’d be accused of paedophilia while promoting The Beautiful Boy – her lavishly illustrated book about “why boys have always been the world’s pin-ups”.

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Now Greer is preparing for the publication of her latest book, On Rape – with a series of troubling observations on #MeToo and sexual (non-)violence.

Professional provocateur?

Greer started her promotional campaign earlier this year when she opined that the rise in representations of sexual violence on TV was due to women’s enjoyment of watching other women being sexually assaulted and that women fantasised about being subjected to sexual violence.

She followed this up with comments on the #MeToo movement, which include her claims that women raped by Harvey Weinstein were “career rapees” who “spread their legs” to get movie roles.

In an interview with Fairfax Media in Australia, Greer said:

What makes it different is when the man has economic power, as Harvey Weinstein has … if you spread your legs because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to consent, and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.

Courting controversy

Greer’s comments to promote the publication of On Rape, then, are merely the latest in a long line of dubious claims from the seemingly publicity hungry academic.

Speaking at the 2018 Hay literary festival, Greer attracted criticism by calling for more lenient sentences for rapists. Despite contemporary movements lobbying for a long overdue overhaul of how survivors of rape can access justice, Greer suggests that 200 hours of community service – or an “R” tattoo on the hand, arm or cheek – may be more appropriate punishment for rapists.

While acknowledging the considerable obstacles rape survivors face in navigating the criminal justice system (the consequences of which are abysmal conviction rates of rapists which, arguably, contribute to more rapes), Greer suggests that accepting a drastically reduced sentence for rape would result in more convictions.

Greer recounts her own experience of rape – but seems to imply that she hasn’t experienced any long-term damage as a consequence of the assault. The leap from her own emotional reaction to sexual violence (to which she is, of course, entitled) to her cavalier response to others’ experience of sexual violence is troubling.

Germaine Greer seems to diminish the gravity of rape and the severity of damage it causes for others, Photo Credit: Flickr
Germaine Greer seems to diminish the gravity of rape and the severity of damage it causes for others, Photo Credit: Flickr

Misunderstanding sexual violence

Greer also draws a bizarre distinction between violent and non-violent rape, which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sexual assault. She comments: “We are told that it is a sexually violent crime…Every time a man rolls over on his exhausted wife and insists on enjoying his conjugal rights he is raping her.” She’s right: penetration without consent is always rape – but to suggest that it isn’t “violent” is a mistake and dangerously misrepresents the real experiences of many survivors of sexual assault and rape.

It is surprising, too, that even some of the criticisms of Greer’s position concede that rape isn’t always violent. For instance, in her response to Greer’s comments, Suzanne Moore said: “Greer is correct to say not all rape is violent, but all rape surely involves the threat of violence.” The idea that rape can be a “non-violent” act seems to be a widely held myth in rape culture. The non-consensual penetration of a human body is an inherently violent violation.

With astonishing flippancy and no appeal to evidence, Greer went on to tell the audience at Hay: “Most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever. We are told it’s one of the most violent crimes in the world – bull.” As if the lack of visible evidence of external physical violence diminishes the damage caused by rape. While it’s true that other kinds of physical violence may be perpetrated alongside rape, the absence of visible evidence of punches, kicks or bites does not negate the violence of the act of rape.

Greer’s comments echo those of other public figures such as Richard Dawkins, Kenneth Clarke, Judy Finnegan and NYPD officer Peter Rose, who have assumed a “hierarchy of rape” – the idea that some rapes are “worse” than others (although Clarke and Finnegan later apologised) and only victims who display the external marks of physical violence are worthy of serious concern.

Trivialising sexual violence

When trivialisation and disbelief lie at the heart of a rape culture, attitudes that can be traced right back to the Bible, (see Judges 19: Levite and his wife where a woman is gang raped and cut up into pieces), the impact of comments such as these from those who identify as feminists cannot be underestimated. They provide a platform to the myths that create environments where sex crimes become normalised.

And despite lamenting the role of women in rape trials as little more than “bits of evidence”, Greer locates rapists at the centre of the narrative. By describing rape as “just lazy, just careless, insensitive”, she privileges the experiences of men over women. She presents rape as something men do (exclusively in a heterosexual context), rather than something survivors are forced to endure.

Greer’s comments on sexual violence are glib, ill-informed and potentially dangerous. Let’s hope she’s put more thought into the content of her forthcoming book.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS, University of Sheffield and Emma Nagouse, PhD Candidate in Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.