What on earth happened to Germaine Greer?

by Diana Wichtel / 09 June, 2018
Germaine Greer in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

Germaine Greer in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Germaine Greer Roseanne Barr

Figures like Germaine Greer and Roseanne Barr who once broke new ground for women have become Jurassic. Diana Wichtel looks into where it all went wrong.

No one ever said change is easy. The roaring of dinosaurs continues over the inexplicable insistence of some broadcasters on speaking te reo. It was also heard when media here reported the vote in Ireland against the feudal policing of women’s bodies almost as if it might be a good thing. And the idea that being white and male has been a relatively privileged position can be hard to grasp unless you are someone who isn’t white and male.

It’s less easy to understand how figures who once broke new ground for women have become so Jurassic. Germaine Greer. Roseanne Barr. Oh dear. Greer, who has written a book about rape, told an audience at the Hay literary festival that some rapes are just bad sex. “We are told it’s one of the most violent crimes in the world – bullshit. Most rape is just lazy, just careless, just insensitive.” But then this is a woman who, back in the 1970s, would do anything for attention, including, according to one account, setting her hair on fire in a restaurant.

Barr likes a headline, too. She once dressed as Hitler and was pictured taking people-shaped cookies out of an oven for a Jewish satirical magazine. Her tweets have long been eye-watering. But she’s outdone herself this time, snatching calamity from the jaws of a high-rating prime-time comeback. She tweeted about a former adviser to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, suggesting she resembled an ape. Roseanne apologised, but ABC wasn’t having a Barr of it and canned her rebooted sitcom, Roseanne. Here, MediaWorks dropped the show from its on-demand service and announced it won’t be screening again.

It’s an instructive story about the relationship between television and life. In the new series, Barr had become a loud, proud and often obnoxious Trump supporter. But the writers would never have allowed their character to indulge in a prank so baldly racist and deeply unfunny as the Jarrett tweet. The laws of the television universe dictate that sitcom Roseanne may be a “deplorable” but she must remain relatable. Once television comedy might have set out to present a hilariously exaggerated version of reality. Now, like the takeoffs of Trump, the fictional Roseanne is but a pale reflection of the absurd cartoonishness of the real thing.

Roseanne and clan: the show may go on without her.

Roseanne and clan: the show may go on without her.

Of course, @therealroseanne tweeted ill-advised explanations about how the whole mess happened. She blamed tweeting under the influence of Ambien, a sedative that had caused her to act strangely before. She had “cracked eggs on the wall at 2am etc”. The manufacturers, Sanofi, came back with the inspired response that although “all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication”.

Crazy. There may be a bit of utu-seeking involved in how things have played out for both Barr and Greer. Life can be tough for a pioneer. Greer was arrested in Auckland in 1972 for saying “bullshit”. She put up with being hailed by Life magazine as the “saucy feminist that even men like”. These days, many women don’t see her as a feminist at all. Told by a BBC interviewer that her views of transgender women might be hurtful, she responded, “People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman.”

Barr has taken flak over the years for having ambitions that exceeded her acceptable role as a blue-collar “domestic goddess”. Neither arouses a lot of sympathy, but it can seem women are still held to a tougher standard than men. On Roseanne’s malign tweeting, comedian Bill Maher observed, “Racism, conspiracy theories, personal attacks – they were described as abhorrent, bordering on presidential.” Life and art: Roseanne may go on without Roseanne – there’s talk of a spin-off. Whatever happens, it seems like Roseanne is destined to go down in history less as comedy and more as classic tragedy.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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