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Youth, I do adore thee

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

18 October 2003

12:00 AM

The Boy Germaine Greer

Thames & Hudson, pp.256, 29.95

At the risk of being vulgar, I can’t help thinking that Dr Greer’s (‘At least she’s got an “ology!”’, I always say in her defence, when callow acquaintances mock her) attitude to matters sexual goes up and down like a bride’s nightie. Whereas most of us, thanks to our helpful male classmates, learn whether we are ‘frigid’ or ‘nympho’ back in Big School, and more or less manage to stick to these guidelines for the rest of our natural lives, the good professor’s libido has historically been all over the shop. Starting out as a young blood who was happy to pose not just in the altogether for underground magazines, but with legs so far apart that one could, if one saw fit, see all the way to Alaska, Dr Greer was some time later to be found saying that she was starting to think that sex was horrid, and that women should have nothing to do with it. She, along with all the other You’re-Not-Going-Out-Dressed-Like-That-Young-Lady older recanting feminists so beloved of the Daily Mail, such as Mary Kenny and Fay Weldon, has always been a great practitioner of Do-As-I-Say-Not-As-I-Doism, a position which I find renders a person faintly ridiculous, to say the least. Approaching the menopause in the manner of a bulimic approaching a cream-cake, Dr Greer was for some time torn between wanting to hold on to her undeniable physical attractiveness (as she appeared in the famous City Hall film opposite Mad Norman Mailer, she seemed to be the most beautiful woman since Nefertiti) and wanting to cast it once and for all into the void, the better to concentrate on things intellectual. Eventually plumping for the latter, she wrote a lot about a woman’s right to become a cackling old crone and reject HRT; then after a bit she started to appear weekly on television looking very sexy and showy and gussied up — not a bit of a crone, cackling or otherwise.

But then, to confuse issues, she scolded Tony Blair to stop ‘bothering’ Cherie for sex, when he had the nerve to ‘get’ his wife pregnant! — thus reiterating her previous notion that sex was something women put up with rather than enjoyed. This being so, I was somewhat confused last time I ran into Germaine — in the Woman’s Hour studio, of all places — and she smirked at me like a substitute cheerleader trying to queen it over some Alpha Bitch at a Fifties American high school hop, tittering that she hoped I wasn’t ‘cross’ with her about the ‘rumours’ about her and my starter husband, of all the undignified things for two grown women to talk about! I believe I answered somewhat witheringly that, seeing as how I had dumped him a whole two decades previously, before he began to resemble a sick, old, balding rhesus monkey, this was hardly likely, and that she was welcome to him!

Given that Tony Parsons qualifies as a ‘catch’ to Dr Greer, it was with heavy heart that I turned to her latest offering — a lush pictorial essay on male beauty. My conviction that our criteria for masculine desirability were worlds apart was only strengthened by the front cover photograph — a David Bailey study of that whey-faced Swedish flibbertigibbet who leads miserable old Dirk Bogarde such a merry (!) dance in the terminally depressing Death in Venice. And thereby hangs the ‘rub’, as it were. Dr Greer’s theory, such as it is, is that it isn’t just nasty old men who’ve been a-peeping and a-‘perving’ (to use the glorious teenybop slang for reckless eyeballing of a sexual nature) at images of naked women all this time; women like looking at male totty just as much, yes they do! And what’s more, this should be encouraged!

I disagree on both counts. The very fact that the front cover of this book is a photograph of a man by a man, the subject furthermore being briefly made famous by being gazed at by a man (who was also gay in real life), in a film by a man, speaks volumes. Like Sex and the City, this is a gay male fantasy dressed up as feminism. Women have never felt the need to gape dumbly at naked men, as many an opportunistic magazine publisher has learned to his cost; even cheek-to-cheek with a baby-oiled Dream Boy or Chippendale, blind drunk on their hen night, girls will cackle helplessly and clutch at their chief bridesmaid like a drowning man in a three-legged race rather than drool and glower and demand oral relief for money, as men routinely do with commercially naked women. Undressed men without erections are comical and loveable to women; they may be a joy forever in an aroused state, but they are certainly not the ceaseless Thing of Beauty that they are to gay men.

And this doesn’t indicate repression and coyness on the part of women, but rather maturity and perspective. For some reason, women can enjoy sex as much if not more than men without falling prey to all the weird, morbid stuff that men insist on complicating a very basic and easily fulfilled appetite with; the proportion of female paedophiles, fetishists, sadists, masochists, bestialists and necrophiles is tiny. As is the number of female voyeurs, Dr Greer. And I really don’t see why it is desirable to add to their number.

Just because Germaine daftly dropped her knickers and put her ankles behind her ears when she was a young blood, she seems to want other vulnerable young beauties stripped bare and pinkly wriggling on the pin of the gaze, be it male or female, because that would help cancel out her own embarrassment, Catholic convent girl as she eternally is. What a shame that she can’t see herself through the cool, playful, guilt-lite Protestant gaze of people like me, her greatest fans and cattiest critics, who worship her and despair of her in equal measures. Ever the chippy, colonial, lower-middle-class counter-jumper, she doesn’t realise that not only is she grand, in the Cole Porter style, and a dame, as in ‘There is nothing like a…’, but also a bona fide rebel-eccentric grande dame, like Jessica Mitford or Daisy Warwick.

Without her, there would be no me — for good or ill. I stole The Female Eunuch when I was 12, and it changed my life. Germaine has done her bit, won her war, and she should put her feet up and have a good gloat over the fact that she has dreamed more, demanded more, redeemed more for postwar feminism than all the rest of us put together. She shouldn’t drool and dribble over nudie pics, though, like some pop-eyed Edwardian masher, because she’s too good for that, and because it’s the Emperor’s new clothes in reverse; men, however laid bare they may seem, are clothed in the chameleon-coloured armour of patriarchy, and are never naked in the way that women are. They are never stripped. Of course there’s nothing wrong with admiring a fine fetlock and a robust rump as represented by a great dauber. But at the end of the day, Dr Greer, if God had meant us to reduce our kind, made in His image, to a sumptuous, fleeting ballet of flesh rendered in light and shade, then He really wouldn’t have bothered to create G. Stubbs Esq, would he? Horses for courses, and all that. And you, the thoroughbred’s thoroughbred, if you insist on still showing, should be taking jumps much higher than the coffee table. Leave that to me!

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