The dependably provocative 72-year-old author of The Female Eunuch offended many last year when she said, “just because you lop off your penis…it doesn’t make you a woman.” These comments have also isolated her from fellow feminists, particularly young ones who now think of her as a figure of the past.
So, when asked to explain herself last week, Greer said: “I agree that when I first was thinking about what is a woman I fell for the usual view that women were people with two Xs and men were people with an X and a Y, which made life nice and easy for me. And I now realize, partly because I’m not entirely immune to information, that this was wrong.”
It sounded like an apology, or at least an acknowledgment of her ignorance. But Greer had not, in fact, changed her mind.
“If you’re uncomfortable with the masculine system... it doesn’t mean that you belong on the other end of the spectrum,” she said. It’s not fair to women that “a man who has lived 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed...the unpaid services of a wife, which most women will never know..then decides that whole time that he’s been a woman.”
Greer has been banned from speaking at several universities, with one student enemy arguing that Greer—a cowardly “dinosaur” and “Establishment fogey”—might want to familiarize herself with the 21st century, “or, you know, basic politeness.”
Clearly, this student doesn’t know Greer as well as she claims. If she did, she’d know that Greer’s tendency to be truculent is part of expressing her rejection of the submissive feminine ideal. Transgender women aren’t the only women she’s been rude to in her life.
Greer’s fake apology last week deserves a certain level of admiration, if only because she reminds us that we can disagree with someone but still recognize their achievements.
Too often, we overlook the history of culture warriors like Greer because they’re now on the “wrong” side of history.
It’s not at all surprising that when [84-year-old] Gay Talese, the pioneering New Journalist, made a rare public appearance at Boston University, he ended up pilloried on the Internet for saying something controversial.
When someone in the audience asked what women writers have inspired him most, Talese drew a blank. He cited Mary McCarthy, then after a few “ums” and pauses—racking his brain for women writers “of my generation”—he settled on “none.”
From the response on Twitter, you’d have thought he stopped there. He was branded a sexist and a “case study in the deep thread of chauvinism that still runs through journalism.” Then came the inevitable hashtag: #womengaytaleseshouldread.
He didn’t say what the audience wanted to hear, so they launched vituperative attacks on social media, where there’s no room for nuance.
It’s a shame, because his answer was more nuanced than “none.”
He explained, “When I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, long-form, we would call it, women tended not, even good writers, women tended not to do that.”
Talese added that he didn’t think “educated women, writerly women” felt comfortable interviewing and surrounding themselves with the kind of “offbeat, not reliable” characters that he’s always been drawn to, the criminals and married men who frequent sex parlors.
“I think educated women want to deal with educated people,” he went on, whereas men—educated or not—“would be comfortable with a lot of undereducated or, rather, antisocial figures.” He then said women are great fiction writers, citing George Eliot.
In an interview with The New York Times, he has since clarified that he thought he’d been asked to name women journalists who had inspired him “when I was young and dreaming of being a journalist,” and that during his “formative years, there were no women in journalism who inspired me. The women who inspired me were fiction writers.”
He said he’d wished someone in the audience had asked him to clarify his remarks at the time.
Indeed, that they chose to air their grievances on Twitter instead is symptomatic of the culture we live in today. It’s much easier to view everything in black and white, to ignore nuance and write people off as “wrong” rather than engage them in a critical debate.
Even if Gay Talese wasn’t inspired by many women writers or journalists, so what? He’s a journalist—an 84-year-old one at that—not an activist or a politician.
The controversy snowballed from accusations of sexism to racism, too, when Rewire interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed investigative journalist and New York Times Magazine staff writer who met Talese at a private lunch after the BU conference, where she said he pressed her about how she got the job at the Times.
Hannah-Jones told Rewire that she was the only black person in the room, and that she “felt defensive” because she’s “been explaining why I’m in a room where apparently people think I’m not supposed to be most of my life, so I know when someone is asking me that question.” Later, she said he asked her if she was going to get her nails done. Rewire noted that Hannah-Jones has “turquoise, baby blue, and glitter nails.”
Hannah-Jones had tweeted her disapproval of Talese’s remarks about women writers during the conference, then tweeted a photo of his fashionable shoes several hours later, writing that he’d “partially redeemed” himself because she, too, loves fashion.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has since publicly criticized the Times’ interview with Talese, writing: “Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example.”
Talese’s tone-deaf, unsavory remarks to Hannah-Jones are less ambiguous than his comments about women writers during the conference at BU. All of this may inform how young readers interpret Talese’s writing, but it’s their loss if they dismiss his work altogether.
It’s hardly an uncommon instinct these days. In the last few months alone, a number of once-venerated culture warriors have been condemned by people with knee-jerk sensibilities.
One misstep by Gloria Steinem, the 82-year-old feminist legend, on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher in February was parsed to death in the media. Steinem was cautious, at first, when Maher asked why she thought so many young women supported Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton.
“Women get more radical as we get older,” she replied, though she didn’t explain what makes Clinton the more radical candidate.
She also disagreed with Maher that young liberal women all over the country prefer Sanders to Clinton. But she offered one explanation as to why some of them do: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”
Young, female Sanders supporters on social media went nuts: How could Steinem be so out-of-touch to suggest that they’re only pro-Bernie because they want to fit in with the boys or get male attention? Her other insightful remarks during that 10-minute interview were immediately disregarded.
Similarly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, 84, came under fire that same weekend when, finishing her speech at a rally for Hillary Clinton, she said with a smile: “Just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
It’s a great line, one that Albright has said so many times before that Starbucks once printed it on their coffee cups. And yes, it may be better suited to women in the workplace than women voters, particularly the informed ones who aren’t choosing a candidate based on gender.
But here’s a woman who, like Clinton, has long worked in a man’s field. Her infamous one-liner was meant to fire up Hillary supporters at a rally, not to suggest that women who support Sanders are going to hell or that they should support Clinton because she has a vagina. (She certainly didn’t support Sarah Palin when she ran for president.)
It's understandable to be angry or disappointed when we feel let down by people we admire. We should take them to task when they screw up—within reason. But disregarding their achievements because they stepped out of line, or refused to go along with prevailing cultural and political opinions, is not within reason. Their activism, engagement and effects on the world far outstrips that of many of their present-day critics.
One new maxim that all those pitchfork-wielding warriors on social media might like to abide by: Even while disagreeing with your elders and (far) betters, respect them.