by MIA FREEDMAN
There are three types of icons. At the top of the tree are those who vacuum seal their legacy by dying at their peak (eg: Marilyn, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Princess Di). Then there are the those who preserve their iconic status by gracefully retreating from the frontline of public life (Nelson Mandela, Gough Whitlam, David Bowie, Gloria Steinem, Barbra Streisand). Finally, there are the icons who stay too long at the party, taking themselves down in a hail of self-inflicted friendly fire while the world watches in embarrassment.
Germaine Greer, you broke my heart a little bit this week when you did just that. It’s been coming for a while but I’ve long defended you to those who threw up their hands in despair when you said something outrageous and to naysayers who never understood why you were a big deal in the first place.
This week on QandA however, when you compared forced female genital mutilation to voluntary cosmetic surgery and said it might not be such a bad thing after all? When you kept on and on again about The Prime Minister’s ‘fat arse’ and ugly jackets? When you said women who needed the morning after pill should be “embarrassed and ashamed?” Well, I’m out. Done.
Look, I’ll always respect your legacy and I thank you for it. You were a ground-breaking, arse-kicking lightening rod for social change who ignited a feminist movement from which every woman in the western world has benefited. But the Germaine Greer of this century is different. As you’re reviled and mocked by women who used to admire you, I want to look away. As if by not bearing witness to the wreckage I can somehow help preserve your dignity.
Being an icon would be hard work, admittedly. Not during your peak, of course. Those years are simply about managing the attention and adulation while using your power and influence wisely. The greater challenge comes decades later if you want to remain in the public eye. That’s when you must adapt for a new generation who aren’t as forgiving as the starry eyed disciples who fell in love when you were at the top of your game. Hell, this generation may not even know who you are.
Typically, this is where icons stumble. The once beautiful Priscilla Presley has reduced herself to a cartoon with extreme cosmetic surgery. Michael Jackson became a caricature with his sequins, squeals and crotch grabs, all awkward coming from a 50 year old white man who used to be black. And Madonna, 54, who pushed pop culture boundaries in the 80s and 90s is still pulling her boobs out and humping the floor during her concerts. Again, awkward.
Some people feel the same way about Paul Keating. “Keating was once the most colourful linguist in Australian politics – witty, clever and cutting,” laments a Labor source. “Now he just comes across as embittered. As much as I disliked John Howard when he was PM, he’s transitioned smoothly into a statesman like role where Keating never could.”
I once saw this phenomenon up close and it was so sad. Helen Gurley Brown, the iconic former editor of US Cosmopolitan was, like Germaine Greer, a feminist revolutionary in the 60s and 70s. But while still editing Cosmo in the 90s, Helen struggled to adapt to changing times. She declared heterosexual women couldn’t catch AIDS and claimed workplace sexual harassment was a just a bit of harmless fun. Ouch. For a generation of women unaware of her legacy, Helen was not revolutionary, she was retro and regressive. And that most painful quality for those used to being in the centre of public debate: irrelevant. The conversation had moved on and this former champion of women’s rights had been left behind, painfully unaware of how horrifying her comments were to a new generation.
On Tuesday morning, my Mum called to talk about QandA. Like me, she was despondent. “I found myself saying to the TV, ‘Germaine, my feminist hero- this is where we part company. I can no longer cut you any slack.’
It wasn’t the ongoing ‘fat arse’ circus or the fresh wardrobe insults that pushed my mother over the edge. “As you know,” she reminded me, “unlike many women I was never offended by that original comment because I took it to mean it’s quite ok to have a fat arse- a lot of women have them. Let’s not hide or be ashamed of them. But last night she missed the chance to bring home the very relevant point that young women in particular need strong public female role models of all shapes and sizes.”
Like me, it was Greer’s outrageous female genital mutilation comments that had my mother’s jaw on the floor. “She’s always been bawdy and provocative. It’s her stock in trade. But she always backed that up with strong, incisive argument coming from great clarity of thought. We loved her for both. She has built her reputation on her towering intellect but it wasn’t on display last night.” It sure wasn’t. “How incredibly sad I feel,” added my Mum. And I nodded. Germaine, you’ve stayed too long at the party. It’s time to hail a cab and call it a night.
Here are some icons from diverse fields…..which category do you think they fall into?