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.