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16th of October 2018

Entertainment



On Rape review: Germaine Greer's sound and fury lack real substance

Greer's On Rape seems to embody most of the iconic feminist's recent behaviour: all snarky soundbite and no substance. The essay was a perfect opportunity to transform her media mal mots into an argument that could be analysed and debated.

Frustratingly, what she has produced is whiplash, with many points to score but few to make. Instead we're told we're unreasonably afraid of rape ("a jagged outcrop in the vast monotonous landscape of bad sex"), and that "banal" rape is simply a lack of conversation, which Greer confusingly tries to illustrate with a reference to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner (no rape, but he uses his phone on date night).

This entire review could be spent cataloguing these one-liners, designed to inflame attention because Greer herself doesn't bother justifying them. But it's worth recognising these remarks as the misdirections they are – desperate attempts to hide a complete lack of theory and weak argument.

With 10,000 words at her disposal, Greer had ample room to deliver a basic thesis outlining an argument and supply supporting evidence. We don't get that.

Roxane Gay.

Roxane Gay. Credit:Jay Grabiec

On Rape shows an implacable frustration with the legal system, which she routinely presents as useless and inconsistent. This could have transformed the text into an examination of how misogyny or rape culture informs the law and legal outcomes. Instead, statements are disconnected from forming arguments, frustrating the potential for a truly liberating challenge to our concept of rape.

A searing argument for legal reform could have been made, with Greer's insights on how the legal system treats rape victims as objects rather than individuals the most natural starting point. In the right hands and with unsparing intellect (which Greer has), we could have expected mounting evidence and review leading to a conclusion.

Not That Bad. Edited by Roxane Gay.

Not That Bad. Edited by Roxane Gay.

But we don't get that. We get potshots at the legal system that lack focus, consistency or accuracy. This is disappointing as her remarks on the need for reform are the closest Greer comes to making an argument here or elsewhere, one that understands the current system is fundamentally broken.

Greer spends pages misunderstanding the legalities of sentencing, the burden of proving consent (or the lack thereof), how juries decide (on evidence and argument, not threat of sentencing as Greer asserts) and then claims men are more likely to kill their rape victims to evade a rape trial, a statement liberated from any scent of accuracy given rape is an under-reported crime with even less chance of conviction than murder.

In fact, we get a far more coherent theory from Greer in her April 2006 column for The Independent newspaper in Britain, parts of which were co-opted for this essay. The 1900-word article is almost preferable to On Rape's 10,000 words because it contains a fully realised, if unsupported, argument and suggested reform.

This is really the greatest disappointment of On Rape. In the so-called "marketplace of ideas", Greer appears to have few to offer and even less interest in interrogating the ones she has. With feminist op-ed churn transforming into an echo chamber of refracted reaction over educating reflection, the time is ripe for a master of rhetoric and theory to speak up. That makes On Rape a gigantic swing and miss.

The lack of any consideration of #MeToo is an omission so glaring it can only be read as deliberate. While Greer has made it known she isn't impressed by #MeToo, her refusal to even mention let alone examine the phenomenon reads as provocatively timid for a woman of her stature.

Roxane Gay doesn't shy away from such examination. Her anthology Not that Bad deliberately references #MeToo's progression from "a moment that will, hopefully, become a movement". Though originally intended as an examination of rape culture, one that routinely dilutes the trauma suffered, Gay notes the anthology transformed into #MeToo-inspired testimony illustrating that culture's impact.

While On Rape and Not That Bad are both palpably frustrated by the legal system, they pivot wildly on this point. Greer's essay argues the courts are useless while Gay's anthology admits this by turning the reader into a courtroom bearing witness to their personal stories as testimony.

Unlike Greer, Not That Bad firmly positions rape as "a cultural and political act", thanks to So Mayer's excellent essay, Floccinaucinihilipilification. Most of the 30 essays from a variety of writers and performers surround the authors' personal traumatic experiences across gender, race, class and sexuality. These vary in severity, a deliberate challenge to our conditioning to reflexively judge "that's not so bad" when we hear someone's story.

xTx's​ The Ways We Are Taught To Be A Girl manages to ride this reflex, going through a history of misconduct and assault, exploring the reaction and impact with all the skill of a shepherd who knows the path better than most.

Likewise in a chapter on female rage, Lyz Lenz expertly unpacks the topic and, in a virtuosic employment of memoir, uses her story of anger to make the reader to reflect on their emotions and history. It's a masterstroke when how often memoir stands unconsidered by most writers and readers.

One exception to the first-person approach is Michelle Chen's Bodies Without Borders, a look at how refugees experience high rates of sexual assault. Despite the anthology's shifting brief, it's easy to see why this vital reporting stands tall. Chen expertly explores notions of gender, borders, state-validated abuse and the racist panic of protecting "their" women from foreigners and not foreign women from them.

While the anthology's other essays vary in scope and quality, the majority are examples of people taking control of their narrative in an attempt both to heal and defy society's refusal to take sexual assault seriously or consistently.

Despite this intent, Not That Bad can feel patchy. While some essays soar to heights of new information and insight, others feel as if they tread the same emotionally fraught path we have read before. Other times, the descriptions can feel so intense readers may need breathing space between essays. This is difficult to critique because it feels like defusing a bomb, separating the tragedy of someone's trauma from the merit of their expression or intent.

The use of memoir to detail trauma is one that deserves greater examination, especially as it is incredibly present in our cultural landscape and increasingly associated with politics. Feminism tells us that the personal is political and modern memoir has seized on this, exploring every social and political trend through memoir. Not That Bad and #MeToo are part of this trend.

But, if we know sexual assault is so prevalent and yet under-reported, do essays with evocative descriptions of abuse seek to comfort or capsize readers? Does individual testimony build empathy that can inform change or is it performed tragedy for a voyeuristic audience weaned on personal essays and viral emotions? How can we tactfully honour a writer's experience while also dissecting their expression and politics?

Perhaps due to this, Not That Bad feels emblematic of #MeToo's greatest potential and threats – capable of empowering and building empathy but at risk of stifling growing insight to satisfy an insatiably mawkish readership not invested in creating change.

If feminism is a trinity of theory, activism and experience, both On Rape and Not That Bad borrow from one or two but not all the columns. If the path to healing demands we take control of our story, the path to true growth demands we move towards a balance of the three.

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