The White Woman’s Burden

I’m always more likely to pick up a memoir than a book of cultural theory, so when I came to read a book by the famous old-timey feminist Germaine Greer, it was not The Female Eunuch but Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the story of Greer’s attempt to research her late father’s life. Mr. Greer did not say very much about his early life, and what he did say was not very true, so the book has an intriguing detective-story angle as we follow Greer from place to place in search of his trail.

Unfortunately, much of what stays in the mind from the chapters I read is an endless series of petty gripes. Greer goes back home to Australia after years abroad, and…well, she goes to the racetrack, and the races are no good, and the bottle of champagne she buys at the bar is no good, and they won’t let her take the bottle out of the bar, and when she tells them that any racetrack in Europe would let her take the bottle out, they are not impressed. Like that.

But her true idée fixe is improper wardrobe. Every scene, from her sister’s home to libraries to government record offices, is punctuated with Greer’s horror at people wearing t-shirts and trainers and (gasp!) shorts. This would be in the late ‘80s, when Greer was not yet fifty years old; the only explanation I can think of for her shock is that she had been living in England, where everybody had to wear three sweaters all the time. As for why she thinks her sartorial dissonance will interest readers, I have no clue.

But anyway, the thing I really wanted to share with y’all is an amazing passage from her visit to India, where her father had spent time in a military mental hospital. She is on the beach in Bombay:


The beach is very wide, eighty yards at least, yet every man who walks along it comes within two yards of where I sit writing in my notebook. Some of them, emboldened by their smart Western apparel, tight nylon shirt with huge collar, flared synthetic trousers and high-heeled plastic shoes, dare to sit down and stare fixedly at me. “Move! Go! Be off! At once!” I say in a piercing mem-sahib voice. They pretend they have not heard, look away for a minute or two and then, face saved, casually saunter off. I put my head in my notebook, anxious that they should not see my grin.

Why is it, I wonder, that all men are so confident of their attractiveness and so few women are? Why would any tatterdemalian Maratha imagine that a foreign tourist lady of apparent wealth would welcome his attentions?

Well, shut my mouth. Among the many interesting aspects of this scene, I would like to note two. First, I think that most women I know would interpret the men’s behavior not as seduction but as aggression, comparable to wolf-whistles or butt-grabbing in the Italy of yore. The men may feel threatened by her transgression of their culture’s norms (being alone on the beach), they may think (correctly) that she is jotting down snide and contemptuous things about them in her book, they may just be assholes. But why does GG suppose that they are acting based on the assumption that she is attracted to them, and why, oh why, does she make the obviously false claim that all men are convinced of their own attractiveness?

Second, I think that most women I know would base their objection to the men’s conduct on their status as human beings who deserve to have their space respected and not to be intimidated. Instead, GG uses race and class to trump gender. In case your Kipling is rusty, ‘mem sahib’ is what the Maratha and other Indians were supposed to call the women among their colonial overlords, ‘mem’ being a corruption of Ma’am and ‘sahib’ deriving from an Arabic word for Master. I am surprised that Greer doesn’t feel any discomfort at staking her claim as a rich white woman; to be sure, the fellow’s high-heeled plastic shoes are a regrettable fashion statement, but hey, at least he’s not wearing shorts.

I may well start working on a piercing mem sahib voice of my own, but I expect I’ll leave it at home the next time I visit the old Raj.



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