Big sister's big rebuff

January 21, 2005

Was there revolutionary reason behind Greer's reality-TV madness? asks Roy Harris.

Trying to anticipate how Germaine Greer's sharp analytic intelligence would fare in a competition of mind-numbing fatuity always promised to be the chief attraction in watching Celebrity Big Brother .

We were not given much of a run for our money. Greer pulled out on the fifth of 18 scheduled days, leaving unanswered questions about why she agreed to participate in the first place.

Before her departure, outlines of strategy were becoming evident. She soon abandoned verbal skirmishing and settled for grabbing the key role in the kitchen.

This seemed like a good, logical move at the time, the cook having an obvious claim to indispensability.

But other inmates cared little about what they were given to eat or drink, and the only gastronomic issue that arose involved depriving racing pundit John McCririck of his promised ration of Diet Coke.

Press reactions to Greer's sudden departure fell into a depressingly narrow range.

For Janet Street-Porter ( The Independent ), this was "the world's most famous feminist" failing to realise that she was participating in "mass-media entertainment for a big, fat fee". Greer had strayed disastrously from "the calm and considered life of academia".

For Julie Burchill ( The Times ), this performance had transformed Greer from an "idol" into "just a fool", a "senile delinquent", a woman who "couldn't live with the fact that Jackie Stallone is better looking".

According to Caitlin Moran ( The Times ), Greer had misjudged reality TV, "the prime cultural currency of this country in 2005" and "an enormously powerful, if ultimately meaningless, mechanism".

The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times printed Greer's own list of excuses, which included her naivety, the squalid, insanitary living conditions and the need to preserve Australian rainforest.

None of this sounded very convincing.

Readers of The Sunday Times were confronted with an additional puzzle in the shape of a large posed photograph showing an enraged Greer tugging at a voluminous undergarment caught around her neck.

The verbal allusion was presumably to the idiom of "getting one's knickers in a twist". But trying to put them on or take them off over one's head suggests not so much naivety as idiocy.

The simplest explanation is that Greer entered the contest to beat Big Brother at his own game.

Any academic who succeeded in doing that would automatically acquire a popular guru status unrivalled since the days of Bernard Shaw, and with it a potential income outstripping the fattest of fat-cat vice-chancellors.

For her swift exit there is an equally simple explanation.

She soon realised that she had no chance of mobilising these particular troops to mutiny against Big Brother, and left before being voted off.

The other women in the original eight, a giggly trio, refused to recognise Greer as a feminist leader and ganged up to exclude her.

On the philosophical front she was upstaged by the cantankerous McCririck, who resolutely resorted to Cratyline tactics and declined to say anything to anyone.

So when Greer proposed they all strip naked and go on strike no one followed her revolutionary lead. Nothing went right on the night.

Simplest explanations are not always correct explanations, and that may apply here. But it fits the available evidence.

Once outside, Greer lost no time in accusing Big Brother of "bullying" and likened the House to a "fascist prison".

She objected to the way McCririck was teased (it got worse after she left), and to the irresponsibility of confronting one of the contestants unexpectedly with her former mother-in-law.

Greer was struggling to find the right language to make a point that seemed lost on most of those involved.

Neither taking part in nor running a television show of demeaning stupidity can give anyone the right to ignore elementary criteria of decency in dealing with other human beings.

What is sad is that it took an academic to grasp that moral point and articulate it.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics at Oxford University.

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