(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mellowed perhaps by the years since she published The Female Eunuch(1970) but still outrageous in her witticisms and puns, Germaine Greer, in The Whole Woman, takes on the whole of the industrialized world (and thus the whole world) in her indictment of the situation facing women at the end of the twentieth century. “It’s time to get angry again,” she writes in her opening recantation of her vow not to write a sequel to The Female Eunuch. Greer, professor of English and comparative literature at Warwick University, England, has made a name for herself as a witty and controversial talk-show guest, refusing to agree with either standard feminist or conservative positions.

The book shows, in Greer’s inimitable style, how women are the losers in the equality game, in everything from plastic surgery to transsexualism and reproductive technology (in the “Body” section); the “Mind” section takes on the culture of work and sex roles, while “Love” and “Power” deal with relationships and backlash. In England, “women’s liberation” was the operative term for the women’s movement far earlier than in the United States, and Greer laments the loss of the goal of liberation, and the acceptance, instead, of a false equality. In every case, the single-word section and chapter titles play down the hard-hitting exposé of the text.

Using materials from media—newspapers, magazines, advertising, and film, as well as scientific studies and academic research— Greer critiques the industrialized world and interprets society with a vengeance. Interspersed with boxed quotations from celebrities, newspapers, talk shows, and critics, the text is bursting with an astonishing amount of information.

Tellingly, Greer begins the “Body” section with “Beauty.” Here she describes the multibillion-dollar beauty industry, calling it “a global pandemic” because women in China, India, and Africa are now the market for makeup, creams, hair products, and foundation garments. Illustrative here is the Miss World contest, outmoded in the industrialized world but popular in India and Africa. Much of this section details statistics and descriptions of the pain, expense, and time involved in the lengthy surgery and recovery period for breast implants. The time and money spent on cosmetic surgery around the world are ironically juxtaposed to the rising incidence of and lack of a cure for breast cancer.

The most important body part of a woman is her womb, but it is not celebrated in the Western world or even thought to be vital (once she has given birth). Certainly, women are not as identified as female by their wombs as they are by their breasts or their genitalia. Greer devotes a large section to the shocking rise of hysterectomies in the late twentieth century, especially in the United States, and asks if it is possible that the wombs of American women are four times as unhealthy as those of Swedish women, given that American women have four times as many hysterectomies.

Greer might be criticized by radicals for her strong refusal to accept transsexuals and transvestites as women, using the argument that breasts and reconstructed vaginas do not make a woman. Why are there so many more male-to-female transsexuals than female-to-male? Perhaps, says Greer, it is because males will not accept damaged males or those who do not wish to be males. She avers that women should not accept these individuals as females either. In any case, Greer notes the conservative nature of all sex-change surgery, which serves to strengthen sex-role stereotypes and stringent gender roles. Gender reassignment disavows the mother and the socialization process. If the transsexual demands to be accepted in women’s places, he is no better than a rapist, says Greer, penetrating female space.

The “Mind” section gathers material reported in diverse sources to show how, transculturally and transhistorically, women have done the majority of work in the world. She reiterates the now-usual argument that women’s unpaid labor is not included in economic analysis (gross domestic product) because it is unpaid and not recognized as work (child care, water or firewood carrying, hand cultivation, meal preparation). Leisure time is seen as a masculine privilege in most cultures worldwide. Additionally, Greer claims, a woman spends any remaining time “working on her body, her appearance, her clothes.” Men, she says, spend no time on this aspect, because their clothes are durable, their hair requires little maintenance, and their bodies are more acceptable, no matter the shape. Why is it, she asks, that women buy so few compact discs? Because they do not have the time to listen.

Housework has become more time-consuming and onerous, not less so, as standards of cleanliness have risen. Television commercials persuade that...

(The entire section is 1984 words.)