I have read relatively little on feminism and gender since I left university, and so to that end I ordered myself a copy of Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole after seeing positive things about it on Twitter and various other blogs. It’s a very appealing book – written by an academic but not an ‘academic book’, accessible and likeable, and with a sense of humour.
O’Toole is indeed a very likeable writer and her chatty style engages you straight away. She uses humour and lots of her own personal stories to explain what she is talking about, and most importantly to apply feminist and gender theory to real life. I loved that she wrote about discovering the importance of feminism and the reality of gender inequality as a teenager, and how this made her rethink her own attitudes and actions. She charts the progression of her Halloween costumes as a way to demonstrate how she chose to present herself when given the chance to dress up and be different; after all this is a book about performance. The subtitle is Dressing Up, Playing Parts, and Daring to Act Differently. O’Toole’s choice to do these things, partly through her own life and also through her theatre studies, greatly affected her views on gender and its performativity. And this is the focus of the book: the performative nature of gender, something theorised by Judith Butler.
Emer O’Toole goes into a great discussion about the difference between biological gender and psychological and performative gender. Butler does not deny biological gender but argues that almost everything else about it is performative. While I agree with this to some degree, O’Toole unpacks this a bit more and explains the details of what performative gender really is. This is undoubtedly fascinating, and makes us think a bit more about why we are the way we are. She also discusses Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and a handful of other philosophers and experts on gender and sexuality.
This is all great, but there were times when I wondered if I was really the target audience for this book. It is explicitly aimed at women but I think perhaps it is aimed at a woman who is younger than me (though I’m only 28), less sure of her own opinion on gender and feminism, and who doesn’t know as much of the theory. I’m no expert in gender theory, but the material examined here is base-covering rather than exploratory, and a good deal of it was familiar.
There is also the question of how to apply the theory here. Early in the book I wondered if we were just overloaded with theory and we needed more action in our lives to try and resolve these problems with gender and sexism; but as I progressed through the book O’Toole offered more and more advice about how women can change the way they choose to be women. She discussed choice in great detail and whether we really choose to act and dress as we do or whether this is just ‘conditioned’ throughout our lives. For me, I kept wanting to point out that there is also a question of taste – I realise that liking pink is a thing that little girls are taught, but what if you just happen to like pink? So what? My only problem was my thought that you don’t have to perform gender equality blatantly – surely the most important thing is that you believe in it. In my experience the most effective way of demonstrating that gender inequality exists and is bullshit is to call people out on it in discussions, and enter into a debate. If people are not challenged then they will just carry on as they are.
But the point here for O’Toole is that she personally needed to try on new costumes to figure out her own position, and to explore those of others. I have always been taught that men and women are equal, but Emer O’Toole came from a traditional Catholic household in the Republic of Ireland – she had more to fight against. This coupled with her interest and studies in performance meant that it was very natural for her to experiment with gender performativity. This book is really about Emer O’Toole’s own relationship with her gender and her own adventures in breaking down barriers and fighting sexism, rather than a new manual for feminism.
As I said above I think the ideal reader for Girls Will Be Girls is a young woman, under 25, who perhaps is not so sure about how to deal with the gender inequality and sexism that she encounters. Perhaps she is not so sure of her own self. I would have loved to read this book when I was in my late teens, so I think I would recommend it to that age group. Nonetheless Girls Will Be Girls is a great book that deserves lots of praise and attention, and I would recommend it not only to teenage girls but to boys as well, and anyone particularly interested in experimenting with gender performativity.
Published by Orion in 2015.