I have finally read one of the most talked about non-fiction books of 2016 : Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole. I had high expectations when I started reading this book and I wouldn’t say that it met all of my expectations but I still enjoyed it and I do believe it is an important book.
This non-fiction book is mainly based on the author’s personal experience but it also contains a lot of references to philosophical and sociological concepts. One could probably describe Girls Will Be Girls as a cross-over between feminist essay and autobiography. The main theory brought forward by Emer O’Toole in this book is that gender is a performance. From an earlier age, girls are taught how to perform their female identity according to what is expected from them by the society they live in. To quote O’Toole: “From the second the doctor shouts ‘it’s a girl’ our bodies are used to define us, to dictate which of our behaviours are acceptable, and how it is acceptable for others to treat us.” Every woman learns to perform womanhood through what she is taught, through cultural products such as cartoons, books and so on and through society and life in general. Not only does O’Toole want to make us realize that gender is a performance, she also urges us to experiment and perform our gender differently. This book shows the “radical potential of performing gender differently” because “You’re bringing the ‘act’ of it all, the creativity of it all, the arbitrariness of it all, to the surface.”
She herself started experimenting with gender from her early twenties, first in a not so conscious way, then in a more and more conscious and subversive way. She first dressed up as a boy for a Holloween party, then she shaved her hair, then she decided to stop shaving all her body parts for a few years. She talks a lot about this radical experiment in her book, which is fascinating: how showing her unshaven armpits in public was such a struggle, how it was hard to receive less sexual attention and so on. This part of the book, which focuses on acceptable and non-acceptable female bodies, shows how women are conditioned to feel shame about their natural bodies and especially how body hairs have become the symbol of “unfemininity” while they actually mark sexual maturity.
I quite like how this book is structured. The author explores different subjects related to womanhood performance (bodies, sex acts…) while also narrating her own journey to understanding gender performance and becoming a feminist. Coming from Galway, a small Irish city, O’Toole explains how she definitely wasn’t a feminist at 18, and how she gradually became one. Some pretty heavy philosophical and sociological concepts are used to demonstrate how society gets women to play their assigned role. For instance, O’Toole explains in great length the difference between “agency” (the individual and the choices made by this individual) and “structure” (the society in which the individual lives, the context in which they make their choices) and why it is important to understand this concept to think about gender issues. Do women really choose to go through various torturous beauty processes (diet plans, botox injections and so on) or are they taught by structure to hate their bodies?
There are many interesting ideas in this book. For instance, O’Toole shows how “physical sexual ambiguity has been rigorously erased from our culture”, despite the fact that 1 in 100 babies born in the United States is intersex. According to O’Toole (and I totally agree with her on that point), the reason why society emphasizes the difference between the two biological sexes and want to protect this idea of binary sex is because “our society is unequal, and bodily difference is used to justify that inequality.” There are so many interesting and well-developed arguments in this book that I can’t mention all of them in here but believe me, this book really gives you material to think about gender.
The writing is vivid, accessible and entertaining, mostly because O’Toole talks a lot about her own experience and experiments, with a real sense of humour. However, as I already mentioned, there are a lot of complicated concepts in this book and even if they are explained quite simply, they still make this book a slow read. You really need some time to process all these ideas. Another thing that may have bothered me a bit during my reading is that the most important of these concepts and the main arguments developed by O’Toole come back very often throughout the book, as if O’Toole wanted to make sure we had understood them well. I don’t think that these somewhat academic repetitions were needed. But apart from that, great and eye-opening read, I encourage you to check it out!
Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole. Published by Orion Books (for this paperback edition), 2016