Girls Will Be Girls-Emer O'Toole
non fiction-gender studies
Emer O'Toole engages with feminist theory about the performance of gender.
I will begin with the fact that I was likely not actually the target. My academically gender studies credentials are advanced-born from a women's college education, trans-activism, and a long time interest which had me reading Butler as a teenager...the same time O'Toole is just beginning to "experiment" with what costumes she could change. Thus, I already have a series of critiques I can level against the performance of gender (for instance, this was an entirely cis-centric tome with an inadequate consideration of transgender persons). I shall put them aside for this review since this book is likely meant for people who are on the fence about feminism or people who have not read any of the actual theory.
O'Toole covers most of the accustomed bases of feminist theory and makes an entertainingly convincing argument for examining your own life. Why do you, as a woman, do the things you do to be a woman? We, women, are all of us aware of the differences in our lives from those of men. Men shave their faces but nothing else, women may shave everything else. Men don't wear makeup, women may wear 'too much' or 'too little'. What O'Toole does best is asking the reader to think about why. She does so by connecting the dense theory, the abstract and often labyrinth ideas, to her own life. And so we learn of her upbringing in an Irish Catholic family with a strong emphasis on a binary view of life. I enjoyed her exploration of the home-a contentious sphere for feminists- which juxtapositions the teaching of the equal sexes with a practice that highlights inequality. O'Toole writes accessibly-this barely feels non-fiction- and with wry humor. I found myself smiling at her jokes.
What I, however, cannot forgive O'Toole for is her discussion of sexuality. She completely dismisses bisexuality essentially because she doesn't believe in it since it's only a societal construct. There's no real warning before this dismissal-she just kind of launches into it and heavily implies that bisexuality is a performance in of itself. There's a sort of contradiction going on in her thinking-we're free to define ourselves as feminists but in the sphere of sexuality, it's the other person who defines what you are. She has more thinking, more growing to do I guess, which is the theme of the book in a way. After all, she has gone through all these experiments and costumes, talks about her discomfort, but there is still some dissonance going on here. She never really discusses how she learned to feel comfortable in her own skin. Has she? This is kind of what I feel the limits of the performance of gender theory are. If gender is performance, what does that mean for your default performance? Sure it's a societal construct but where is the comfort in that? Can we live our lives without that basic comfort?