Many people will recall the appearance of Emer O’Toole on This Morning in 2012, where she participated in a friendly debate over the importance of shaving body hair. For those who haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.
This video went viral, and O’Toole’s surprise at her fame led to the writing of Girls Will Be Girls. A collection of writings on gender performativity, the importance of experimenting and the illusion of ‘binary’ genders, the text is framed by anecdotes from O’Toole’s own life, in which many of her awkward, funny and thought-provoking experimentations have been documented.
This combination of personal and academic writing makes for an entertaining and empowering read—something which, admittedly, I do not often find when I read nonfiction.
O’Toole turns constantly to Judith Butler for a theoretical framework; namely, Butler’s theory of gender performativity, or the idea that our gender codes are a construct rather than an instinct. The entire book is essentially an exploration of this theory, and what it means for modern feminism and our contemporary ideas of gender and self.
The first section of the book deals with O’Toole’s childhood, and is a contemplation of the ways in which society implants the concept of ‘girlness’ into young girls from birth. Things like gendered baby clothes, toys and parenting choices—for example, the compliments paid by parent to child, and how this differs between boys and girls—all contribute to our senses of masculinity and femininity.
Once we have learnt our gender system, O’Toole explains, it becomes difficult to remember that the system was never there from the beginning.
O’Toole begins to experiment with gender in her teenage years; at nineteen she decides to dress up as a boy for Halloween. What follows is a fascinating study of semiotics and how seemingly small things (such as walking style and hair length) add up to fulfil the social requirements of a gender.
After a night of adopting ‘masculine’ traits in a nightclub, O’Toole ruminates on the fact that everything we perceive to be gender is built up of socially constructed decisions and actions:
Once I was a girl dancing. Once, I was a girl dressed as a boy dancing as a girl. I was an act acknowledging that I was an act, in so many competing and conflicting layers that neither I, nor anybody else, knew where the act began or ended. It was the coolest thing.
In the same chapter, she explains the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which revolutionised how we think about gender. The test (which can be taken here, if you’re interested) judges how well a person fits into their traditional gender role. The BSRI showed that androgynous identities—those taking positive traits from both genders—are often the most well-adjusted, thus disproving the idea that ‘feminine’ females are happiest.
O’Toole uses the BSRI as a stepping stone into a discussion of the gender spectrum, and the fallacy of masculinity and femininity as the only “true” gender identities.
A few years ago, O’Toole decided to give up removing her body hair. After all, as she says, why should women have to do it when men can boast hairy legs and underarms without any judgement? This experiment takes up quite a large chunk of the book and is a fascinating insight into what it is like to play with gender norms; how extremely the world reacts to it, and ultimately how ridiculous that is.
Body hair was, says O’Toole, accepted on women until the early 1900s, when the shaving razor was commercialised. Scarily, it only took a few years for body hair to became taboo on women—for society to forget there had ever been a previous set of norms.
It is terrifying, how quickly something once accepted as part of ‘femininity’ can become something ‘disgusting’. Even when it’s something as natural as body hair.
Girls Will Be Girls is the kind of book that can empower an entire gender. What O’Toole’s experiments teach us is that it is important to play with the spectrum and develop our own gender identity, rather than trying to fulfil any presupposed requirements of ‘male’ or ‘female’.
Ultimately, O’Toole urges us to question our own assumptions of both gender and sexuality, and be aware of the performance we put on through our genders. While we can’t ever fully escape our performative natures, we can dabble in new and challenging performances in order to rewrite the rules of ‘girlness’ and ‘boyness’.
In other words, don’t stop the show—change characters. It’s much more fun.
By J. M. Miller
Published 27 May 2015, Lip Magazine