By Eimear O’ Dwyer
Galway native Emer O’Toole’s book ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ is an invigorating journey through Emer’s life as she explores the nuances of gender, what it means to be a feminist and how she revolutionised her behaviour to defy the expectations of society.
Published in 2015, ‘Girls will be Girls’ holds as much significance today as it did then.
Emer delves into her past and vividly depicts the reality of growing up in rural Ireland. She describes the deeply ingrained views that prevailed about the position and expectations of women in our society.
Reflecting on her time working in a pub when she was 18, she recalls feeling a sense of empowerment as she conformed to traditional gender roles. She recalls seeking the approval of male punters by agreeing with them that women should be pleased to keep house and raise a family.
She describes the conflicting feelings she started to experience as the reality of being a woman and how that would affect the trajectory of her life became more apparent to her.
Emer describes growing up, watching her mother do all the household work and being expected as a woman to help.
She recalls feeling frustrated that her brothers and father were not expected to do the menial tasks. The men in her life expected that their meals would be cooked and the house would be cleaned.
The meaning of gender
Emer questions the meaning of gender, gender roles and norms and how sexuality is understood. Her work shows us that a lot of gender norms and sexual preferences are learned behaviours. The way we play our roles leads to either rewards or punishment.
For instance, young girls are often praised for being placid and helpful. The opposite is often true if a girl is loud, ambitious or assertive; qualities which are respected in boys.
“You are aggressive, you are naggy, you are conflict, you are difficult, you are selfish, you are complaining when other people have it so much worse, you used to be such a good girl.” (p238)
Her writing is profound and encapsulating. It will make you uncomfortable at times, it will make you laugh at others. And most importantly, it will make you think about your own beliefs and biases.
Emer describes how she began to experiment with her own gender. At 19, on Halloween, she decided to dress up as a man.
This small choice awakened a curiosity in Emer about the meaning of gender. She felt a newfound freedom in expressing herself in a different way. Emer also found that when her gender changed, this altered the way she was perceived and how she was treated.
She questions why as women there is an expectation that we are not enough as is. She observes that women must pluck, shave, wax, tan, paint, powder, cover, conceal, spray, curl and straighten in order to be considered desirable.
For three years, Emer stopped shaving, ditched her makeup bag and started trying out alternating male/female stereotypes.
What she found was a sense of empowerment in performing her gender in a different way. She found that she faced criticism, mocking and shock when she did this.
However, she also found that she gained a sense of freedom in that she took her choice back. She realised that the time, money and pain spent on performing her femininity was something she was not willing to partake in.
“Femininity is not something that women have, but something that women must buy.”
Emer wonders why we do not question how these practices and rituals have ingrained themselves into the normal day-to-day routines of our lives.
While Emer acknowledges that some of the practices can be empowering and enjoyable. She personally found a sense of freedom in making them a choice rather than a requirement.
Emer, by crossing the boundaries of gender performance and experiencing what it is like to be perceived as masculine, portrays the fragility of the concept of gender.
“Men’s choices around their bodies are for their pleasure; women’s choices around their bodies are for everyone else’s pleasure.”
Emer’s tone is composed and her points are backed by research. She invites the reader to explore the concept of gender as a set of rules that we learn and conform to rather than a concrete, tangible concept.
“While I can’t control how I am read, I can at least try to tell the story about gender and performance that I want to tell.”
This is a thought-provoking read that will challenge your beliefs about gender and sexuality.
It is not a rant at those who shave or wear makeup; it is the opening to a conversation. Emer invites us to question where we learned that these rituals were an important benchmark of femininity.
“Ultimately, I believe that it’s more important to be the kind of woman who loves herself and other women enough to demand that she is treated at all times as an equal than it is to win the love of those who refuse to recognise or remedy inequality.”