Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Book review: Girls will be Girls

When I saw this book at the library, it jumped out at me immediately. The cheery yellow cover was irresistible, and the inviting title GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS suggested writing on gender and representation. The tagline was even better: 'Dressing up, playing parts, and daring to act differently'. Goody! thought I.

I hadn't heard of the author, Emer O'Toole at all; but later that afternoon a quick Google led me to discover that she had apparently gone viral a couple of years ago due to making a point about not shaving her legs or armpits. I wasn't sure why this was groundbreaking stuff (personally I've never shaved my legs in my life) but tucked into the book with great interest nonetheless.

Girls Will Be Girls seems, at first, like a slightly strange text. It opens like a memoir and certainly the first few chapters read like feminist autobiography, reminiscent of How To Be A Woman' (but far less self-righteous and annoying). But then as you continue to read, O'Toole's anecdotes become crossed with feminist theory, queer theory, and theory of performance. It's Judith-Butler central. As someone with a similar academic background to O'Toole (she did a theatre studies BA, I did costume BA; and I wrote my dissertation about drag) all this theory was incredibly familiar to me and so I spent much of the first half of the book searching for how she might tell me something new. Of course, Judith Butler writes purely academic theory and is very dry; whilst O'Toole's book is far more approachable; so for those of you who didn't write essays on the construction of gender and theory of performativity at university, you might well find this section very enlightening!

The book really comes into its own when she switches from teacher to friend and makes suggestions on how to act differently and ignore our society's prewritten rules for playing the role of a woman. This is after often-hilarious descriptions about her own antics and experimentations, including pretending to be a boy in a night club and hitting on her friend; and the experience of going viral after an interview. Things she suggests includes experimenting with cross-dressing, not shaving your armpits, and tying your towel around your waist (like a boy) instead of above your breasts (like a girl). These are often very small things, and not always obviously groundbreaking, but she makes great points on how many things in everyday life are governed by a greater societal need to make women feel insecure.

Not everyone will enjoy O'Toole's overly-familiar, sarky, tongue-in-cheek tone of writing; but beneath the wit (and the puns) lies a heart of gold preaching encouragement, subversion, and the importance of questioning the status quo. And that's a very good thing indeed.

'Girls Will Be Girls' is published by Orion, 2015. Emer O'Toole also writes for the Guardian

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