One Halloween, when Emer O’Toole was 19, she decided to shake things up a little. In previous years she’d headed out dressed as a sexy fairy, a sexy policewoman and a French maid. To the teenage O’Toole Halloween meant dressing in an exaggeratedly feminine way – until the night she decided to dress up as a boy.
She drew on stubble, borrowed her brother’s clothes, hid her long hair in a hat and hit the town. The reactions – a mixture of confusion, attraction and amusement – surprised her. They also made her think about how we express gender through performance. “From observing the other half of humanity,” she writes, “I’ve always known how to play the part of boy.”
It was the beginning of a decade of exploring and playing with gender that would, via a PhD in theatre studies and a brief accidental stint as the “international face of female body hair”, eventually lead to this book.
O'Toole began to observe the way our supposedly free choices are shaped by an environment that rewards people for behaving in ways that are deemed appropriate to their gender. She observed her own mixed feelings when she stopped removing her body hair, and ended up appearing on the ITV show This Morning as a result.
Now she has drawn on the work of philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists (most notably Judith Butler), as well as her own experiences, to produce a witty and engaging exploration of how gender roles are performed through everything from dress and body modification to language, domestic labour and body language.
O’Toole urges her readers, whatever their gender identity, to examine and question how they perform that identity. And she suggests how they could begin to play with gender in ways that feel safe for them. That might mean trying to avoid using gender-specific pronouns and seeing what assumptions others make when they don’t know the gender of a person being discussed, cutting (or growing) their hair, or just wearing a deodorant associated with the other sex. As she says, “Manipulating symbols is playful, but it’s play with a purpose.”
And sometimes it’s not a game. As O’Toole reminds us, those who subvert and challenge traditional views of what gender means can be treated with confusion and derision at best and hostility and violence at worst.
I’m a little wary (and weary) of publishers’ apparent desire for feminist books to be partly memoirs, as if sociocultural criticism and analysis can be palatable only if served in a confessional form, usually by white middle-class women. But O’Toole’s experiences as a self-identified queer woman who has spent a decade exploring gender performance in private and professional life do produce interesting insights.
Families and friends
She’s also refreshingly honest about confronting and challenging her own racism, ablism and internalised misogyny, and she’s particularly good when she writes about how difficult and upsetting it can be to challenge the system when it comes to our own families and friends. As she writes, “the hard thing is, patriarchy is made up of people I love”.
Most importantly, O’Toole’s personal stories are balanced by her analysis and explanation of complex ideas. The book’s blurb claims that it will “revolutionise the way you think about gender”, although this depends on how familiar you are with previous writing on the topic.
There’s nothing wildly groundbreaking about what O’Toole is saying, and it didn’t blow my mind. But I’m 39 and have been reading about feminism since my riot grrrl teens; for many readers, particularly younger women, new to feminism, these ideas will be new and, yes, revolutionary.
Crucially, O’Toole writes about them in an entertaining and accessible way that makes them feel both fresh and relevant. Her experiences help illuminate everything from the tension between social structure and personal agency to Jean Piaget’s theory of schema and how it affects how we perceive gender.
She wears her knowledge lightly; when writing about her first experience using the men's toilets while in male drag, she cites Susan Sontag's observation in Notes on 'Camp' that what's most attractive in the masculine is an element of the feminine, and vice versa, before adding, "But then Susan Sontag probably didn't spend much time hanging out in the lads' jacks of the Warwick Hotel."
Above all this book urges readers to constantly ask why they, and the people around them, behave in certain gendered ways, and what they might do differently. We’re often told that feminism is about choices, but no one makes those choices in a vacuum, and although O’Toole is slow to offer judgment, she does urge women to think about the context in which we make those choices. “When it comes to how best to perform your gender under patriarchy,” she writes, “only you have the right answer for you.”
The important thing is to always ask the question. Because sometimes girls will be girls. But, as this thoughtful, funny book reminds us, being a girl can mean a lot of things. And with luck one day women will all get to decide for themselves what that is.
Anna Carey's novel Rebecca Is Always Right is published by O'Brien Press