Monday 10 December 2018

A woman's place... a funny and sometimes startlingly honest Irish take on gender stereotypes

Author Emer O'Toole
Author Emer O'Toole

Mary McGill

As a young girl on her summer holidays in Connemara, Emer O'Toole learned an important but uncomfortable lesson. She and her cousins were embroiled in a 'very serious war' with local kids.

When it came to organising themselves into a combat unit, Emer's war lust was disregarded. Instead of hurtling pine cones at the enemy, she was appointed housemaid of the group's outhouse/fortress, a turn that sent her indoors bawling. Girls, young Emer was fast discovering, are good for cooking and cleaning but not the battlefield.

Funny, sometimes startlingly honest anecdotes are a hallmark of O'Toole's debut with humour serving as a gateway into exploring and critiquing wider issues around how we perform gender.

For all their charm, O'Toole's experiences also serve a serious purpose: exposing the ways in which 'doing' gender can limit our lives, while signposting how men and women can challenge stereotypes to build a more fluid, vibrant and liberated world. This is no easy task when binary ideas around 'natural' gender roles continue to exert huge power over our lives and contesting them can mean alienating those closest to you. As O'Toole notes, 'the hard thing is, patriarchy is made up of people I love.'

In her introduction, O'Toole rightly acknowledges the subjectivity of her own experience. Nevertheless her writing brings to mind, in a positive sense, Second Wave feminism's enduring maxim 'the personal is political'. Whether turning heads dressed as a boy in a Galway nightclub or contending with the media storm that erupted when she revealed her hairy armpits on morning television, O'Toole's attempts to upset the gender order are never less than entertaining, nor are they simply about shock-factor. They embody a political intent.

O'Toole's analysis is bolstered considerably by the depth of the theoretical lens she brings to bear on her experiences, and while her academic career (she is an assistant professor of Irish performance studies at Concordia University, Montréal) is evident throughout, this is no stuffy thesis.

She does an excellent job of explaining the influential theories of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Bell Hooks and many others, in a way that is often as accessible and engaging as her recounting her misadventures with Brazilian waxing.

As a possible fourth wave of Western feminism beckons, new titles on the subject are appearing with increasing regularity. O'Toole holds her own in a crowded space, albeit one in need of a greater diversity of female voices. Her accessible approach to theory, interwoven with her chatty, self-reflective style and gender insights from an Irish perspective creates a welcome addition to the current crop of popular feminist writing.

Non-Fiction

Girls Will Be Girls

Emer O'Toole

Orion, pbk, 288p, €15.99

Available with free P&P on kennys.ie or by calling 091709350

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