We’re all born naked and the rest is drag
Emer O’Toole’s book Girls will be Girls has to be one of the best books on gender issues that I’ve read this year. Her discussion on how people perform their gender has a strong theoretical grounding while being funny and relevant.
Emer’s premise is that being male or female is a performance and how the body is ‘used to define and socialise us’. She puts the things that we do all the time under a microscope to analyse them in order to understand what she calls “Performativity”.
It is a testament of how society’s norms and double standards govern every part of our lives right down to the hair on our various parts of our body, but more of that later.
Gender as performance
While much of this book is based on the theories of American Philosopher Judith Butler, she begins by referring to work by Lise Eliot and Cordelia Fine on the neuroscience of gender. She doesn’t spend much time on the neurology of gender but Emer concludes that the plasticity of the brain and nurture allows people to transcend any slight differences between the brains of men and women. As Simone de Beauvoir once said, ‘one is not born, but, rather, becomes woman’.
From the day we’re born and the doctor declares ‘it’s a girl or it’s a boy’, our body influences who we are. It influences how we are expected to dress, behave, interact with others as well as have our hair. Whether we are male or female, the choice of subjects at school and the division of labour in the home are impacted. As Emer argues ‘our bodies are coded and costumed to turn us into easily identifiable men and women, creating artificial divisions in society and limiting the identities that people of any gender feel confident performing’.
As Emer continues to discuss, all is well as long as we continue to play the parts assigned to us by our gender but trouble starts when we deviate from this script. Society has many punitive measures to inflict on those who digress from the expected social norms.
As the great Judith Butler argues, ‘gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences….. we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right’.
You can see examples of this everywhere ranging from the guilt trip that society dumps on mothers who go back to work to men who choose to put family before their careers. But these are two examples, there are many things that we might lose privilege for happen on a micro-personal level.
Emer is famous as being the girl who challenged the cultural narrative and not shaving for a whole 18 months.
The politics of hair
I’ve often wondered about the difference in gender expectations surrounding body hair and how opposite the cultural norms.
Emer dedicates a whole chapter on the relationship that society has with women’s body hair. Her argument looks at what is considered feminine and response to something that is natural.
Both men and women have hair but for women is considered unhygienic and also something to be ashamed of. Emer points out that ‘Body hair seems to be a potent symbol of the way in which we teach girl children that the changes their bodies go through at puberty are shameful’.
It seems really odd to think that something that everybody in society has is considered unhygienic for half the population and normal for the other. To make it worse, hair removal for women has turned into big business as women spend hundreds of dollars and hours to remain hair free.
Emer’s experience was interesting and a lot tougher than she thought. She felt self conscious and adjusted her wardrobe to cover the ‘offending areas’. She believes that ‘hairless females look better is a culturally conditioned one. We think that bald female legs equal beautiful female legs because we’re not used to seeing beautiful women with leg hair’. Until it changes, I will continue to participate in hair removal and respect Emer for doing what I am not brave enough to do
Why read this book?
This blog post has just touched the surface of what Emer O’Toole discusses in Girls will be Girls. I loved her discussion on Agency vs. Structure and it helped me to understand how people make choices and the power that the social structures have on all of us.
Emer is super smart and is well equipped to put gender under the microscope in ways that is effective and witty.