Emer O’Toole is a joyless bore compared with my heroine Caitlin Moran, says Julie Burchill

In a review of Girls will be Girls by Emer O’Toole Julie Burchill dismisses the feminist now most famous for her hairy armpits

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Girls Will be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently Emer O’Toole

Orion, pp.277, £12.99, ISBN: 9781409148739

Looking at the brightly coloured front cover of this book, I felt cheerful; turning it over and seeing the word ‘gender’, my heart sank. When I was a kiddy in the early 1970s, the word (especially when combined with ‘bending’) seemed full of fun and flighty possibilities — David Bowie in a dress, Marc Bolan flouncing about on Top of the Pops like a little girl at her birthday party, Danny La Rue making my mum snort Snowball down her nose on a Saturday night.

Now gender-bending appears to have boiled down to a bunch of hatchet-faced transsexuals demanding to use the Ladies, ‘no-platforming’ veteran feminists who have worked all their lives to better the lot of women and children, and generally telling born females what to do. Not so much bending as bossing, and definitely no fun at all.

But in the wake of the success of the Divine Caitlin, all feminism must show willing on the fun front, so the back-cover blurb of Girls Will be Girls insists that the contents are ‘hilarious’. I’m always a bit doubtful about this claim by a book about itself. Isn’t it rather like giving oneself a nickname? I must say I suppressed a shudder as I read on:

Emer O’Toole once caused a media sensation by growing her body hair and singing ‘Get Your Pits Out for the Lads’ on national TV. You might think she’s crazy — but she has lessons for us all.

Oh dear — as in ‘You Don’t Have to be Crazy to Work Here, but it Helps’,the bore’s eternal mantra.

You can’t blame publishers for wanting to have their very own Caitlin Moran, any more than you could blame record labels in the 1960s for wanting their very own Scouse pop-combo in the wake of the Fab Four. There must be a bit of personal stuff, showing the writer up as a ‘lovable klutz’, then a bit of feminist theory, with a spoonful of selfie making the mis old medicine go down.

Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things was the bed-wetting version, for sensitive, privately educated young women who could fearlessly look anorexia and self-harming in the eye but just couldn’t identify with coming from Wolverhampton. Lena Dunham’s was the Yank bourgeoise boho angle — complete with sexually investigating your sisters because you were a perve rather than sharing a bed with your sisters because you were poor. And now here’s Girls Will be Girls, whose author is a sort of Freddy and the Dreamers to Moran’s Mop-Tops (and even has a similar Gaelic-sounding name).

On the very first page a teenage O’Toole has ‘just made a dick of herself in front of the entire school’, and though this is meant to be a bit of aw-shucks-folks-I’m-no-dry-old-theorist business, it just made me feel weary dread that O’Toole was about to continue her dickhood as a career path. (It’s a really odd sensation to feel bored by a book when you’ve barely cleared the first paragraph.) She has her hair done, she gets her body hair removed and she applies make up — calling this ‘an experiment in gender-performativity’. It’s like bin men being called waste technicians. But if you don’t empty the bins they’re going to stink — and if you have nothing new to say, neither does your book.

Despite all the look-at-me-I’m-wearing-odd-socks zaniness, there is a definite whiff of the campus cry-bully about this book; there’s actually a TRIGGER WARNING! on page 183. (My first: now I truly feel part of the intersectional community.) Though younger than Moran, O’Toole lacks Caitlin’s inherent teenage joyousness and comes across more like a trendy teacher wearing ethnic earrings and trying to get down with the youth by playing grime in the classroom. (Every so often, when the kids get over-rowdy she bursts out that ‘There’s always one who has to spoil it for everyone else!’) When she boasts of being bisexual, it’s hard not to snigger; it’s like someone boasting about being able to hop. So what?

Her publishers claim that ‘Emer O’Toole is the perfect mix of Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer and Lena Dunham’. Leaving aside the odd, un-feminist, people-pleasing use of the word ‘perfect’, I could claim this too — because I swear, I’m old and I’m fat. But I’m not that thing, and neither is O’Toole. She apparently has ‘a PhD in theatre studies’ — and this reads very much like a book by someone who has tried and failed to make it as a performer. (No true writer uses the phrase ‘joking aside’ or the word ‘tummy’, surely?)

To give credit where it’s due, O’Toole is very pretty — and she made me laugh with her dedication: ‘For my brothers Ronan and Ciaran: never liked ye.’ I’ve never before singled out a book’s dedication page as its high point, so at least there’s one thing about this effort I liked among all its dreary, derivative dead wood.

Save your money, buy a bottle of whisky and re-read How to Be a Woman instead.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • paulthorgan

    “And now here’s Girls Will be Girls, whose author is a sort of Freddy and the Dreamers to Moran’s Mop-Top.”

    This is really an unfair attack on the reputation of Freddy Garrity, who did great work on ITV’s ‘Freddy’s Joke Hall of Fame’ in the early 1970s, in addition to his pop career in the 1960s.

    Freddy was a lot funnier than John Lennon was at the time. Burchill is being very Freddist here…

    • john p reid

      Very Freddist ,I can’t top that

  • Jay Currie

    “When she boasts of being bisexual, it’s hard not to snigger; it’s like someone boasting about being able to hop. So what?”

    Thank you… Made my night.

  • That’s never her own underarm hair! (Can’t be sure because I’ve never seen mine as an actual mane, being a religious shaver from the moment the stubble came in.) What’s the underarm version of a toupé?

    • Molly Caudle

      You really should consider an armpit mane they feel quite glorious in the breeze. Molly

  • John Deer

    Congrats Julie for putting together this really nasty and mean-spirited piece on a book which you had clearly written off the minute you turned to the back cover (the section which the publisher/publicist writes…). Having read the book myself, it strikes me that you did little more than skim through it and not having sufficient interest to conduct a balanced review (you’re fooling no-one with that “on page 183” stuff), decided to opt for eye rolling character assassination rather than offering more substantial criticism. While you clearly were too “weary” of the subject matter to give any credit whatsoever to the author on anything except the dedication page and the fact she is pretty…(I’m assuming that this weariness is due to the depth of reading you have amassed on the subject matter), I actually learned quite a lot from this well written and accessible book. In fact, as a result of reading it I may carry out further reading on the subject. I may even read the title that you recommend in your review. As you mention; you’re old so you might not be considering the worth of Girls Will Be Girls to interested younger readers who have yet to gain the wisdom you have acquired over the years and even if you consider there to be no value or worth in the work, you could at least try to give the impression that you have actually read the book! The review is lazy at best, bitter at worst. Nice one Julie!

  • Wolfschanze

    “it just made me feel weary dread that O’Toole was about to continue her dickhood as a career path” – LOL!

    I just heard a radio interview with her and came away with similar opinions to those you have entertainingly articulated above.
    I have no intention of reading the book, but I enjoyed your honest review of it.