It was a Tuesday evening family dinner chat. Then someone mentioned the Rose of Tralee ‘beauty pageant’, which was on TV that night. It’s not traditionally quite as exciting as The Late Late Toy Show, but it is one of those occasions in the Irish calendar when parents meekly accept that children can stay up late to watch it.
I knew my place and wasn’t about to disagree. Unusually, I held my tongue.
My discretion went unappreciated.
I noticed a slight lip curl from one of my children at the end of the table, and then a snarky comment, of a type that is becoming more frequent as teenagehood looms large:.
“I just bet the Rose of Tralee is one of those things that you give out about at all the time,” she said.
What a burn! That’s me, apparently — rampant feminist — clutching my outrage at every opportunity.
Even though I believe the Rose of Tralee is a jumped-up lovely girl competition, which does significant damage to the cause of gender equality, I also realise that it has a special magic for Irish children. And I know the more I openly object to it, the more determined my children would be to watch it.
Not that it’s just the youngsters who like it, either. It takes place in August, and signals the end of summer.
The contestants tour the country, then go to Tralee, and the stage show is broadcast from the Dome on Monday and Tuesday. The winner is crowned on Tuesday night, and then, ta dah, we’re all back to school.
Despite the passage of the decades — the Rose of Tralee celebrated its 60th anniversary this year — it is still a comforting, familiar ritual. It’s essentially the same competition that it was when I was a child.
However, what was acceptable in 1959 is certainly not so now. No matter how much you might try and tell yourself this is harmless fun, it is a competition that is harmful to women.
The contestants are perpetuating that damage. It is not a ‘victimless crime’, no matter how much the contestants, the organisers, and the host defend it.
I like Dáithí Ó Sé, the host. He’s very good at what he does. But its claptrap to suggest, as he does, that this festival empowers women.
I’m sure this year’s Rose of Tralee, Limerick’s Sinead Flanagan, is a fine young woman. However, I shudder to think, as she claims, of the festival as representing “modern Irish women”, who are highly educated and have a few life experiences. I deliberately haven’t watched it for a few years, but did for 15 minutes with my daughters on Tuesday night.
Within minutes, I was doing what everyone else, all over the country, was doing — passing judgement.
Had they been visible, the speech bubbles in my head would have read along the lines of ‘not sure about that dress’; ‘she’d have been better off with her hair down’; ‘groan, not another lover of young children who wants to spend her career caring for them’; ‘she’s the best of the lot so far’; ‘ya, you’d go for a pint with her, good craic’; ‘what an impressive young woman.’
If you got bored just watching, there was nothing better than logging onto social media to see what everyone else thought, including our emigrants, tuning in from all over the world.
Then, after each Rose chats with Daithi, she demonstrates, as my youngest rather quaintly describes it, “a talent” — a song, an Irish dance, a tune on the flute. You know the drill. Speaking of power tools, that party piece segment has been utterly ruined for anyone who has ever watched comedian David McSavage’s viciously funny sketch about ‘Longford Rose Emer Ní Hoolahoop’ building a flatpack table and chairs onstage.
It doesn’t matter how we try to dress it up, we are all engaged in the same thing — judging these young women, who are parading their wares, be they physical or cerebral. They have invited us to do just this by putting themselves forward for selection. We judge them for being too thin, too fat, too tall, too small, too chatty, too boring, too much of a Yank, a culchie.
THE same thing happens when you pick up those magazines at the hairdresser’s or at the doctor’s or in some other waiting room — within seconds, you’re peering at the cellulite of some celebrity on the beach in Ibiza or the ‘baby weight’ that a reality TV star has shed in the six weeks since she has given birth.
You can lose an hour of your life to the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’ and once you get the first hit, your brain simply can’t get enough of ‘judging’ the women who are featured in it.
And It is almost always women who are held under this particular microscope.
Some of those women are complicit, in that they may have tipped off the paparazzi as to their whereabouts.
Others are innocently enjoying some beach time with their family. However it came about, the photo ‘opportunity’ is designed to draw you in and offer you the comfort and superiority of sneering at these women’s ‘shortcomings.’
Sure, you don’t get close-ups of the Roses’ sweat stains or their forehead lines or their ‘love handles.’ It’s far more refined than that.
But it is a version of that same thing — women being put under a spotlight to see how well they measure up.
These women in the Dome, sadly, are fully co-operating in that scrutiny. Why on earth would anyone want that for their daughters?
When mine are older, I’ll just have to hope they’ll be open to that conversation.