LOUISE O'NEILL: To be a Rose was to have made it in life

Why do they insist on providing male escorts? Why do they think a woman in her twenties would need to be chaperoned?

AFTER Christmas and the Eurovision, some of my fondest childhood memories involve the Rose of Tralee. 

The excitement! The glamour! The nausea from consuming too much Fanta and Tayto crisps! We were really living.

I remember watching the contestants on stage and thinking that this was the pinnacle of Irish womanhood. 

Indeed, if you had asked me at the age of seven what my ambition in life was, I would have told you I wanted to be a Rose. (Have bigger dreams, seven year old Louise.) 

To be a Rose was to have made it in life.

Twenty years later, I was visiting one of my best friends, Vicky, in Tralee, and as chance would have it, my trip coincided with the festival. 

The streets were thronged with people, lights picking out the outline of roses in florescent green and red, as the float drifted past us. 

The women smiled down at us, akin to Disney Princesses in their glittering gowns, and I watched as the children in the crowd stared back, open-mouthed. 

One little girl reached out her hand to try and grab at them, as if she could absorb their magic through touch alone.

Afterwards, I saw a group of pre-pubescent girls standing before a poster that featured a grid of the Roses’ faces. 

“Which one is the prettiest?” I heard one of the group ask her friends as I passed by and a heated debate broke out. 

I’m not sure how they could choose, to be honest. All the faces looked remarkably similar to me – thin, young, conventionally attractive, white. 

(Has a woman of colour ever entered the competition? Answers on a postcard, please.)

I conducted an informal poll amongst my university friends to see what modern Irish women think of the pageant (prompting yet another in-depth conversation about feminism in the group Whatsapp) and ‘lame’, ‘outdated’, and ‘embarrassing’ was the verdict. 

I’m obviously not the only person who cringes when they see impressive women with degrees in biochemistry or medieval history or international languages, being reduced to a ‘grand girl, altogether’. 

There’s something so insular about the whole event, an obsession with celebrating a sense of Irishness that verges on the jingoistic. And, despite the well deserved win of the wonderful Maria Walsh in 2014, the festival still feels heteronormative.

Why do they insist on providing male escorts for the contestants? And why do they even think that any woman in her twenties would need to be chaperoned by a man in the first place? 

If it’s simply about celebrating Irish culture and heritage, why doesn’t a similar competition for men exist? And while I concur that it’s not ‘as bad’ as the Miss World or Miss Universe pageants, I do find it laughable when attempts are made to distinguish the Rose of Tralee by saying that ‘it’s not about appearance, it’s about their personalities’.

If this is the case, why hasn’t the festival implemented a blindfold policy for the judges lest those pesky appearances get in the way of their decision making? Why do the women wear makeup or even bother to wash their hair? Why do they all wear dresses? Are you sure none of them would like a chic trouser suit? Why is there an age limit? 

Do women over the age of thirty undergo a personality transplant that I haven’t heard about, one which would render them unable to keep up with the craic down in Kerry? Why were unmarried mothers banned until 2008? 

And if winning the competition is based on their personalities, why does that personality inevitably have to be sweet and lovely and nice and well behaved and, of course, ladylike? Are you trying to tell me that doesn’t enforce strict gender roles in its own way?

This begs the question — why does the Rose of Tralee still exist? It would seem to serve no real purpose and yet endures as part of our cultural landscape. 

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch the show on television and presumably they’re doing so because they enjoy it. My friend Aoife suggested that its popularity could be due to the fact that it offers a view of rural Ireland that we don’t see enough of with the Dublin-centric service RTÉ sometimes gives us, and I don’t think that’s too farfetched a possibility.

I am all too aware of the revenue it generates for the town of Tralee, and coming from a family of small business owners, this is not something I can dismiss easily. 

Lastly, and most importantly, the women involved are free and willing participants, it is their choice to enter in the first place. It’s not for me to say that they shouldn’t do that or to cast aspersions on their reasons for doing so.

I’ve had friends who have entered and who had an incredible experience, making friendships that they have maintained today. 

I’ve met a few of the previous winners, and I have been struck by their intelligence, their humour, their work ethic, and their warmth, but yes, I have also been struck by how attractive they are. Because no matter what defenders of the festival claim, the Rose of Tralee is a beauty pageant. 

It’s about celebrating young, pretty girls, about deciding which Lovely Girl is the loveliest of them all.

That night in Tralee when I watched those pre-teens rating the Roses, they did not think about their personalities, or their degrees, or their accomplishments. They were judging them on their beauty.

Those little girls staring at the Roses waving beatifically from that float were not deciding that an ability to play the fiddle or Irish dance is the key to lasting happiness. No, they were internalising the notion that in order to receive love, attention, and validation, that a pretty dress and a ready smile are what they need.

And that, I’m afraid, can only prove to be damaging to those girls in the future.


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