Rose of Tralee: Are we missing the point?

“The annual Rose of Tralee brings with it a slew of disdainful articles, all predictable and totally missing the point! ”

Well, there you have it. A comment in response to today’s Journal.ie’s opinion piece on that most divisive of pageants: The Rose of Tralee. Joining Lorraine Courtney in the condemnation corner is Louise O’Neill in The Examiner. Both allude to the anachronistic nature of the event: the casual objectification of women (albeit without the bikini round); the ethnically homogenous participants; and the less-than-subtle assumptions on sexuality with the safeguarding of an exclusively male line-up of chaperones. Because, in the case of the latter, where would the ladies be without one? Getting sick sideways out the tour-bus window no doubt. If only.

Like any cultural phenomenon, the spectacle shouldn’t be spared a periodic good kicking to see how it stands up. Courtney is concerned with the perceived dumbing down of personalities through the banal interview that forces participants to temper their individuality via self-censorship and insipid responses. O’Neill, meanwhile, despairs that regardless of the purported elevation of brains above beauty to ensure a more respectable affair, it is the sparkly dresses and winning smiles that little girls looking on remember. The impact of the resulting absorption of such messages on female success should not be underestimated.

Like any article written on women by women, neither writer is spared the reciprocated on-line kicking. The substantive points both make are frequently overlooked by readers more concerned with pointing out their apparent uptightness and compulsion to peddle a pro-feminist message. Imagine that. The particularly enlightened commentators cite several points missed: the choice women have to participate (or not), the ‘harmlessness’ of the revenue-generating bit of fun local communities depend on, and not least the professional and educational status of the wimmin. What’s all the whinging for?

“Some of the most accomplished women have taken part in the Rose of the Tralee and last years winner is a medical student and as a cancer survivor will I believe, go on to be a fine doctor.” (sic)

Indeed. And this is perhaps what makes it a uniquely Irish Festival of Respectability: the degree and the big job. The ultimate status symbols. That most beloved of combos after low-esteem and big ego. Which to this reluctant spectator, is what has helped contributed to the event’s durability.

Louise O’Neill asks when the last time a woman of colour entered? While this is a fair question, so dominated has identity politics become by issues of gender and sexuality that the most glaring issue of inequality that encompasses many women irrespective of ethnicity appears to go unchallenged: that of class. When is the last time a woman without the mandatory third level education and impenetrable job title entered?

“Of course no mention that the majority of these women are all ready successful in there lives much more successful then the women that complain and want to stop them from doing this.”

Another Journal commentator roundly telling the critics off.

There is just one thorny problem with that analysis however: people are born with conventional beauty (or pay for it), but it is privilege that awards them ‘brains’.  In the common Irish sense. The Rose of Tralee sense. The status and respectability sense. The national middle-class definition of success sense.

The centrality of women’s education in combating global inequality and access to the labour market is a given. Ambition and determination are not to be sniffed at either. But they are not the preserve of the formally educated who have benefitted from the opportunity to have their ‘brains’ nurtured. A degree and companion ‘profession’ isn’t a pre-requisite for contributing to keeping society successfully on its axis, nor an accurate measure of ‘intelligence’; and the meaning of ‘success’ goes beyond what’s reflected back at us from our job titles and pay-cheques.

When I watch the conga of lovely girls sashaying on to the stage, it is not exposure to identikit glamour and bad jokes I fear most for my own girl. It is the stark class divisions and national obsession with defining success according to a system of inequality that leaves the bitterest after-taste. The narrow definition of success. The one-track route to worthiness. Will the unconscious absorption of the message on ‘success’ stalk her throughout her life? In choosing to go to college or not. In adjusting aspirations and priorities if children enter the fray (if she wants them, and lucky to have them). If they don’t, will she be shunted into that limiting corner where her worth must proved by workplace success? Will jettisoning the big job and opportunities result in itchy feelings of failure? Will having the benefit of a formal education (if lucky to receive it) for life and knowledge be sufficient?

Modern mainstream musings on women are freighted with these anxieties, and written mostly by ‘successful’ women. Valid though they be, they have, in the main, become an issue of entitlement for the already entitled. With scant attention given to equality of access to education, and the merits of it remaining the chief determinant for just about every ‘respectable’ job going. And we don’t need to re-open any discussion here on the lack of respect afforded to predominantly female areas of work.

Even if it were to leave out ‘beauty’, The Rose of Tralee would still be left with the worrying problem of ‘brains’. So why bother with either?

rose of tralee

You’ve No degree? What kind of degree is that? Begorrah

Lorraine Courtney’s article: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/rose-of-tralee-outdated-lorraine-courtney-2935105-Aug2016/

Louise O’Neill’s article: http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/louise-oneill/to-be-a-rose-was-to-have-made-it-in-life-416879.html

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