Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Rose of Tralee: Why this 'lovely girls' contest will always have one very ugly aspect

Whether it's the Rose of Tralee competition or our New Zealand-conquering rugby players, Ireland still has a problem with the word 'woman', writes Malachi O'Doherty

Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh
Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh
A scene from Father Ted as the hapless priest judges the annual Lovely Girls beauty pageant
A scene from Father Ted as the hapless priest judges the annual Lovely Girls beauty pageant
The Irish women’s rugby team beating New Zealand in the World Cup earlier this month
The Irish women’s rugby team beating New Zealand in the World Cup earlier this month

There was always one thing certain about the winner of the Rose Of Tralee contest last week and that's that she would be a woman. Not an ordinary woman, but a perfect flower: fragrant, beautiful, an ornament, a credit to her family and to Ireland.

The simple word 'woman' is one that is used sparingly on the show itself and in numerous other contexts still in which it is women who are discussed, as if it is too blunt, impolite, prosaic. Acknowledging the ordinariness of womanhood is somehow thought insulting when voiced by a man.

Take women's rugby. For some reason, many of the male commentators who have been invited to talk about it in the media have found themselves awkwardly referring to the "ladies" and the "girls", and skirting the one word the women rugby players themselves use.

It isn't a difficult word to say in some pedestrian contexts, like court reportage. But the difficulty that some men have in using it in other contexts has riled feminists for decades.

Marilyn French called her memoir The Women's Room, precisely to pinpoint that apparent squeamishness with which the toilet women use was called 'the Ladies'.

True, the one used by men was called 'the Gents', but somehow that usage didn't extend to men in the way that 'Ladies' did to women.

The idea of gentlemen's rugby would conjure up absurd images of players standing politely aside to allow rivals to have access to the ball.

Equally absurd is the concept of ladies rugby, as if we were intended to imagine dainty young things in frills holding the ball in much the same manner in which they would hold a china tea cup. You have to wonder how any man with an interest in sport could utter the term "ladies rugby" without baulking at the obvious paradox.

But, further, you have to assume that the man who talks about ladies rugby, or ladies golf, is not only personally trying to avoid the simple word woman; he also is oblivious to the discussion about language and sexism that has governed debate on feminism for decades.

I am of a generation that came to maturity – if you could call it that – before feminism started asking men to correct their language.

I know the cultural influence of the old assumption that the female is dainty and vulnerable and only thereby feminine, but even if I still instinctively thought like that, I would know to adjust my language in order to effect otherwise in public. I'd make an effort.

A lot of men in Ireland don't even know that a woman may find the terms "lady", or "girl", offensive in their implication that what she does is never as real and direct as what is done by a man. The Rose of Tralee competition last week was a festival for those who prefer foliage to flesh.

There has been controversy about the competition with many sneering at it as a standard sexist display of sexually attractive females, a throwback to a time when Miss World would be broadcast on the BBC; as unlikely now as a revival of The Black And White Minstrel Show. The Rose of Tralee was parodied on Father Ted as the Lovely Girls competition, with Ted as the judge. But actually the women who seek to be the Rose are not flaunting their sexuality at all. They are not lined up to appeal to the sexually discerning gent, but with a different focus altogether.

The Rose is not prime totty like Miss World, or Miss Northern Ireland for that matter. She is Daddy's Little Girl.

She may be a doctor or a lawyer, a professional high-achiever, but the message overall is that she is really still the little girl she always was, from the Irish sticks.

The routine expects that the parents will be in the audience and the camera will play over them, catching their proud blushes as the daughter on stage sings her little song, recites her ghastly rhyme or hoists her skirt and dances a jig.

The important qualifications for a Rose are that she should be an exemplar of a happy family, that she should love her parents and be loved by them, that she is well-mannered and well-spoken. She is either Irish, or part of the Irish diaspora, and the implication of the whole thing is that Ireland is still a pure and decent, Godly country in which families values prevail.

This year's winner, Maria from Philadelphia, was a little boyish in her look and scored points for being not just teetotal, but a Pioneer since the age of 12, having taken the pledge at her Confirmation. For many, there is an ironic way of enjoying all this – by regarding it as parody.

That is clear from the tweets that gather round the rival hashtag, #ROT, the twitter home for those who watched it to remind themselves how much they disapprove of that sort of thing.

One rose, Perth, excelled in her celebration of womanly virtue by describing how her mother, when labour pains started, got out of bed to iron shirts for her policeman husband, to see him through the time she would be away having a daughter for him.

And no one interjected to suggest that such heroic self-effacement is anything but admirable, the proper exercise of domestic responsibility. No one laughed. Occasionally, the harsh world intrudes in the Rose of Tralee, but is quickly dealt with and the core values are reaffirmed.

While the Texas Rose was disclosing that she and her mother had known alcohol and violence in the family, this was told only to affirm with survival of love.

The big, smiling man sitting beside the mother in the audience was never mentioned.

Roses are routinely asked if they are going to get married.

They are expected to say yes. Yet they are quarantined from their boyfriends for the duration of the competition and appointed gentlemanly escorts, so that they will have partners whose behaviour can be guaranteed.

We are to presume that if they are not actually virgins they are as chaste on the show as they'd be before Holy Communion.

Tellingly, much of the sneering at this unreflective sexism on Twitter comes from men.

The feminist contempt for these presumptions about female propriety are now well assimilated into popular culture.

If you measure how culturally backward a country is by its difficulty in regarding women as fully human, then Ireland – north and south – has a way to go.

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