I was recently misfortunate enough to spend some time as an inpatient in hospital. While I was there, I was captive audience for RTÉ, who to my horror still give two days of prime time TV coverage to the over-hyped, insipid beauty pageant that is the Rose of Tralee.
My reasons for disliking the Rose of Tralee are far from original. It’s a beauty contest, sexist nonsense, nothing more to it than the “lovely girls competition” that was parodied excellently on Father Ted. The girls get dressed up, laugh prettily at the male host’s witless jokes, and recite a poem about how much they love their homeland before, demure and docile, they waltz off the stage. The Rose of Tralee website, of course, oversells the event, claiming that “A Rose reflects the intelligence, compassion and independence of modern Irish women,” and “represents the collective aspirations, social responsibilities and ambitions of young women.” To any woman who is intelligent, independent, compassionate and has meaningful aspirations, this is downright insulting and condescending. If any of the “Roses” were endowed with wonderful, inspiring qualities, they were given no chance to display them. They stood on stage while the male host delivered tired “look at all these lovely girls” clichés, and simpered while they patiently waited to get a word in edgeways.
The competition would be a lot less condescending if it would drop the pretence at being anything other than a twee, outdated fashion show. There’s no intelligence or independence to that spectacle, and certainly no relevance to “the modern Irish woman.” If the emphasis is on personality, why must you be under 28 to enter? Why are you ineligible if you are or ever have been married? So that “good Catholic Irish men” can daydream (or masturbate) over you without feeling guilty?
And then there are the “Rose Buds.” These are children, aged 6-12, who are paired up with a Rose and go “on tour” with them in exchange for participating in parades and a free JLS ticket. Some of the Roses spoke of how the “Rose Buds” were “a great help” and the “cute factor” is an almost guaranteed positive PR spin for the event. Please tell me how this is not exploitation, and how there is anything positive or progressive about training children to grow up to be beauty queens.
Beauty pageants objectify women and I don’t think a convincing argument can be made otherwise. They are about women seeking approval, male approval for the most part, based on their looks. The worrying thing about modern beauty pageants is that this approval-seeking may now be subconscious. It’s heart-breaking to look at all the Roses and wonder who they are really, as people, and ask if this is what they derive their sense of self-worth from, and disturbing to think of children getting caught up in that situation.
From a misrepresentation of women point of view, there is so much that is wrong or embarrassing about the Rose of Tralee. But much as I would love to see it gone, it is problematic to suggest it should be banned – what next? No blond-haired people in positions of power? You get the idea. But I do think that the extent to which RTÉ covers the event needs to be looked at. Contrast the two-day, prime-time coverage of this beauty pageant with the sparsity of airtime given to women’s sports compared to men’s sports on the same station, and the way female Olympic athletes last year were consistently referred to as “girls.” During the women’s sailing event, the competitors weren’t deemed worthy of names by the male commentators: “the Dutch girl” ,“the American girl.”
We pay a licence fee to RTÉ. From next year we will be paying a licence fee even if we don’t own a television set. We already get appallingly bad value for our fee. In the UK, people pay a licence to the BBC. In exchange, BBC commissions new shows, from good old-fashioned soap operas to educational documentaries and probing current affairs programmes, and BBC audiences are also not subjected to advertising. In the USA, advertising was sold by television stations as an alternative to charging viewers a licence fee. Here in Ireland, we pay both, and what do we get in return? Repeats of shows commissioned and made elsewhere, for the most part. And of course we get the Rose of Tralee, which is as much a staple of the RTÉ schedule as the Angelus prayer, and probably appeals to the same defunct market. For a publically-funded television station which already delivers very poor value to the Irish public to endorse and institutionalise this objectification and sexism is not acceptable in this day and age.
Some have attempted to justify this coverage, claiming that the “festival” is a tourist attraction. Excepting the Roses’ friends and families, who will come regardless of the national coverage it gets, do you know anyone who ever came to Ireland and spent money here because of the Rose of Tralee?
Funny, me neither.
- Naomi Elster is a scientist and a writer. She is currently researching more effective ways to treat breast cancer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She is deputy editor of HeadSpace, a non-profit mental health magazine distributed for free to service users of psychiatric wards and mental health support centres. Her play "Scabs" ran as part of this year's 10 days in Dublin festival. She blogs at http://nothingmentionednothinggained.wordpress.com.
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