Why The Rose Of Tralee Is Not Anti Feminist

Ireland boasts a strange relationship with the Kerry-based competition that sees 32 women represent their heritage on a national stage. But should we take a hard look at ourselves before likening the contest to a mere Lovely Girls exploit?

Pageantry, most especially in the neo-liberalism era, almost exclusively retains a sour reputation. 

This week, in Irish media – and Irish-centric diasporas such as Boston and Dubai – journalists, PR companies and television workers have been laden down with the tourist-attraction enterprise that causes pints in County Kerry to skyrocket for a fortnight each year; The Rose of Tralee. 

The regional rigmarole and contest thereafter are, truly, in a genre of its own making.

While the event in its entirety arguably falls under the pageant mechanic, where else in the world would you see the likes of cow milking, bedtime stories and the now-infamous Banana Dance boast the status of most viewed on national television for that year?

The nation's collective relationship to the festival is notable for a few things; a tension that fluctuates between adoration and despair, a post #MeToo vantage point that berates the show's existence, and an entirely, albeit contradictively, ridiculisation of the entire affair. 

So, why then is the televised show consistently one of our most-watched annual broadcasts?

As much as we don't like to admit it, reality television has become the conversation of our time.

Our lives are punctuated by the likes of BBC and RTÉ2 by way of Love Island (summer), The Great British Bake Off (autumn) and The Late Late Toy Show (winter). We have never before existed in a time where our lives as the fourth wall have been deemed so important. 

The nation saw the dangers of this in the recent three-part Channel 4 series which followed the dizzying highs and traumatic lows of former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody. 

Thankfully, the shocking television triptych highlighted the perilous nature of a once highly unregulated industry; media. It also, most crucially, reminded us all of how we once judged young women. 

By now, most reading this piece will be mulling over a simple yet troublingly pertinent query. Are we doomed?

Thankfully, no. 

We – both all of us, collectively and the competition itself – have come a long way. 

The increasing diversity of the Roses in recent years can be read as a reflection of the country as a whole, despite a lingering Draconian ethos. 

Current rules still stipulate that entrants must not be married (now, or in the past) and until 2008, mothers were barred from entry. Entrants cannot be older than 29 years of age. They are also expected to have a male escort for the duration of the festival.

Entrenched in these stipulations are the feminine notions of a bygone De Valera era which perpetuate the narrative that Ireland – a country which boasts excellent female presidents, bodily autonomy and the proud shunning of a dark Catholic past – prefers their women virginal and men emotionless. 

As both a young woman of Ireland and a fervent believer of gender equality, I'll admit that my patience has been wavered by slapstick sketches and staged photocalls with baby lambs. 

However, what's become clearer to me in more recent times is that the overstated trope of likening near three dozen women to blandly interchangeable Lovely Girls is, in fact, anti-feminism at play in the home. 

The most controversial moment of the contest in recent times (or perhaps ever) came by way of Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins who expressed her support for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. The young journalist faced heavy criticism during a riotous campaign, much of it centred around the claim that the Rose of Tralee is apolitical and therefore above campaigning. 

We didn't need a signifier like this to show which side of history the Rose campaign trail lay, but in a world where woke is the new black, is it possible to enjoy something while still finding fault?

Yes.

The bottom line is that the competition is that of a jumping-off point for anyone who dares to enter. Much like the Kim Kardashians or Maura Higgins' of the world who have jumped through hoops to acquire career longevity – the Rose of Tralee is much of the same, except localised. 

In a world of Wetherspoons, Angry Birds and GAA clubs undergoing the Strictly Come Dancing treatment, the contest offers a reliably nostalgic view of a pre-globalised Ireland. 

Sure, debatable topics arise each year from the freshly plucked seedlings – but surely the show's cute hoor keenness for progressivity can't go unnoticed?

Most women I speak to feel they could never enter say this is because they feel excluded by the curated type of femininity they believe to be required. The women in this year's festival range from educators to psychologists to working in organ donation. 

The previously perceived restrictions have changed as have the goalposts for women.

While the competition may have far to go in the eyes of blinkered liberalism, we can blame neither the Roses nor Daithí Ó Sé for tailoring the idea of reality television to their personal desires.  

Main image by @kirstenmatemaher

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