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Redefining the Rose of Tralee

Rose of Tralee

I was in the middle of writing an article debating whether the Rose of Tralee was a good thing for Irish women or not – when the latest Rose to be crowned revealed that she is, in fact, gay. ‘This changes everything,’ I immediately thought – or does it?

Looking at my relationship with the Irish institution, I realise that as I have grown from a little girl to a college-educated young woman, my perception of the competition and what it represents has been constantly changing. And now it has transformed yet again.

Growing up in the noughties, the women represented in the Tralee Dome were a relief from the Britneys, Christinas and Parises. Instead, here were strong and interesting Irish women, talking about their education and careers, telling funny stories and performing the arts.

With few prominent young women in my public sphere, these were inspirations opening up a whole new worldview of what it was possible for young women to be.

When I became a teenager, however, and as girls I knew began to compete in the local Rose heats, the competition began to signify to me the narrow mould of the ‘perfect woman’ society expects. Most of my peers were convinced to compete on the grounds that Rose trials were in aid of charity, just some local entertainment with a chance to gain prestige from the community. Dressed to the nines, each took her place on stage, having a conversation with a usually older man. The winner was selected based on what little of her personality could be deduced within five minutes, including a party piece of some kind, with looks also playing a part. It was baffling – I wondered what it took to win people’s approval as a young woman, or why that woman was superior to the others.

I was anxious these same judgements and parameters were already being applied to me outside of the local hall where the heats took place. Indeed, usually immediately after the Rose was crowned, people would pointedly speak of her perfection, immediately making me feel as though I was lacking, or needed to change. I felt it was a passive-aggressive way of forcing women to fit a certain type. From what I could deduce, the ideal candidate was dressed modestly but was still beautiful and trim, maybe a little sexy – but not too sexy, as that might seem unladylike. She was educated and had a good career, but was not necessarily hugely successful or powerful. The Rose was also usually from a ‘good background’. She would be involved in local community altruism, but not necessarily politics, and was not too controversial in her views. She would be funny and charming but not too weird or loud – rather these women were polite and ‘nice’, an attribute I always found reductive and even boring but one that was important to most women for approval. You wouldn’t really see different races, any age above the twenties, and contestants were usually either single or dating, never married or mothers. It seemed over time that what they were really competing for was to be the ideal woman, the perfect girl next door.

Having become the young woman these same competitions judge, for me watching the Rose of Tralee last week was rather surreal. I found it bizarre, even laughable, that this competition had such importance in Irish people’s eyes. I was embarrassed that it had once made such an impression on me. While it is not as awful as other beauty pageants out there, it still perfectly exemplifies the passive and benevolent sexism that Ireland is so good at. These women are lined up, compared and judged. They are monitored for the weeks before, their behaviour and grace watched by a panel of judges, who then decide, alongside the public, based on the conversation they have on stage with whatever older Irish male presenter is available, which one is the essentially the best woman.

All these thoughts were swirling around my head last week and, when I thought I had finally got my line of thinking straight, the newest Rose, Maria Walsh, revealed she was gay.

I think this is the best thing to ever happen to the Rose of Tralee. With the marriage referendum coming up next year, it will serve to challenge the perceptions of the very same conservatives who would have lauded this Rose as the perfect version of Irish womanhood just days ago. Will they still sing her praises? Perhaps this will change the way this very competition works. Maria’s sexuality completely nullifies the original point of the competition, a sort of eligible bachelorette contest. What will the male escorts do now? Will the Rose of Tralee accommodate gay roses with same-sex escorts?

While the competition has its flaws, the Rose of Tralee might evolve into an event that shows the best and true variety of Irish womanhood, at home and abroad, and heaps praise on women other than those who fit the narrow bill. Then again, maybe we don’t need the pageant anymore. Maybe Maria’s reinvention of the Rose will sound the death knell for the event. The competition has been thrown wide open and we no longer need to define the parameters of Irish womanhood through an outmoded competition. Because if we don’t need to define the perfect woman through the male gaze, then perhaps we don’t need to define her at all.

We can finally, as Irish women, stop looking out into the crowded dome for approval, and instead start looking to our innate individuality within, accepting ourselves as our own roses – thorns and all.

Rachel Lavin @rachellavin

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