You know it’s almost back to school time as the evenings begin to get slightly darker, there’s a sparkle of cold in the morning air, and the Rose of Tralee rings its way around the TV schedules once more.
There are only so many times you can sneer at the Lovely Girls competition before you realise that it’s not going away, and that, while it’s still, irrevocably, what it is, there is something very, very modern about it.
It’s by no means feminist – there is no revisionism on earth that could make it feminist – but the Rose of Tralee is perfectly designed for the ‘have it all’ generation. These days, this does at least include women who have children outside marriage, which is a welcome rule change. Although anyone over 27 is barred. That’s cold, Rose committee – you can still be a member of Young Fine Gael until 35, so I’m not sure where 27 came from. Youth is such a fickle concept.
If you look at the lineup of women in this or any other year’s competition, they’re no bunch of slackers. They are teachers, doctors, solicitors, bankers… they’re very high achievers.
In fact, google a couple of them and you’ll probably find them, in school uniforms, on the front of various regional newspapers holding their Leaving Certificates. They are lovely. But they are also clever and ambitious.
The competition is judged on some ephemeral quality that’s labelled ‘personality’. You get the sense, though, that while the entrants are required to be beautiful, (whisper it) sexy, brainy, qualified, and ‘rounded’… they don’t want them too beautiful, sexy, brainy or qualified. Rounded is key.
They wouldn’t want to come across as pushy. Or bitchy. Or that bit too ambitious. That wouldn’t be very feminine. It just wouldn’t be very ‘Rose of Tralee’.
Because, while hotshot lawyers, brain surgeons and rocket scientists are welcome to enter, they must also be charming, interested in helping good causes, and able to sing. I mean, who wants a wife that can’t sing?
It seems the contest’s organisers have finally recognised that women are of course not just there to look pretty. They are there to bring home the bacon, preferably through a socially useful job, excel at a sport of some kind (ideally GAA), volunteer for a charity, and be witty and charming as well.
Oh, and to look pretty. That’s still a requirement – just on top of all the others. Isn’t it exhausting?
I don’t mean to single out the organisers of the Rose of Tralee on this, by the way. They are not alone. This is what the world is like for girls and women today.
It’s not enough to be pretty or clever. You have to be both. At the same time. All the time. As well as being erudite, witty, charming and entertaining. You have to know how to apply makeup, have your hair looking like it was professionally done, know how to rock a ballgown, and – oh – not be a bimbo.
While the Stepford Wife generation thought they had it bad, that was nothing compared to what’s taken over from it – the phenomenon is known as the ‘Supergirl’. Girls are told they can ‘have it all’, but it’s not good enough to have it all, a bit. It all has to be perfect, too.
In her book ‘Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls’, Liz Funk warns that middle class girls are starving themselves, and stressing themselves sick over being the best at study, work and even hobbies, all while being thin, pretty and well turned out.
God be with the days when you could decide to be a ‘bluestocking’ and grow your chin hair with wild abandon, and nobody there to Instagram it.
In an interview with Elle magazine Funk said the book was intended to let women know they could “Go easier on themselves, and savour their success rather than always wanting more from themselves, always striving for 110 percent. I want to show girls that 100 percent is enough, you know, 80 percent is enough.”
To those who are about to compete, I salute you. May the best woman win.
Published in The Herald, Friday 15 August.