Each year, the Rose of Tralee is accused of being old fashioned and outdated. It’s nothing more than a lovely girls contest with pretty dresses and sweet smiles. Also, each year you will see on the stage some women who blow those perceptions entirely out of the water.
Last night, Brianna Parkins, the Sydney Rose with connections to Dublin and Armagh, took to the stage and discussed her work as a journalist and as an advocate from women’s rights. She was frank and honest about her work, which has included interviewing sex workers and volunteering to help those suffering from domestic violence. She then went on to say that she believes that it is time that Ireland held a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. The look on Dáithí Ó Sé’s face clearly showed that this issue had not come up in any of their pre-show interviews and he couldn’t get away from the topic quick enough once she’d finished her statement. Imagine. A woman. Talking publicly about issues that affect women.
Her eight second sentence caused plenty of fuss on Twitter. (Isn’t it strange how a show that so many people claim not to watch or enjoy trends on Twitter every year without fail?) There were some who cried out that she’s not from here, what business is it of her’s what rights women have here? Others said that this wasn’t the forum for discussing such an issue and that she should have stayed with more predictable topics of discussion.
In reality, she’s someone who is currently spending her working life fighting for women’s rights, making her a much more qualified commentator in this debate than many others whose voices are regularly broadcast far and wide. Also, another interesting twist in her statement was that she called for a referendum to take place on the repeal of the eighth, she didn’t simply call for its repeal. To me this showed an understanding and respect for the debate that still continues and how the democratic process operates. She simply articulated her views when she had been given a platform to do so and managed to work a very nuanced point of view into such a brief statment.
What I gleaned from the Twitter debate that followed Briana’s appearance is that there are people out there who believe that she shouldn’t have revealed any opinions on a subject that may not have been considered ‘suitable’ for the show. But who on earth decides what is and isn’t suitable in a context like this? This girl has been given an international platform where she has been asked to show the best of herself, and she’s expected not to raise issues which are important to her? Surely if the purpose of this competition is to find an ambassador for the following year, the more they share their opinions and views the better. What’s more, the Rose of Tralee being what it is, it’s amazing that women’s issues and the challenges that they face haven’t had more of a presence until now.
Briana wasn’t the only Rose to share her views on important issues last night. Although I didn’t see the entire show so can’t comment on the other Roses contributions, I caught the Kilkenny Rose Sarah Kearns’ interview. To say that she impressed me would be an understatement. She eloquently and articulately shared her expertise on mental health issues among young people in Ireland and how and why the education system needs to change to accommodate what we now know about how young people’s minds develop. Like all of the other competitors, she only had a few moments in her interview to talk about herself and she chose, like Briana, to focus on a major issue affecting Irish society. Using your moment in the limelight to highlight issues that are important to you not only shows a deep understanding about the importance of the issues being discusses, but also courage to go off script and make sure that questions which aren’t given enough attention are raised in a high profile way.
Another example of the positive influence that this competition can have in opening up debates is Maria Walsh, the 2014 winner of the Rose competition who did incredible work breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes of the LGBT community during her tenure. Unfortunate as it is that there is still a need for role models such as Maria, no one could have asked for a better one. Maria was a clear favourite to win before the competition began and the competition couldn’t have hoped to find a better winner that year. In the mouth of the same sex marriage referendum, Maria’s time as Rose did great work to normalize the presence of homosexual people, particularly women, on our television screens. There still remains a lot of work to be done in challenging stereotypes, but there’s no denying that Maria Walsh played and plays a very positive role in this conversation.
It’s difficult enough to raise your voice about something which matters when it seems as though no one is listening, and even more difficult to do so when there’s a large audience watching waiting to tear apart your every word if they don’t agree with you. The only way to move a debate forward is to make people a little uncomfortable now and again. Coco Chanel once said that “The greatest thing is to think for yourself, aloud.” With this, she’s telling us that we should use every opportunity that we have to share our opinions and views. In doing this, we need to be ready to be challenged, and ready to be wrong if it comes to that, but that’s the only way we’ll get anywhere. Well done, Brianna and Sarah, for using your moments on stage to talk about the issues that you really care about. Agus ádh mór.