In the minds of many a thirtysomething, there is a clear distinction between the Ireland of our childhood and the Ireland of today. We can afford to chuckle indulgently at such historical faux pas as Flahavan’s Tracksuits and institutionalised homophobia, because they belong to a different time. Came the modern age, and these things were swept away. We, mere children at the time, are not implicated. It was all so unimaginably different and all so long ago.
A look at the chronology says different, however. Ireland did not enter modernity at the same time as we entered our teens. Indeed, as we approach middle age, there are many respects in which it still hasn’t entered it now. Many of the most egregious effusions of embarrassing old Ireland died a slow rather than a sudden demise, to the degree that it can often be hard to find the exact date of death.
This much I can confirm. As late as 1995, there was such a thing as The Housewife of the Year Award. It was actually on the telly. Not in the dim and distant past, but in the mid-90’s, a time when we were drinking lattes and you could buy condoms without even having to have a prescription from a doctor or anything.
The fact that the Housewife of the Year, or to give it its full, sponsored title, the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year, existed at all will probably be enough to blow certain under-25 minds, and to confirm the view of The Young (which has always been the view of The Young, since the dawn of time), that The Past was fucked up. Lest the Young get any ideas that they were born into a brave new world, I remind them that today, in 2012, The Angelus on TV is still a thing.
I feel sorry for the Young. There they are, with their asymmetrical haircuts and their long-term unemployment, ignorant of most of the cultural shorthand that now dominates Irish popular culture. As we once were, they are maddened by the persistence of certain patently outmoded and reactionary cultural phenomena. And yet, not only will these embarrassing relics of the past not die, but their elders (i.e. us) insist on bringing more of them back from the grave. Because there is apparently nothing, from The Riordans to Tuberculosis, that cannot become a focus of thirtysomething nostalgia. Did you know it’s been almost a dozen years since the big foot and mouth outbreak? Let’s start a facebook petition to “Bring it Back”!
I now understand why some cultural entities just won’t go away. Surely all the people who bought Ireland’s Own when I was young are dead by now. The current audience probably started reading it ironically in the mid-90’s and eventually got to like it. Suddenly, its longevity becomes less mysterious.
The Calor Housewife’s tearaway younger sister, The Rose of Tralee was saved (ironically) by Father Ted. The “Lovely Girls” episode was such a pitch-perfect parody that it seemed to breathe new life into the competition that inspired it. The single, vital ingredient, camp, has saved the Rose for generations to come. It hasn’t changed, but the way we watch it has. The Rose will run and run, because Irish people love it when we can find an easy rationalisation for not changing anything.
I am not so sure the Calor Housewife can be as easily salvaged for the delectation of the sophisticates we have now become. The makeover would need to be fairly radical. But there are still options. I suggest that the competition go one of two ways: the Etsy route, or the Domestic Goddess one. The Domestic Goddess model will appeal to advertisers after that Desperate Housewives/Sex & The City market, and it has the benefit of making explicit the assumptions of the original competition: that wifely duties are primarily focussed on sex and cooking. Admittedly, the sex part was more to do with procreation back in the Calor Housewife’s heyday, but a move towards raunch would be but a small adjustment in the interests of long-term stability. Women will still be forced into narrowly defined and impossible to fulfil roles, and that’s the important thing. You have to change if you want to stay the same.
The Etsy route may not have the same broad commercial appeal, but a niche might still be carved out by an indie-soundtracked night of competitive kookiness, wherein a dozen giggling Zooey Deschanel haircuts are interviewed by Dathaí Ó Sé about their about their quirky personal styles. I would probably watch it.
Whichever approach is chosen, a token house-husband will be required to provide liberal cover for the event. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much you rebrand, there are conceptual problems with the Housewife of the Year. It was won and lost via three rounds. The first, competitive cooking, is more popular than ever. The last, a party piece, or “turn”, can be quite easily glammed up in the style of a Simon Cowell production. But the third event is, er, problematic. It was an interview with Gay Byrne. Surprisingly, given his alleged retirement a decade ago, Gay Byrne is not the problem. He is available for work. The problem is that the interview was explicitly focused on the contestant’s wifeliness.
The contestant would be asked how she met her husband, how many kids she had with him, and how she managed to look so glamorous whilst still looking after them all. Admittedly, Gay Byrne was never known for his progressive attitudes towards the role of women. But there is something about a competition for housewives that has a cooker as its star prize that resists attempts at modernisation. Witness this 1995 attempt (which, by the way, appeared on the same page as a profile of Martin Amis) to salvage the competition for right-thinking Irish Times readers:
“These were no bimbos…since the phrase ‘housewife’ and phrases like ‘I’m only a housewife’ are rapidly disappearing from the vocabulary, I’m told by a spokeswoman for the organisers that they will be reconsidering the title of this event”
Alas, it never happened. In fact, the competition never took place again. Because here was the problem: It was the Housewife of the Year Award. You had to be a wife, and you had to be in the house. And, though it was never explicitly stated, you had to be a mammy. Ideally, you wouldn’t be anything else. As Ireland changed, there were complaints, in the event’s dying years, that too many women working outside the home were taking part. And, in a surprising denouement, competitive housewifery became perhaps the only professional sport to be ruined by the rise of amateurism. It lost its soul. It’s never coming back.
(by Fergal Crehan)