[Ed. note: This article is Part Two of a three-part series about the intersection of secular and religious culture in Ireland and the effect of those forces on Ireland’s young women. Here’s Part One.]
The novelty of television took hold in Ireland back in the 1950s, but a lack of funding and expertise in the area hindered the production of quality Irish programs.
This required the use of British and American television imports that introduced the Irish to the fast-paced and modern lifestyle of Western culture where people were good-looking, bold, and competitive. Women, in particular, were depicted as fashionable, independent, and sexually uninhibited, a noticeable difference to the typical Irish woman who was reticent and plain.
As foreign media became more widely available, it only highlighted the differences between Ireland and its cosmopolitan neighbours, widening the gap between the Church and Irish people.
In addition, radio, television, and print became a public sounding board for secular debates over a variety of issues that excluded the Church all together. The media in Ireland acquired a new authority based on unfettered expression, and the individuals who were affiliated with it acquired an elevated status that set them apart from others.
Keeping this in mind, it makes sense why a lot of Irish girls today choose to dress and adorn themselves as they do: they feel that they have to dress sexy because it’s what they see in the media.
The words “have to” are interesting because they suggest that Irish girls see no other option than the one being presented to them by the media. Irish girls have their own specific beauty rituals, like substantially covering the face with makeup and using fake-tanning products to enhance their pale skin, exposing their legs, and straightening their hair.
Ireland has a strong peer culture, and these practices have come to form the basis of an informal code of conduct within female circles. Engaging in them is rewarded with praise, respect, and positive attention from other girls and boys, whereas not engaging in them often results in criticism and exclusion, making conformity the easier choice.
At the same time, family and institutional learning still tends to reflect enduring taboos about sex and the body. The Church maintains a strong presence in Irish primary and secondary education. From curriculum to conduct it plays a central role in determining what is learned and absorbed by young Irish people. This is a serious problem, least of all, because it has hampered the implementation of health education in many schools.
Moreover, the historical logic of the Church to censor sex has become the embodied logic of older generations who are silenced by their lack of knowledge and confidence on the subject. Adult guidance, open communication and proper information about sexual health give adolescents the tools to make smarter decisions about their bodies. In Ireland, there remains a line of thinking that if it’s ignored, it will disappear.
The growing space between Irish parents and teenagers echoes the growing space between the Church and the media. The path Ireland has taken requires that Irish people embrace modern capitalist ideals, by and large leading faster, busier, and more disjointed lives. Despite all age groups having to adapt to this, parents and teenagers speak entirely different languages representative of different times. Discussing such things as self-respect, confidence, and accountability is a challenge because it naturally necessitates also discussing sex, which only exacerbates parental fears about the subject.
Seemingly, Irish girls believe that when you get older, “you get cop-on” about how to look and act. In other words, you “know better”. This means that Irish girls are well able to grasp that what the media tells them is attractive and valuable is not always the truth. You would think that puts them in a position to make informed and healthy choices as they gain experience in the world, but unfortunately it’s never that simple.