We've a bad case of the babe blues


Is it me? Or does anyone else find this new Irish obsession with appearance just a trifle unsettling? In the past week, we've seen women news presenters seriously discussed as "babes" - as if babedom was the epitome of achievement. We've also heard that the meteorologists who present the weather reports are to be replaced by eye candy; an intelligent Irish women's magazine has defined "confident, modern" Irish women in terms of their clothes, and a male fashion designer, Paul Costelloe, has dared to patronise these same women, saying that "a lot of them wouldn't know style if it tottered up to them in 10-inch heels".

And this is all against a background of an almost Californian conversion to plastic surgery; of children getting highlights in their hair; of parents dragging mildly overweight offspring to obesity clinics; of career-women hiring style consultants and of Irish men - once charmingly ignorant of style - becoming more fashion-obsessed by the day. Just watch them shopping on Grafton Street on a Saturday morning or, better still, in Temple Bar on a Saturday night. But it's the women who are drawing the most worrying media comment. Ever since the launch of TnaG, we've been hearing certain young, female TV presenters described as "babes".

Then TV3 poached some of TnaG's "babes" (not that RTE hasn't its fair share) and suddenly we were into Babewatch TV, taking TV news one step further towards what the Americans call "infotainment". A mere 15 years ago, any right-thinking, card-carrying Irish liberal would not have dared call women TV presenters "babes". To even think of women in those terms was as politically incorrect as South African fruit salad. Can you imagine influential women such as Olivia O'Leary or Marian Finucane, both very attractive women, allowing themselves to be thus described? Not on your life.

In the feminist era (to which we must now, sadly, refer in the past tense), to call a woman "baby" or "babe" was the ultimate put-down and if any man dared use the phrase in public discourse, there would be a queue of women willing to lecture him on the issue of linguistic disempowerment. Likewise, the extraordinarily paternalistic and patronising language of Paul Costelloe in his descriptions of the perceived style-deficiencies of Irish females would not have been countenanced in dinner party conversation, much less published. Costelloe's latest London show featured "young, fresh, innocent girls", as one of his stylists put it. What more do you need to know?

It's obvious now that the growing awareness which we thought we had in the late 1970s and 1980s of women as equals who could be successful without regard to their appearance was nothing but a crock of lip gloss. I know I shouldn't be so shocked. The Irish career babe is nothing new. Aer Lingus hostesses were tops in that department, but then equality legislation was introduced which meant the airline had to keep women on after the "babe" age and also had to hire men, which seemed very sensible at the time. Likewise, RTE seemed to have a rebellious policy of choosing presenters based on intelligence first and looks second, while the Irish media ridiculed US TV with its showman news-presenters. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it all changed. I blame the Spring-Harris make-over of Mary Robinson. Mrs Robinson had become a respected constitutional lawyer and senator while looking perfectly presentable, but she still had to be turned over to the groomers before she would be taken seriously by the electorate to be president. Isn't there an innate contradiction there somewhere?

Seven years later, it was the same with Mary McAleese. On the Late Late Show debate, the morning-after talk was that Mary had the best outfit and sure enough, she won the election.

Gerald Durrell, not a feminist, has a male character in his 1970s book, Beasts in my Belfry, say: "I always thought a yashmak was a bloody silly idea - if a woman's got a pretty face she should show it. The only thing I would advocate is a gag if she talked too much."

Judging women by their looks is one way of gagging those who do not measure up. It's a kind of aesthetic cleansing. Irish women have, traditionally, been ungaggable but I honestly think - pardon me if I sound po-faced - the new emphasis on style over substance is a retrogressive step which may mean we will hear less from women as truly original thinkers. If women have to be good-looking and reading from a script to get on TV, women have a real problem.

And if it's true what Paul Costelloe says - that Irish women feel confident only when wearing a label, then we all might as well just give up now.

But do not underestimate RTE's new weather people - whoever they shall be. Twenty-five years ago when I was growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, a token black girl with a sense of humour and a tidy Afro was the weather girl. She progressed to co-hosting (with a token white, Jewish man) a day-time talk show. Then she moved to Chicago and the rest is history. Her name was Oprah Winfrey.