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This is a small rant, or maybe it’s not really a rant but an appeal. I was at the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland meeting titled ‘Women in the Media, Not’ and it was generally brilliant. There was an initiative to encourage radio and television producers to air more women, including an innovative list of possible experts in a wide range of areas so that the old excuse of ‘there are no women’ would not hold up. However a big element of the conference seemed to be to encourage women to say yes! if they are asked to give their opinion on any subject, as hesitation and unavailability are the real enemy to female participation in the media. A very encouraging and motivational atmosphere so far, the underlying message seemed to be that individual women had to take some responsibility for being out of the limelight, and increased exposure of any description is good for all women and especially girls who are used to taking a back seat.

However, one member of the panel got up to speak and revealed that a year ago she had been handed her ideal once-in-a-lifetime job. As editor of a newly launching news website she was being given creative and directional control, and full respect and power, by her financial backers, the only reservation she had going in was her two young children. She then rather painfully revealed that she had decided to give up this position, which she admitted to loving and being good at, as she could no longer cope with the responsibility of motherhood and a more-than full-time job. I say ‘painfully’, as the decision was still raw and the language she used to describe her obligation to her children was of guilt for neglecting them and uncomfortableness with leaving her children in substandard childcare (being unable to afford a more stable solution). I did not know what I expected after such a statement, but I’m still in shock over what did happen. Over the course of the conference audience members were allowed to talk and shortly one women rose to say she supported this journalist fully and that motherhood was the most important function of women and the youngest years were the most formative yadda yadda yadda and then someone else at the back concurred. Susan McKay as chair did emphasise that the NWCI supported all women, no matter their position, yet the one voice suggesting mothers and fathers be joint parents was lost.
Now, I do not know this journalist or her husband’s profession, and it’s none of my business personally how she arranges her work and childcare, but I was dissatisfied with the response from the room full of experienced worldly women. I realise now that I expected genuine sympathy for this journalist, and anger that she has all the opportunities in the world and is unable to take advantage of them. At a conference detailing the lack of women available to talk on radio, or appear on television, or write, we did not lament this loss of one more fiery journalist.
Parenthood is great, I’m sure and people do find it fulfilling, but in Ireland it is also a trap. By elevating expensive childcare out of reach of the poorer classes we denigrate their struggles as working parents and by elevating motherhood over parenthood, or any ‘other one versus the other’ mentality we will always feel guilty over our choices. That is another argument. This argument is: where is the anger? It may be an unanswerable question for the women’s movement, but that does not mean we should feel helpless. Why is no one else angry that this accomplished, intelligent woman has to sacrifice her dream job because she simply cannot juggle anymore? So I will say it now, to this woman. I am genuinely sorry that she had to give up a position that had obviously brought her much joy and professional satisfaction. I understand that she wanted to give her children the best childhood possible and I hope that they appreciate all that she does for them. I also hope that in the future there are more options available.
Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller is an Irish-Trinidadian artist studying Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of  her work will be shown as part of the ‘Queer as Political’ art exhibition in Cork opening on June 3rd at The Other Place.

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All the talk of Obama’s visit to Ireland today, brings me back to the evening of his inauguration, January 20th 2009, when Himself came home to find me on the kitchen floor.

On my knees.

Surrounded by the usual mish-mash of baby changing paraphernalia – sudocreme, wipes, tiny nappies and – ahem – masking tape. SKY News was blaring on the TV, the spuds were boiling over on the hob and there was the distinct smell of overcooked fish emanating from the oven.

‘Eh – hi honey I’m home!’ he ventured, the tentative tone to his voice giving away his unease at the sight of his obviously grumpy, pregnant wife on her knees, immersed in chaos.

‘Don’t even start’, I spat.

‘Oh, right. Where is she?’
‘Where is she? Where is she? Well I’ll tell you where she isn’t! She isn’t here tending to her responsibilities like she should be.’ I brandished a half-dressed baby doll by one leg, nappy half masking-taped to her bottom.

He nodded a pathetic attempt at understanding and turned away, but I could see his shoulders start to shake with poorly disguised mirth.  He’d seen this coming and he was right.

It was all my own fault. As a mother of a two-year old with another on the way, I had decided it would be a great idea if Santa brought a baby doll, complete with nappies, bottles and a soother. All in the way of preparation for the new arrival. And in my defence, it had been a huge success. To be really honest, the exact level of success far exceeded both my expectations and my wishes.  Baby Millie was changed and fed to a routine that would put the most militant of nannies to shame. And to be fair, for those first three hours on Christmas morning, my enthusiasm surprised even myself. I supplied cheap wipes, an empty tub of sudocreme, an empty tub of talc, all in the name of education and preparation. I may even have shed a hormone induced tear as the brand new Mammy rocked her plastic newborn with the words, ‘Go to sleep my liddle baby.’

I was thrilled of course at her dedication to the project and thought it boded very well for the prospective welcome of the new sibling. Then, things started to slide slowly out of control. Due to my over exuberance on the paraphernalia front, baby Millie needed a changing bag. No problem. Mammy had a spare one. Great. Then empty tubs no longer sufficed. ‘She needs reeeal cream!’ was the wail. Then every time Baby Millie left the house over the course of the Christmas holidays, her little pink nappy bag had to be packed. Bottles, wipes, nappies… Her buggy had to go in the car; her car seat had to be strapped in…

‘But it’s a doll!’ He groaned one day as I ran back into the house to grab Baby Millie’s soother.

‘Not to her,’ I hissed.

By New Year, reality had sunk in. It seemed that not only was Daughter No. 1 being groomed for the new arrival, but so was Mammy. Instead of enjoying my last few tiny-baby-free months, I had given birth ‘prematurely’ to a plastic nightmare. Sweet, pink, innocent Baby Millie had shot me squarely in the foot. And it hurt. Not only could I now remember only too well the chaos a new baby brings, I was also starting to feel the exhausted pain and weariness of a modern ‘granny-before-her-time’, left holding the baby of her teenage daughter, at a time when she should be ‘finished with all that palaver’. Only this daughter wasn’t heading out to party with her friends. No, this one was abandoning nappy changes mid way through to resume a jigsaw, the words ‘You do it’ carelessly thrown over one shoulder being the only, ominous, similarity.

Of course Himself thinks it’s hilarious.

Well, the laugh will be on the other side of his face when I tell him Baby Millie needs a new buggy. After all, you can’t expect the child to push that flimsy plastic-rubbish down our potholed driveway. Yes change was coming to our house. As for Barack, I just loved that man. I know I supported Hilary in the early days, but even I know now, that she wouldn’t have brought the same wave of hope, of revolution, of thanks. It helps that he’s easy on the eye. It even helps that he smokes – ah sure you’d need him to have some bit of boldness about him. Oh, Mister President

So back to the evening of his inauguration. I know she was only two, but I decided that the day was too historic to let slide. Dragging her onto my knee I explained that the man on the screen was going to save us all, that he was a great man, that he was the first black American President. And then it suddenly occurred to me that his colour would mean nothing to her. That she was possibly belonging to the first generation for whom colour actually made no difference. After all, several of Barney’s little gang of friends were of various races and no comment had been passed yet.

Abandoning the history lesson lest I create an issue where none existed, I instead spent a half an hour teaching her to chant with her little fist in the air ‘Yes We Can!’ and sure she loved that.

Great Stuff.

And then it was time to change Baby Millie again and that was when Daddy walked in.

Finally getting off the floor, Baby Millie, changed and safely hidden behind the sofa for the evening, I called the child prodigy to come and show Daddy her new trick.

‘Who was the man on the TV, Belle?’
‘Ehmmm,’ she thought for a minute.
‘Come on Isabelle, What was the nice man’s name,’ I asked sweetly, whilst silently sending the telepathetic-message-of-a-pushy-parent We’ve practiced this, don’t let me down!

‘Obaba!’ she cried gleefully, the strange scary look in Mammy’s eyes having the desired effect.

‘And what does Obama say?’ I encouraged with relief.
And with that, she raised her little index finger in the air and exhibiting all the strength, belief and determination demonstrated by the great man himself she pointed straight at Daddy;

‘Yes You Will!!’

And now, two years later, she’s four. And she has a little sister and they knock lumps out of each other over Baby Millie and the three-wheeled-all-terrain buggy that Daddy was eventually forced to buy. Today, President Obama is coming to Ireland, and this time I’m going to have another go at the history lesson. I’m going to sit them both down, and let them see him on the screen, and hope that they’ll take at least some of it in.

Because Change is Coming.  I can feel it. I felt it with the Eurovision last week and I felt it again, even stronger, when the Queen of England walked on Irish soil for the first time.  And even though I don’t even claim to understand rugby, I felt it again when Leinster staged one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time, to win the Heineken Cup on Saturday.

Can Ireland stage it’s own comeback? Not to the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger, but to dignity, pride and the feeling that all will never be lost.  Can we combine the energy of Jedward, the determination of Leinster and the beauty, grace and acceptance of the Ireland we showcased so flawlessly last week? Can we stop trying to be something we’re not, and instead relish all that we are?

All together now, girls…

‘Of course we can!’

Margaret Scott-Darcy lives in Kildare with her husband, daughters and a variety of animals. A full time accountant, she is also currently working on her first novel. Her blog MotherWorkerWriter can be found at www.mscottdarcy.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgtscott. 

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By releasing his birth certificate last month, Barack Obama was hoping to silence the ‘birthers’ who’ve been blabbing on about his place of birth for years. The image of his live birth certificate was instantly picked up by the media and bloggers. I happened upon it on some website and wanted to take a closer look. My eyes scanned down the page – yes, he was born on American soil. Case closed. But then I spotted a detail about his mother. I probably knew this before but I either forgot or never really took it in at the time. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (Anna), was 18 when he was born.

I suppose I was struck first by the fact that Anna was so young when she had him and she went on to create a stable environment for her son and herself. You could say this mother did good – to have her son go on to become the President of the United States, be such a role model to millions of people and become a good father to his two daughters.

The other aspect, of course, is that Anna was a white woman who had a child with a black Kenyan man. The year, in case you forget, was 1961. Mixed race relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time – it couldn’t have been the easiest of environments for Anna to raise her child (although the family did move to Indonesia for a while and Barack lived in the more multi-cultural Hawaii during his teenage years).

But then again, from all reports, Anna was always a woman who marched to her own beat. She was smart, did well in school, was interested in culture and hung out with a crowd of liberals who read Sartre and Marx. She started classes at the University of Hawaii, which is where she met graduate student Obama Senior – he was seven years older than her. When she fell pregnant, the two married but it wasn’t to last long. They divorced in early 1964 and Anna went on to re-marry the next year.

I suppose what is most admirable about Anna is the fact that as well as bringing up the young Barack, she completed her degree and went on to become a leading light in the field of anthropology. She also devoted a lot of her time to human rights, women’s rights and helped support small industries, particularly those in rural areas of Indonesia.

Sadly, she died at a young age – just 52. She died within a year of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995. A film on her life is in the works and Barack Obama has expressed, on many occasions and through his writings, his profound respect and love for his mother. While the eyes of the world have been on that all-important birthplace on a birth certificate, Anna also has her presence on that document. The 18-year-old college student without a clue of what the rest of her life would be or what her son’s life would go on to be.

Lisa Jewell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who writes mostly on health, lifestyle and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaJewelldub.

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My pride in being Irish has taken a beating over the past few years. Government corruption and clerical child abuse shook me to the core. When the recruitment ban on public sector jobs left me unemployed almost two years ago, I emigrated to the UK like so many of my peers. But while there I missed the good parts of being Irish – the people, the sense of humour, the music and literature. Our unique worldview. It wasn’t long before I returned – wary this time, but with my eyes wide open.

Although I was lucky and managed to find work, again I was tested – again by the government.  The lies in the lead up to the IMF takeover and the spectacularly unfair subsequent budget made me wonder why I’d returned at all.

However, a wonderful Christmas at home with my family and friends made up for a lot. One of the many highlights was receiving the re-issued Soundings anthology. It reminded me of the fun I had while growing up in Ireland. A memory of happier times proved to be a great antidote to negativity. So I decided to compile a list of the quintessentially Irish aspects of my childhood to anchor myself in what being Irish truly means to me.

1.     Ulster bank’s Henry the hippo

I’ll never forget the joy I experienced when I went into the Ulster bank in the Main Street in Castlebar and exchanged five pounds of my Communion money for a hippo-shaped money-box, a notebook, a folder, a pen, a pencil, a key ring, a ruler and stickers. Turns out it was the only good deal I was to receive at the hands of an Irish bank so needless to say it left a lasting impression.

2.     Fancy paper

From a very young age I was keenly aware that I was never going to be the prettiest, brightest or sportiest girl in my class. But I had one thing no one else did: a bumper set of stationary my aunt sent me from Birmingham, just before fancy paper collections became the Next Big Thing. Fancy paper the only form of currency worth anything in the playground so my set of duplicate pages and envelopes enabled me to strike the canniest of deals, and before long I became the Don Corleone of St. Angela’s National School. Good times.

3.     Red lemonade

Last I heard, the powers-that-be were very keen to get the red stuff taken off the market due to its carcinogenic ingredients. Just as well I made the most of its availability when I was a kid by drinking gallons of the stuff then.


4.     The projected stories that taught me Irish

I loved learning Irish at primary school. It started with Mrs Waldron sticking cardboard cut-out words on a velcro background in junior babies and then progressed to the awesome ‘projector’, a word that I thought meant the cartoon-like stories that our new vocabulary was based on, not the apparatus itself. Like I said, I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

 5.     Mála 

Sure, plasticine is fun, but even more fun is the fact that we have our own word for it.

6.     Token collecting

My childhood version of being taken to Hamley’s in Dundrum was perusing the catalogue of products you could get if you collected tokens from empty Kellogg’s / Monaghan milk packaging. But the king of them all was the Maxol catalogue. From my first Casio watch to the sewing machine that my mother used to make my clothes, it was the Maxol catalogue that facilitated all the landmarks of my early consumer history. However, my budding materialism soon corrupted me; I became devious, inventing reasons to go on long car journeys so my Dad would buy more petrol and get more stamps. I soon realised that no matter how many I had, they were never enough. Taught me a lot, those Maxol stamps did.

7.     Anne & Barry

My mother was a hippy who never took a parental hard-line until it came to teaching me to read. I was a lazy little fecker so the poor woman had her work cut out. My salvation came in the form of my first English reader school book, Anne and Barry. I delighted in the adventures of those crazy kids and didn’t want the books to end. When I was introduced to their Irish language equivalent Áine agus Barra, my life felt complete. My bibliomania has been steadily hurtling out of control since then.  Thanks, Mum and Anne and Barry! [link: http://en-gb.facebook.com/pages/Anne-and-Barry-books-Remember/%5D

These are the things I shall remember the next time a Government announcement has me reaching for my passport. It may be hard to believe at times, but there are still some things that can’t be taxed or devalued. And never can be.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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I discovered Hummingbird Cake while visiting friends in the Deep South during Easter a few years ago. They told me it got its name because each bite is so good that it makes a person hum with satisfaction! Once I tried a piece, I had to agree that it was aptly-named…

This cake became famous after it was submitted to the February 1978 issue of ‘Southern Living Magazine’ by one Mrs L.H. Wiggins of North Carolina. It has since been claimed as a Deep South recipe thanks to its quintessentially Southern ingredient, the pecan nut! The Southerners I know like to serve it over Easter but once I got home, armed with the recipe, I began to make use of it all year round.

Hummingbird Cake is like a cross between banana bread and carrot cake, except the cream cheese icing is richer due to the chopped pecans. Traditionally, it usually has three or more layers, but I stick to two because too many layers of icing can make it over sweet for my taste. It’s an easy cake to bake once you’ve all the ingredients in ‒ toasting the pecans is the only fiddly part of the recipe.

Ingredients:

110g pecans
390g plain flour, sifted
400g white sugar
3-4 medium-sized ripe bananas, mashed
227g can crushed pineapple ‒ don’t drain the juice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, beaten
180ml sunflower oil
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Icing:

60g unsalted butter at room temperature
227g cream cheese at room temperature
450g icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
55g finely chopped pecans

To garnish:

pecan halves

Method:

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Grease two 9 x 2 inch round cake tins and then line the bottom of the tins with a circle of baking paper.

Line a baking tray with more paper and then place the pecans on a baking tray. Bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly toasted. Let them cool and then chop finely.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

In another large bowl, mix together the eggs, oil, vanilla extract, pineapple, mashed bananas and finely chopped pecans.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir and mix thoroughly together.

Divide the batter evenly between the two tins and tap the side of each tin to level out each layer.

Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the tins from oven. After about 10 minutes turn the tins onto a wire rack and let the layers cool completely before icing them. Remove the baking paper from each layer.

For the Icing, beat the butter and cream cheese with an electric whisk on low-speed until smooth.

Gradually add the sifted icing sugar and blend until smooth.

Mix in the vanilla extract.

Finally, stir in the finely chopped pecans.

To assemble, place one layer, top side down, onto your serving plate. Spread with about a third of the icing.

Place the other layer, top of cake facing up, onto the icing.

Spread the rest of the icing over the top and sides of the cake.

Garnish with pecan halves.

Refrigerate the cake for about an hour to give the icing time to set.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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The death this week of Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, has proved something of a “Diana” moment for science fiction fans. It’s not just me having this tearful response to the loss of someone I have never met. Middle-aged men who claim never to cry are telling The Guardian they’ve shed tears, while young viewers of the CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures leave pages of heartfelt tributes on a Newsround forum, saddened by Sladen’s death from cancer, aged 63.

So why did Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane make such a connection? Regularly cited as Whovians’ favourite ever companion, she appeared in the series for three-and-a-half seasons from 1973 to 1976 during a period of high viewer ratings for Doctor Who. Indeed, the reason Sarah Jane is so feted partly relates to the overall strength of the show in the mid-1970s, when under producer Philip Hinchcliffe it achieved the mix of horror, humour, adventure and pathos that became the template for the tone of the show’s modern era.

The character of Sarah Jane, a critical element of this success, is introduced in a story called The Time Warrior opposite the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee). She is a spiky journalist who has infiltrated a military research centre by pretending to be her aunt, a virologist. The Doctor rumbles the ruse, but promises not to expose her, joking that he needs someone around to make coffee. “If you think I’m going to spend my time making cups of coffee for you…” she replies, automatically indignant. The writer, Robert Holmes, immediately establishes Sarah Jane as a modern feminist who will castigate anyone who treats her like a child.

Sarah Jane’s refusal to be patronised by either the paternal Doctor or her pompously chauvinistic co-companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) gives rise to some teasing. In the 1975 story The Ark in Space, for example, Sarah Jane volunteers for a dangerous mission but succumbs to tears as her body is jammed in one of the space station’s narrow cable conduits.

“That’s the trouble with girls like you,” the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) shouts up the shaft. “You think you’re tough but when you’re really up against it, you’ve no guts at all. Hundreds of lives at stake and you lie there blubbing.” The accusation incenses her and spurs her to winch herself out, only for the Doctor to reveal his reverse psychology tactic. “Conned again,” she says, relieved. “You’re a brute.”

It would be wrong to say Sarah Jane was the first feminist companion, as that title belongs to scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John), who appeared in a single series in 1970, only to be replaced by dolly bird Jo Grant (Katy Manning) – an ultra-screamer who was infinitely more likely to require rescuing. Sarah Jane’s era was bookended by the blonde helplessness of Jo and the instinctive aggression of warrior Leela (Louise Jameson), whose feminist appeal was inevitably undermined by her notoriously skimpy leather costume. Sarah Jane – or just plain Sarah as Tom Baker’s Doctor usually called her – exhibited both Leela’s toughness and Jo’s vulnerability. It was a practical combination for the show’s scriptwriters, as it meant she was brave enough to wander off on an alien planet, but prone enough to abduction to provide the Doctor with heroic opportunities.

So while Sarah Jane had her share of screaming companion moments, this was balanced by her daring and defiance, even when in danger. She was independent, chirpy and a little chippy. Sladen, described as “ferociously talented” by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was skilled at controlled tremulousness and the kind of wide-eyed curiosity that blends into panic when confronted with evil.

Towards the end of her tenure, the character’s status as inquisitive reporter gave way to a more passive function, reflected in her softer styling. Sarah Jane was granted a wardrobe of Seventies fabulousness, with Christmassy jumpers, wide-collared shirts and sleeved floral dresses that would sell out in Topshop today. An Andy Pandy get-up in The Hand of Fear is probably best forgotten, but a pink nautical-themed trouser suit in The Android Invasion was a classic against the odds, while the hooded yellow raincoat in which she wanders around the planet Skaro in Genesis of the Daleks is sci-fi’s contribution to festival fashion.

I watched these episodes as a child when they were repeated in the 1980s on the satellite novelty known as Super Channel. Having waited two decades to see Sarah Jane again, her return in the 2006 episode School Reunion was brimful of the kind of emotion that only the trigger of childhood memories can produce. I like to think that the tenth Doctor, David Tennant, is not acting, but channelling his own fan-boy memories as he joyously greets Sarah Jane, who we learn is still an investigative journalist and still vocal when it comes to gender politics.

“You can tell you’re getting older. Your assistants are getting younger,” she says when introduced to companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper). Sarah Jane glumly suggests that she has found it difficult coping with life on Earth after her “taste of that splendour” in the Doctor’s Tardis. The Doctor, meanwhile, implies he didn’t come back for her all those years ago because his Time Lord lifespan is so much longer than that of humans, hinting at the unbearable sense of loss that comes from outliving those you love.

It was this appearance in School Reunion (written by Toby Whithouse) that reignited affection for Sarah Jane and prompted the commission of The Sarah Jane Adventures, a kids’ show in which she leads a band of teenagers through various perilous encounters with alien foes. The status of her character as wise matriarch stood out at a time when the BBC was attracting increasing amounts of flak for “disappearing” older women from our screens – another reason why Sladen’s contribution to television should be celebrated.

“It is not logical that you should feel sorrow,” says the robot to Sarah Jane in a 1974 story called, er, Robot. And yet I, like many fans of Doctor Who, just do. The fairy tale continues this Saturday, however, when the opening episode of its 32nd season looks set to be dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen.

Laura Slattery is a journalist with The Irish Times, where she hides down the back of the newsroom and blogs about commerce and current affairs at http://www.irishtimes.com/blogs/theindex. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraSlattery


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Orla Shanaghy asks why, when it comes to gender issues, Irish telly is still in black and white….

It was with great reluctance that I turned on my TV last night to watch the latest episode of RTE’s The Frontline. Not because I wasn’t interested in the topics (I was), or because Pat Kenny and John Waters don’t irritate me (they do). I am always reluctant to tune in to The Frontline and other current affairs discussion programs like it because their false-dichotomy format makes me physically squirm.

Pat's Chat

Take last night’s program, titled “Do women need a quota to get ahead in business and politics?” As the producers clearly recognise, there is no better vehicle for a good false dichotomy and the ensuing media-friendly spat than a gender-related issue.

In the arena sat, on the “men’s” side, John Waters, prominent advocate of men’s rights. On the supposedly opposing, “women’s” side, sat Camille Loftus of the National Women’s Council. The audience speakers had, as always, been selected on the basis of which “side” of the “argument” they stood. Pat Kenny as facilitator did excellently what he is paid to do: ensuring that the debate never strayed far from black-versus-white. For example, he lead in to the first audience speaker, Crumlin youth worker Jody Garry, with “The whole business of ‘It’s a man’s world – oh no it’s not…’”. When Rosemary McCabe, also in the audience, made a deceptively simple and hugely important point, stating “I don’t really understand why we can’t all just be human together”, Pat did his best to pull things back to dichotomy territory with a cringingly simplistic remark on “the feminist lobby”.

Clearly, it is the purpose of programs like The Frontline to present a topic in a way that engaged and sustains viewers’ attention. The black-versus-white format works well in this context. However, this format is seriously damaging when it comes to issues as complex as the under-representation of women in public life. How many viewers watched the credits roll after last night’s program believing that they had listened to a serious debate and feeling that they had gained a more rounded perspective on this issue? Several, I am sure, as The Frontline presents itself as a serious, analytical program and is widely regarded as such.

Sadly, despite the excellence of the individual participants, what we saw last night on The Frontline was an over-simplified, tabloid-style representation of the issue that does justice to nothing and nobody: black versus white, women versus men. Sad, and ironic too, because one thing that unwittingly emerged from the program was that issues such as the lack of formal paternity leave and the gender pay gap, as referred to by Jody Garry, affect everyone, not just one gender or the other. Fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave, so their partners are obliged to shoulder more of the childcare responsibilities, which reduces women’s ability to participate in the workforce, which means that women’s economic contribution to society appears to be less than men’s, which reinforces a perception of men primarily as breadwinners and producers of economic output, which mitigates against anything that takes them out of the workforce for any length of time, with the result that fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave.

This illustration of a perfect circular system that ultimately benefits nobody was there in last night’s program. It was the unacknowledged nub of the whole debate. You just had to look very, very hard to find it.

If the format had been one that facilitates nuanced debate and shades of grey – such as allowing speakers to avoid coming down completely on one side or the other – this holistic view of the issue could have come to the fore. It would then be possible to move the discussion to the next level of “What can we do about it?”

As it was, the battle-lines remained clearly drawn, chests were beaten, everyone got their say, and the status quo remained firmly in place. As long as the dualism-based format continues to be the dominant one in current affairs programs, the nubs of many important arguments will continue to go unacknowledged on the airwaves.

Orla Shanaghy is a native of Waterford where she lives and works. Her work has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany and Lyric FM’s Sunday Serenade. She has also been published in The Stinging Fly magazine and in the forthcoming The Sunday Miscellany Anthology 2008-2011. Orla blogs at curmumgeon.wordpress.com.

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