Monday 14 October 2019

Mary Kenny: Laddish 'Late Late' is no place for an Irish Mammy

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Ah -- catfight, is it? The two reigning matriarchs of Irish broadcasting, Marian Finucane and Miriam O'Callaghan, have clashed about the future of 'The Late Late Show'.

Ms Finucane says that "presenting RTE's flagship show is likely to remain a preserve of male colleagues". Ms O'Callaghan disagrees. Nothing is set in stone, she argues. There's no rule or law which holds that a woman cannot be the permanent host of the 'Late Late'.

"Remember," Ms O'Callaghan adds, "at one stage it was said that a woman could never be president of Ireland, then the right woman came along and things changed."

Well, anything could happen. And imaginative changes have occurred which had not been previously envisioned. But in this case, I believe Ms Finucane's assessment is correct: Whether Mr Tubridy goes or whether he stays, 'The Late Late' will remain a male preserve for the foreseeable future.

Ms O'Callaghan's comparison of hosting the 'Late Late' with election to the presidency of Ireland is flawed. I do not remember anyone seriously objecting to a woman candidate when Mary Robinson first went forward for the presidency. There were people who, rather bigotedly, objected to a Northern candidate -- Austin Currie -- and there were people who said a Labour candidate could never compete with the mighty Fianna Fail party machine when Brian Lenihan Snr was in the running.

Yet, in the neighbouring island, a woman had been head of state since 1952, and a woman had been a dominant and iron-willed prime minister since 1979. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I never encountered anyone who doubted Ms Robinson on grounds of her gender. (I did hear criticism on grounds of her class, and the privileged academic life she'd enjoyed.)

But being the head of state is a very different role from hosting a sassy, long-running TV chat show. The head of state is essentially a conciliatory figure. In many ways, it is a maternal role, whether occupied by a man or a woman.

The strong Irish Mammy and the formidable Reverend Mother both carried authority in Irish culture, and laid a template for a woman in this position of national dignity.

The role of a weekend TV chat show, by contrast, is neither caring nor wise nor, at best, even very dignified. It is to entertain, to provoke, to be challenging, macho and ballsy.

It is a role that men perform better than women.

Like being a stand-up comedian, it's a job that should involve a risk-taking edginess -- to probe, yes, but to be cheeky and insolent and to be ready to control and dominate studio proceedings too. The best chat show hosts live dangerously, like Jonathan Ross.

In short, to successfully bring off a multi-faceted talk show like the 'Late Late', you need a decided element of the male chauvinist porker. And if the 'Late Late' is not quite as good these days as it ought to be, perhaps it's because it lacks a bit of hard masculine edge, and a slight whiff of danger.

It's not that there aren't some brilliant female broadcasters around -- Ms Finucane and Ms O'Callaghan are both at the top of their game, and there's a raft of younger contenders who show skill and ambition. But at the end of the day, the way a woman does a job is still slightly different from the way a man does it.

Women often bring to broadcasting an emotional intelligence, an eye for detail and a curiosity about people which yields rewards and prompts revelations. But where women are associated with a successful chat show, they usually score with a sense of empathy -- like Oprah Winfrey.

Women can certainly be professional in presenting current affairs, as Ms O'Callaghan is, on 'Prime Time'. But even steady professionalism in a political format is not the same as controlling the 130-minute 'Late Late', which, if it is to survive, probably needs to be a bit more laddish.

Sigmund Freud suggested that men were attracted to risky humour more than women because male sexuality was so rooted in a fear of failure.

Stand-up comedy is about proving virility. Women do not have the same psycho-sexual anxieties.

That's why men have to prove themselves in display behaviour. Something of this psychology applies, I believe, to the male host of a national talk show: to succeed, he should tangle with danger.

Women, by contrast, prefer to be secure.

I may be proved wrong -- along with Ms Finucane. But somehow, I don't think I will be.

Irish Independent

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