Why fake tan can't hurt feminism
Niamh Horan is not guilty as charged of crimes against the sisterhood, says Julia Molony
Well, Niamh Horan certainly kicked over a hornets' nest when she put on her rugby boots. She's been on the receiving end of a volley of stinging attacks on Twitter ever since.
But the furious reaction to her account of playing with the Railway Union women's squad seemed less like a cohesive, considered strike, than disordered, ham-fisted clamouring.
Objections to the piece were many and varied - ranging from the charge that her article had undermined women in sport to preposterous accusations that she was to blame for the Ireland team's loss this week.
In the midst of this storm of invective, it was hard to figure out what exactly the complaint was. Was it that Horan had invoked an age-old stereotype about women in rugby ("butch, masculine, man-hating") in order to challenge it? Was it her obvious delight upon discovering that she could connect with the team - a group of formidably accomplished women, over a mutual interest in make-up and fake tan? Or was the problem about sex? Specifically, that she had allowed a tone of double-entendre to creep into an article about the serious matter of women in sport, a subject apparently so worthy that it cannot withstand of a bit of ripe humour. Even when, as in this case, most of the author's jokes were at her own expense.
Much of the criticism seemed to be based on knee-jerk antipathy rather than ideological argument - an inchoate sense that a dolled-up blonde pictured holding a rugby ball was somehow trivial and a disgrace. Eventually, one clear strand of dissent did emerge - one commentator complained that Horan's desire to talk hair and nails in the context of a piece about sport was part of a wider culture which fixates disproportionally on women's appearance rather than their achievements. As a general critique about society, it's a valid point. But it is a misreading of Niamh Horan's piece, in which talk of image is introduced only to be summarily dismissed once the main business of play gets under way. "Vanity is pointless in this game," Horan wrote, "not because of muddy faces or grassy knees, but because you are having so much fun you forget about everything else." Anyone tasked with fostering the belief among young women that what they do is a more important source of lasting satisfaction than how they look could do worse than start with that sentence.
Yet her critics seem to agree that Horan's views make her A Bad Feminist. There she is now, cast into the ideological doghouse, along with a growing number of women whose words or actions in public place her in conflict with a particular feminist agenda. They are accused of treachery, of smuggling chauvinism into the culture under their skirts.
In Horan's case, her crime was that her interest in successful sportswomen stretched to include their beauty regimes as well as their training schedule. In an interview on Newstalk with the aggrieved Shirley Corcoran from Railway Union, George Hook acknowledged this sentiment when he inquired, rather ludicrously, whether the article was more hurtful to the team because it had been written by a woman.
Shirley Corcoran complained that Niamh Horan's article undermined the efforts of Railway Union to promote team sports among young girls. It's unfortunate she feels disappointed, but in her belief that Horan has damaged that aim, she's just wrong. Like it or not, it remains true that there are many young girls out there who persist in the belief that playing rugby is probably incompatible with more common interests like clothes, skin, hair and nails. Just as there are plenty out there who still believe that an interest in fashion and beauty is incompatible with feminism.
Had she written a serious piece about the social value of team sports or the intricacies of tactics, Niamh Horan would have been preaching to the converted. Instead, she wrote about her own unexpected conversion to the joys of a demanding contact sport. If she, a woman who turns up to play with "full hair and make-up" and whose first question about the jersey is whether it makes her bum look big, can play and love it, how many others who think rugby is not for them might discover the same?
Fake tan and femininity and power and sporting prowess and feminism and sex - they can all co-exist quite happily if we would just stop drawing battlelines between them. The critics seemed to have missed the fact that the article was a fan-letter to women's rugby. It's a shame the leaders of women's rugby have decided that, because Niamh Horan talks about hair and make-up, they could do without her kind of support.