Columnists Melissa Todd and Christine Tongue clash on whether carnival queens and princesses are outdated or fabulous, glittery fun. Melissa is all for the glitz and excitement while Christine fears it may make girls feel you have to look a certain way to succeed.
Here are their views but what do you think?
This week I went to see Everybody’s talking about Jamie, a musical about a teenage lad who dreams of becoming a drag queen. The audience was, I’d say, at a conservative estimate, 90% female. The queue for the loos stretched nigh on to Mars. Girls like glitter, sequins, ruffles, lashes, heels. Not all of them, of course, but some. Enough to sell out a drag queen musical, night after night. The scene where Jamie gets his first pair of stilettos and learns how to dance in them was greeted with screams of recognition and delight.
Carnival is a time for excess. Outrageous, elaborate costumes, sensational spectacle, surfeits of food and drink, flamboyant grabby tunes that set your toes in motion. In the midst of it all sits the carnival Queen, monarch of all she surveys, in her own personal excess of glitter, sequins, ruffles, lashes, heels. The Queen and her princess assistants love dressing up and getting some attention for it: it’s a thrilling treat. A lot of girls do. Me included.
Despite this, the carnival Queen committee takes great care to point out they do not select girls on the basis of looks. The Miss Ramsgate Organisation say they consider “personality, dress sense and grooming, speech and deportment….cohesion in behaviour to each other and other people.” The chosen girls make a commitment and hold a position of responsibility in the town, appearing at services for the armed forces, laying wreaths on Remembrance Sunday, appearing at Sea Safety day and summer fairs.
They are ambassadors for Ramsgate, working with charities and community projects to raise funds and promote their concerns, developing personal and practical skills which should prove invaluable to their future selves. It’s similar to the community engagement undertaken by Scouts or Cadets, or any number of other organisations for young people with a social conscience.
Telling girls they can’t dress in a certain way because you don’t approve of it is offensive and disempowering. It’s no different to banning bikinis for chubby chicks, mini-skirts for the middle aged. Don’t tell me women dress that way to subjugate themselves to the patriarchy; all the men I’ve asked have absolutely zero interest in seeing women dressed as Disney princesses. Stockings, basques, latex hot pants, absolutely. Bridesmaid or Elsa from Frozen, all curls and frills, no thank you. That’s something women do entirely to please themselves. Surely we should celebrate that freedom of choice? If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Actually that’s a really good tip for any activity people engage in that doesn’t affect you, like eating vegan sausage rolls or chasing Pokemon. Not for you, fine, don’t get involved. But don’t spoil other people’s pleasure.
And Ms Tongue’s only objection to the carnival queens seems to be the way they choose to look and dress.
Isn’t that, you know, just a little bit sexist?
When I was fourteen I had a traumatic bridesmaid incident.
My friend Judy, who’d known me from babyhood, had picked me as her bridesmaid years before she even met her fiance. But by now I wasn’t the sweet little girl who loved to dress up and pretend to be Cinderella. I was a stroppy teenager who hated to be looked at, went around in jeans and sloppy shirts and didn’t want to be a princess – or a bridesmaid – any more.
But it was 1959. I couldn’t say no or leave home, so I finished up in turquoise taffeta, pearl earrings, bouquet, crown and white gloves and hated every minute. Sorry Judy! Probably why I never wanted a white wedding. (Judy regretted it later, too, but that’s another story.)
I have a three year old little boy in my life at the moment who has a taste for dramatic literature – big bad wolves, giants, monsters and bogey men. But he won’t listen to Cinderella – all that fuss about a frock! I feel the same.
So I was gobsmacked when I realised that young girls are still hankering after the Cinderella/bridesmaid look and don’t mind being stared at wearing princess-type frocks and crowns, and even sitting on thrones waving like some crazed royal wannabe.
But I had it brought home to me when I got stuck in Ramsgate carnival last week.
You know how it happens – you’re giving out leaflets on saving the stroke unit at Margate hospital in a nice friendly crowd on the seafront and suddenly you find the buses are rerouted to miles away until the carnival procession has passed by.
So, hoping for something like the film I’ve seen of the 1950s consisting of elaborate floats with scenes from films etc, I parked my old bones on the roadside and waited with a group of excited little girls and a tired granny to see the carnival pass by.
I was horrified to find that most of the procession consisted of what seemed like hundreds of lorries carrying “Carnival Queens” from far flung bits of Kent. They were young girls in bridesmaids dresses, looking like they had repetitive waving strain injury by the time they got to us.
They were surrounded by netting so they looked as if they were locked in a cage – to stop people chucking things I expect – outraged feminists perhaps.
The little girls with me on the roadside were a trifle puzzled by the time float number six had trundled by. This was carrying a few children of their own age wearing make-up and waving as if they were they were the preschool glamour queens of the county.
What was all that about?
Please somebody tell me these girls are chosen for their sense of irony and paid huge amounts for personal risk! But I fear they’re led to believe it’s a real achievement and something little girls can aspire to.
“At least they’re not stick thin,” said the granny sitting next to me. “I hate it when models look as if they don’t eat. It’s so bad for kids to get the idea they have to diet all the time.”
But I was getting worried about what images the little girls watching were taking away with them.
You have to be pretty to sit on a throne. You can have other girls waiting on you and you can be stared at and assessed by the general public on how princess-like you you, or even how good a virgin sacrifice you might make for some ancient rite at Stonehenge…
Sorry, went a bit too far there, and I know virgin sacrifices are a thing of the past – but shouldn’t carnival queens be, too?