Reader questions: Helen Mirren and feminist cred

Seawallglen asks:

[W]hat are your thoughts on Dame Helen [Mirren]? Is she one of a precious few sex-positive figures in the film industry, or does she in fact have self-hating views that undermine her feminist cred to an unacceptable degree?

Oof. I may be the wrong person to ask about "feminist cred". I think 'feminist' is an adjective, not an achievement. What's that you say? You think women are also valid human beings? Well, okay, 'grats on figuring out civilization? It's like demanding a trophy for getting all the way to work this morning without punching anyone on the bus. Some days, and with some people, this does indeed take a lot of effort, but you exert that effort because it is expected of you in an orderly society, not because you're a super-special Beacon Of Holy Shining Goodness.

I also don't know many specifics about what's going on internally in feminist politics right now. I avoid it, despite being of a generally feminist mindset in the same way that I'm of a general pro-gay-rights mindset and a general pro-access-to-abortion mindset -- I believe in promoting the cause, but the people who introduce themselves as feminists like it's their name (as opposed to when it happens to come up in conversation, like normal humans) tend to be very evangelical, and not very good at knowing when it's an appropriate time to evangelize. If anyone feels the need to present me with a trophy for not punching people on the bus, rabid political proselytizers would be some of the people forcing me to sit on my hands for the good of society.

That said, I can certainly give an assessment of whether Dame Helen is being consistent in her statements, and my best guesses at what's backing them, inside her head. Apply standard disclaimer here -- I don't know any of these people, I've never met Helen Mirren IRL, and my only qualifications are a social sciences degree, more IQ points than any one person reasonably needs, and spending way too much time on the internet.

To start with, a 1975 interview which went so very badly it apparently annoys Mirren to this very day:


First things first: This man is a pig. It's actually difficult for me to really read anything much about Helen Mirren from this because Parkinson (the swine) has surpassed asshattery and embarked into the exciting new field of asshaberdashery, which is where you're such a colossal asshat that you force the people around you to behave like asshats in order to cope. She spends a great deal of time trying to embarrass him as badly as possible, and succeeding.

Secondly: Jesus, is she drunk? Is that vodka on the table in front of her? This lady is not entirely present and accounted for. I know she admitted to doing some coke in the '80s, but this is not what cocaine looks like -- this is more alcohol or quaaludes, very detached and sleepy. She doesn't have any idea where she's going with her answers, and she's monotonic and quiet for most of the chat. The feather thing A. is exactly the sort of thing drunks and stoners find whimsical and cute and B. suggests she might have been appallingly nervous before coming out on stage, which may have prompted someone to feed her some sedatives back stage before she drove everyone else in the green room bonkers.

Many of her answers alarm me. Yes, being naked on film is embarrassing (but she does it anyway, because it makes money, and she thinks that being embarrassed about it is something wrong with her); maybe if we made everyone get naked they'd stop making naked films (in a tone implying that this is obviously a good thing, possibly because then people would stop asking her to do them); convent mumble mumble scratchy wool socks mumble personal freedom (she doesn't like the idea of rules but also doesn't have any real reason for breaking them, other than to do so); putting labels on people is dangerous (without any attempt to describe, in non-label personal subjective terms, what her parents were actually like).

She flirts with the presenter at one point. Over the leather jackets. She hates his guts for clobbering her with all the sex-shaming talk, why is she trying to roll him? Compulsive attention-gathering? An attempt to make the interview less painful by conforming to his expectations? This is a deeply inconsistent woman, who does not have any idea what her views on anything actually are, other than 'you aren't the boss of me'.

Seawallglen also asked about some controversial statements she made concerning her own history of being sexually assaulted. I would need to see a lot more footage of random things -- or of her particularly delivering the infamous quote -- to say, but given what she says to Parkinson about being nude on stage, I'd guess she thinks clear-cut violent cases of rape are wrong and should be prosecutable, but insidious date-rape-y things, like nudity on stage, are things that women shouldn't have to put up with but do have to put up with anyway.

Assuming she's like this even when fully alert -- which, though somewhat likely, is not necessarily the case -- at least in 1975 she seemed to think that being sexually free and open and not giving a damn was what empowered women did, and she wanted other people to perceive her as empowered woman, so that's what she did. And if she secretly felt ashamed and uncomfortable with it, then that was her malfunction and she'd just have to ignore it. Whether this undermines her credibility as a sex-positive icon or a feminist is a conclusion you'll have to draw for yourself. Given what I have, I don't think she's being hypocritical; she doesn't seem to be doing anything that contravenes her stated viewpoint on this sort of thing. I do think she's a bit screwball and determined to be more detached from her own real feelings on the subject than I would be willing to trust.

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