Mirren berated for discussing interview

// 26 September 2010

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Following on from the interview with Helen Mirren in the latest issue of Bust, is this prime example of the kind of snide tone that some sections of the media seem to delight in taking when a woman in the public eye expresses a critical opinion. In this case, the apparent speaking out of turn related to Mirren talking about her objection to Parkinson’s focus and questions when she went on his show in 1975. The original text is taken from World Entertainment News (WENN). I’m not sure how long any of the articles using the text will be online for so here’s a slice of it for posterity:

The Queen star’s 1975 meeting with Michael Parkinson was one of her first chat show appearances – and his line of questioning left her shaken and upset.

But instead of showing the host how she felt, she turned the interview on him and made it a very awkward encounter.

And when Parkinson quizzed her about her “physical attributes” – referring to her breasts – the actress help up her hands and asked, “My fingers?”

What exactly is the writer’s point here? How was Mirren supposed to “show” how she felt? Does the writer have a problem with her not demonstrating how suitably shaken and upset she actually was (a problematic stance to take in itself)? Or is the sexism far more straightforward, with the lazy and arguably contradictory writing unintentionally exposing the author’s absolute unwillingness to give women a fucking break?*

There seems to be double bind going on here: a woman taking an interviewer to task is seen as “awkward” and inappropriate but the excuse to paradoxically cast her as somehow unassertive is seized upon.

In any case, I expect Mirren being more direct and actually saying “I find your questions very upsetting” would have led to her being framed as simply “oversensitive”. Instead, she committed the crimes of 1) being an apparently uppity lady who dared to “turn the interview” on Parky, 2) discussing it in an uppity feminist publication years later and 3) “showing off” her body in nude scenes and then not accepting whatever was thrown at her as a consequence.

I’ve not read the latest issue of Bust but I would say other quotes from the relevant article suggest Mirren discussed the Parkinson interview in the context of wider points she wanted to make. Or perhaps the interviewer from Bust had seen a clip of the interview and she was simply responding to their questions about it. Either way, I doubt very much if Mirren called up Bust to say she’s been crying herself to sleep thinking about Parky’s rudeness and would like to talk at length about the terrible experience in order to settle some career-hampering grudge she’s been harbouring over it ever since. (It’s probably worth mentioning here that it turns out WENN were actually taking their lead from the Daily Mail, who reported on Mirren’s apparent transgression last Monday. I’m not going to bother linking to this piece but suffice to say the Daily Mail seems to be responding to Bust’s interest in Mirren’s story by obtusely telling Mirren to shut-up and claiming “no-one cares” as if she had indeed burst into the Bust office and demanded to be given a platfrom.)

The thing that annoys me here is that WENN are meant to be a global news network where “the news gets the news”. This means a google of the story shows the piece in all its disdainful glory being uncritically reproduced in a wide range of media sources. I expect such snideness from the Daily Mail but -as far as I can tell- the WENN article is supposed to be a news report purely for information. This makes its barely concealed sexism pretty irritating to say the least.

Addendum: Many of the sources utilising the WENN story use a headline stating that Mirren is “still upset” and the piece itself is introduced with the words “Dame Helen Mirren is still sore about a 30-year-old TV interview, during which she was quizzed about her body and the nude scenes she showed it off in“. (I mention this now because I can see, after talking to Lynne about this, that the quote I used above could be read as supportive of Mirren’s tactics when taken alone!)

* I can’t find a name for the writer of the WENN article so I have no idea if it was written by a woman or a man. I would like to categorically state right here that the former would not alter my view of the writer’s attitude a jot. I say this to spare any passing anti-feminists and/or parties with vested interests the bother of gleefully informing us that the author is female as if it somehow negates the point I’m making. (Seriously, it happens.)

Photo by Capital M, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

Anna // Posted 26 September 2010 at 11:04 pm

The guardian recently wrote a fantastic piece on the use of the word ‘rape’ in humour. What was worrying were some of the comments left on their website – and it was a similar attitude to the one you mention here. Women who moan about things that make them uncomfortable have the problem. Many comments made light of it, said it was less serious than other crimes, drew attention to the serious problem of women who cry rape (which obviously matters, but undermines the amount of women who aren’t lying), or some comments did admit that rape was a very serious issue…because men could be raped too.

Not to say it isn’t but it did seem to highlight the point that women are seen to moan and lie. And a man wouldn’t do that.

Rose // Posted 27 September 2010 at 11:26 am

Well there’s a pet hate of mine.

Why is it that there is nothing socially awkward in a man being plainly offensive towards a women, but if a woman tells him to stop, she’s out of order?

The classic being a guy slapping your arse as if it’s a compliment, he has physically assulted you – and you’re not supposed to be angry?

I avoid ‘polite company’ as much as possible, it just seems to be an environment where I’m expected to soak up peoples hate while smiling sweetly. Last time I told a guy he’d gone too far, (while he was telling me that women were just kinda children/second class citizens, a conversation that was fine and comfortable for all the white male middle classers that I was in the room with), he responded by telling me that women really didn’t have a right to argue with men!

Something that none of the other guys (all in early twenties), actually had a problem with.

Sorry, bit off topic, but it’s really not just the older generation, is it?

Jennifer Drew // Posted 27 September 2010 at 2:58 pm

The message this latest piece of misogyny purporting to be ‘news’ is that women are not human and hence women must remain silent and/or applaud men whenever they subject a female to insults and/or derision.

Only men are apparently accorded the right of defining what is and is not appropriate male behaviour towards women and girls.

Or to put it another way – the misogynistic message is ‘women must remain silent and compliant because men are the default human and women’s only role is to defer to men’s pseudo superiority.’ So misogyny does not exist because men say so!

Alex T // Posted 4 October 2010 at 9:04 pm

Bloomin Parkinson. I once saw him interview Dawn French and ask her how she juggles her work and family life. Her response: “No-one ever asks Lenny that”.

Sally // Posted 14 October 2010 at 1:39 am

Alex T said “Bloomin Parkinson. I once saw him interview Dawn French and ask her how she juggles her work and family life. Her response: “No-one ever asks Lenny that”.”

No one asks that question of men because the perceived difficulty & inconvenience of “juggling work & family life” is something only women are required to undertake. The assumption being that men are simply required to concentrate on their work life & take less of an active interest in their children & home.

French & yourself assume that Parkinson’s line of questioning is sexist & so it is…except the sexism is not one way as you believe, unless of course you believe that Lenny Henry has no interest in life other than his work & assume that his children are a secondary consideration. Just one question…Dawn French’s children, who was looking after them ( ie. “juggling work with home life” ) whilst she was doing the interview? Surely not with their father?

Holly Combe // Posted 14 October 2010 at 11:26 am


How do you know that Alex T “believes” the sexism described is somehow “one way”? Why not ask instead of assuming?

I’d say Dawn was right to mention Lenny not being asked questions like that. Gender stereotyping doesn’t do anyone any favours. As you say, Lenny may indeed have been the one looking after the children during the interview!

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