Helen Mirren (Getty Images)


 “Serious actresses can’t have big bosoms – is that what you mean?”

Helen Mirren (Getty Images)

Helen Mirren addresses sexism past and present, and why the 70s should have been a better time for women

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Maybe you've seen it already. Maybe it's the kind of thing that only gets shared on my Facebook timeline. It goes like this: 

A 1975 Michael Parkinson (I know you! I like you, sort of!) looks at the camera and introduces the actress who is about to walk on the set of his chat show. He says that his next guest is a theatre actress famous for portraying her characters with "sluttish eroticism", and he introduces Miss Helen Mirren. 

Helen Mirren: the queen of theatre, the woman who changed the crime drama for ever, the woman we constantly hold up as being the way to age and remain relevant. Helen Mirren, the force, the leader, the empress. The woman we are used to seeing with growling, devil-may-care confidence, and she's... she's vulnerable. She's 30 years old. It is disorientating. It's like seeing a picture of your mum the summer before she had you: her hair is long, her jewellery is wild and she looks like sex. 

“Do you find that your… physical attributes, which people always go on about.. hinder you?”

What follows is a poor imitation of the worst kind of Carry On film. Lots of winking and nudging about "attributes". Only, it's quite clear that Helen isn't having a good time. Actually, she's having a totally crap time. 

I have never been interviewed by Michael Parkinson. I have never been an actress. But I have, for a long time, had a fairly large pair of tits. I've written about it a lot – about fashion choices, about expensive bras, about cycling around Texas braless and almost blinding a local. But what I haven't ever written about is the profound social discomfort you can experience as a woman with big boobs, trying to conduct your life with a modicum of decorum, while carrying nature's two biggest punchlines. 

Boobs are funny, after all. They are alternately ridiculous and sexy, and you – the caretaker of the boobs – are expected to play along with whatever role your boobs are cast in. Your boobs are Juliet hanging off a balcony, and you are Juliet's cranky nurse, who just needs to get with the programme already. Whether someone is shoving a beer can down your cleavage ("It fits!") or whispering that your boyfriend is a "lucky man", while pinning your arms behind your back, you are expected to go along with whatever plan the world has in store for your boobs. We live in a very say-what-you-see culture and, if your boobs are visible, they are public. To be commented on, looked at, leant on, used. Like a bench, or a phonebox. 

Speaking 41 years later, in a new video for MAKERS, a website dedicated to sharing women's stories, Mirren talks about the interview as someone who has clearly run through the event in her mind many times since, who has wondered why – why her, why then, why her body. 

“It was one of the first serious interviews I ever did. But he decided to throw that mantle upon me and never actually listen to what I was saying,” she says, shaking her head. “I think the 1960s and the 1970s should have been a good time for women. But it actually wasn’t. It squeezed women.” 

Helen's interview ultimately ends on a positive note, when she talks about sexism as a wall to bring down: “You’re banging your head against a brick wall and a little bit of cement falls away. I feel like a big wall is about to fall away."


Helen Mirren (Getty Images)
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women we love
women on TV
women in the media
Body image

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