Helen Mirren Holds Her Own (and Then Some) in a Cringe-Inducingly Sexist TV Interview, 1975

Say what you will about Kim Kar­dashi­an. (Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

Yes, she may only be famous for being rich and famous—not a par­tic­u­lar­ly admirable cul­tur­al achieve­ment. But, “and this is the big word: B‑U-T-T‑,” says Helen Mir­ren, “it’s won­der­ful that you’re allowed to have a butt nowa­days… Thanks to Madame Kar­dashi­an.” Should you think Madame Kardashian’s butt-bar­ing shame­ful, you’ll have Dame Helen to deal with, and she may not deal with you kind­ly.

Though the Kar­dashi­ans are “a phe­nom­e­non I just don’t find inter­est­ing,” Mir­ren said recent­ly, she admires Kim and oth­er women in pop cul­ture for their body pos­i­tiv­i­ty: “When I was grow­ing up, it was thought to be unbe­liev­ably slut­tish to even have a bra strap show­ing. Every­thing was about women con­form­ing…. Women were con­trolled by being shamed…. I love shame­less women. Shame­less and proud.”

Mir­ren knows well of what she speaks. Though an accom­plished stage actress since the mid-six­ties, she has been pigeon­holed by crit­ics as a sex sym­bol through­out her career in the­atre and film. While per­form­ing with the Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny, one paper dubbed her “Stratford’s very own sex queen.” Mirren’s ear­ly film work includ­ed nude scenes in 1969’s Age of Con­sent and the 1979 Bob Guc­cione-pro­duced Caligu­la, and she has called the decade between those two films the most sex­ist time in recent his­to­ry, “worse than the 1940s or 50s,” she says, “It was hor­ri­ble. That decade, after the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion but before fem­i­nism, was per­ilous for women.”

Some evi­dence is on dis­play in the clips above from an infa­mous 1975 inter­view Mir­ren gave with a leer­ing Michael Parkin­son. The inter­view begins, at the top, with Parkin­son quot­ing sev­er­al crit­ics on Mirren’s “slut­tish eroti­cism,” among oth­er things. It quick­ly goes down­hill from there. Mir­ren shrugs off the sex­ist lin­go; Parkin­son can’t shut up about it, ask­ing if “what can best be described as your ‘equip­ment’ hin­ders you, per­haps, in that pur­suit” of being, he says, “in quotes a ‘seri­ous actress.’” Asked to clar­i­fy, he stum­bles, then says that her body “might detract from the per­for­mance, if you know what I mean.” She doesn’t.

Mir­ren doesn’t make this belit­tling sex­ism easy for Parkin­son, but he can’t seem to stop him­self. It’s hard to watch, but also inspir­ing to see her poise and con­fi­dence in the face of his boor­ish­ness. (She calls his ques­tions “bor­ing” and he final­ly vows to “leave off this sexy image thing,” though he comes back to it.) Yvonne Roberts in The Guardian calls the inter­view “far from unusu­al,” and the kind of thing that “gave Jim­my Sav­ile his cov­er.” She also says that though “Mir­ren is right on the impact of the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion,” she is “wrong on chronol­o­gy. The 70s was the decade when fem­i­nism took hold—and per­haps that’s why sex­ism became still more marked.” Pro­nounced back­lash always fol­lows social change, a phe­nom­e­non we’ve seen so often that it seems inevitable.

The Parkin­son inter­view was Mirren’s first talk show appear­ance, and she remem­bers being “ter­ri­fied” at the time. On re-watch­ing the inter­view in 2011, she said, “I actu­al­ly thought, bloody hell! I did real­ly well. I was so young and inex­pe­ri­enced. And he was such a f***ing sex­ist old fart. He was.” She remem­bers him as “an extreme­ly creepy inter­view­er” and told BUST mag­a­zine in 2010 she was “far more polite than I should have been.” Mir­ren got the chance to con­front Parkin­son about that creepy 1975 appear­ance when she returned as a guest on his show in 2006 to talk about her title role in The Queen.

In the clip above from that appear­ance, Parkin­son returns to the sub­ject of Mirren’s breasts in dis­cussing her lead part in the BBC police pro­ce­dur­al series Prime Sus­pect. She forth­right­ly takes him to task. “I’m glad you men­tioned that, Michael,” she says, “because you can’t resist, can you?” Of the 1975 inter­view, she says, “I hat­ed you. I thought you were a sex­ist per­son.” Parkin­son hasn’t changed, it’s clear, but Mir­ren says she’s “mel­lowed.” The exchange is a lot less awk­ward, per­haps because Parkin­son knows he can’t bul­ly Mir­ren the movie star as he did the young stage actress.

Though Mir­ren now says she’s hap­py to no longer be a sex sym­bol, she also express­es admi­ra­tion for “women who have claimed their own bod­ies…. They all raise their mid­dle fin­gers to this epi­thet of ‘slut.’ They wear what they want to wear, behave as they want to behave.” Though she did not have chil­dren, she tells BUST she would have taught her daugh­ter to “say ‘f*ck off’ in the face of sex­ism”: “It’s quite valu­able to have the courage and the con­fi­dence to say, ‘No, f*ck off, leave me alone, thank you very much.” Sad­ly, as we see again and again, in a cul­ture that still shames and deval­ues women, and enables rape and sex­u­al vio­lence, that courage and con­fi­dence, incred­i­bly valu­able as it is, isn’t enough to stop con­tin­ued ram­pant sex­ism and abuse in the enter­tain­ment indus­try and every­where else.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Helen Mir­ren Now Teach­ing Her First Online Course on Act­ing

Down­load All 239 Issues of Land­mark UK Fem­i­nist Mag­a­zine Spare Rib Free Online

1933 Arti­cle on Fri­da Kahlo: “Wife of the Mas­ter Mur­al Painter Glee­ful­ly Dab­bles in Works of Art”

Simone de Beau­voir Tells Studs Terkel How She Became an Intel­lec­tu­al and Fem­i­nist (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jeff Blanks says:

    Heck, we’re STILL liv­ing in the back­lash from the ’60s. Gen­er­a­tions have grown up not know­ing any­thing else. Helen Mir­ren seems to be one of the few peo­ple in pub­lic life who remem­bers where we were sup­posed to be by now.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Indeed. Seems like last 50 years have been all back­lash.

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