Helen Mirren’s recent endorsement of Kim Kardashian’s selfie does not surprise me, as she has been a proud advocate for positive body image for years.
Dame Helen Mirren is 70 years old. She is elegant, talented, a fiercely brilliant actor who – chameleon-like – totally inhabits any role she takes on. One thing she is not is vain. Indeed, she generally looks much more glamorous in person (well, on the red carpet, anyway) than she ever does on the screen. She has won every acting award going. She plays Shakespeare (including a female Prospero), Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, Jane Tennison and – I suspect – anything she damn well pleases.
But she wasn’t always a formidable elder stateswoman of stage and screen. Back in 1969 she was a nubile teenager frolicking in the tropics of Australia tempting an ageing James Mason in her first film, Age of Consent. She was sexy and curvy, all boobs and bum. There are still elderly men who go goggle-eyed as they recall their first sight of the young Helen Mirren.
We forget the old were young once. We also forget that Kim Kardashian will probably be 70 one day. We assume that the present is immutable and as things are now, so things have always been and will always be. It is one of the privileges of ageing to have much longer sight.
Girls were scrutinised as if their bodies were small hand grenades that could explode at any moment if, as Mirren says, so much as a bra-strap was showing.
That’s why I am so not surprised by Ms Mirren’s wholehearted endorsement of Kim Kardashian and her internet-breaking bum…or B.U.T.T., as the Americans have taught her to call it. Helen Mirren once had a bit of a sexpot reputation of her own and I suspect she rather enjoyed it. One of the most appealing things about Mirren is that as she has grown older and more respected she hasn’t become grand (nope, despite being a Dame). There is a down to earth twinkle in her eye that hints at someone who knows precisely who she is and where she has come from.
I love that she celebrates the shamelessness of Kardashian’s self-display. I seem to recall there was quite a lot of disapproving tut-tutting about Age of Consent in its day, so no doubt she knows of what she speaks. And her point about the policing of women’s dress in the ’60s is well made. Girls were scrutinised as if their bodies were small hand grenades that could explode at any moment if, as Mirren says, so much as a bra-strap was showing. The fuss at the 1965 Melbourne Cup when English model and ’60s “it” girl Jean Shrimpton wore a skirt a modest couple of inches above her knees is indicative of the taboo around women’s bodies back then.
Girls, in particular, were taught to be overtly ashamed of their bodies at the same time as they were being encouraged to covertly show them off. If Kim Kardashian had been a contemporary of Mirren’s she would have been labeled with a term that I have not (thankfully) heard for decades: “prickteaser”. The Beatles actually wrote a song about such a girl – a nasty, angry song. In the recorded version of Day Tripper they replaced “prickteaser” with the words “big teaser”. But listen to the lyrics – it neatly sums up the view that women are to blame for male sexual responses. No wonder young women in particular often felt they were drowning in a sea of shame just for being female.
Mirren is right to celebrate women regaining the ownership of their own bodies and delight in them. She is right to applaud the shrugging off of the shackles of shame that women of previous generations silently dragged behind them through life. But I doubt she does it from the lofty heights of her later oh-so-respectable career. I can’t help wondering if it isn’t the memory of the shit she no doubt copped for her portrayal of teenage Cora Ryan in Age of Consent that informs her unfettered admiration of the brazen confidence of women of all shapes and sizes today. Our bodies are no longer just there to titillate someone else’s eyes or desires (Age of Consent is a bit creepy regarding this, in fact). They belong to us. If we want to show them off, we can. If we want to hide them, we can. If we want to do stand up about the ways our bodies leak and smell and jiggle – we can. And you can stick your disapproval sideways.
For an old sexpot from the ’60s as Mirren was, or even as just an average girl from the ’70s as I was, I know how liberating this new shamelessness feels to those of us who never had it when we were young.