Dame Helen Mirren is no stranger to controversy, but even her status as a national treasure could not protect her from the onslaught she received after her most recent interview. In a conversation with the Daily Mail, Helen Mirren stated that she found it abhorrent when men ‘slung’ their arm round their girlfriend’s shoulders as to her, it communicated a sense of ownership.
Unsurprisingly, the internet was awash with strident feminists trying to reconcile their desire for liberation with their love for cuddles, but in doing so they have overlooked the core issue – we still live in a massively unequal society.The fact that men largely remain in a position where they can exert ownership over women is clearly the central issue here. Whether you agree that putting your arm around someone expresses this or not is almost irrelevant, if this particular act does not express it, other instances of daily sexism do. The issue remains, it just takes on a different guise. Yet once again, the spotlight is diverted away from a specific view, and all our energies are spent attacking the person who raised it, instead of addressing the problem itself.
The whole debacle is a classic example of what is wrong with the feminist movement as a whole. Those who criticise Mirren do so out of defensiveness and outrage at being considered a ‘bad’ feminist for their choice, but feminism is supposedly about choice. The incessant infighting, and tearing down of other women for not matching up exactly with a specific set of beliefs, is exactly why we still live in a world where a simple gesture comes loaded with so many connotations. If we spent less time criticising other women for their views on minor issues, there would be more time to tackle wider, structural issues, like the raging inequality that persists in every aspect of women’s lives.
Obviously, when she made the comments, Mirren was not claiming to speak on behalf of all women – she was merely stating her own opinion on the matter. We need to recognise that solidarity does not necessitate conformity, and that when one feminist speaks, she does not speak on behalf of all women. Her belief that it implies ownership is perhaps more indicative of the way we view interaction between the sexes, rather than implying that the gesture itself is inherently sexist.
Whether you agree or disagree with Mirren, the very fact that her comments have sparked a debate further reaffirm that our perception of heterosexual relationships is skewed. Whatever your personal opinion, the discussion reveals yet again that we as a society believe that men and women cannot coexist without engaging in a constant power struggle. In a more equal world, interactions between genders would be free from scrutiny because there would be no assumption that any one gender is superior. The issue here is not Mirren’s personal opinion, but rather that male and female relationships are almost exclusively broken down into questions of power, questions of which need not be addressed in homogenous ways.