Helen Mirren doesn't want a man's arm around her shoulders, but I do

Sep 14, 2015 at 4:21 p.m. ET
Image: IPA/WENN.com

Helen Mirren isn't scared to speak her mind and definitely doesn't hold back when it comes to sexism and gender equality.

And nor should she. It's incredibly refreshing to hear an actress speak out about subjects that others shy away from. In June Mirren attacked the U.S. film industry over “outrageous” sexism and ageism against older actresses in Hollywood, after 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed she was told by movie executives that she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Mirren was applauded by many — myself included.

But her most recent comments about sexism, made during an interview with the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, have left me a little baffled.

“It annoys me when I see men with an arm slung round their girlfriend’s shoulders. It’s like ownership. Of course, when you're young, you want the guy to take your hand and look after you," she said. "But when I see girls being leaned on, I want to say, 'Tell him to get his damned arm off your shoulder'."

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She also said: “At 70 years old, if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words 'f*** off' much more frequently."

Mirren went on to suggest that women are “still toddlers in this modern world, trying to find their position in the age of sexual liberation, birth control, education and financial independence,” and that getting married late (as she did, at the age of 52 to American film director Taylor Hackford) “is a very good idea.” She also spoke of the "princess complex" she feels many young women have when it comes to marriage, which makes them want to "have the gorgeous dress, be the centre of attention and live the dream for 24 hours."

“There’s a huge pressure on young girls to look a certain way these days but, as I age, I’ve lost that incredible insecurity of youth," she told You.

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Mirren may be right about getting married late and there's no denying the amount of pressure on young girls to look a certain way these days (largely down to the bubble of social media and the cult of celebrity they're exposed to).

But — and I speak as a feminist — I can't get on board with Mirren's whole arm-around-shoulders-ownership issue. If we start scrutinising every little thing our partners say or do we'll all be accusing them of sexism. I see an arm around my shoulders as a sign of affection and nothing else. It's no different to holding hands or linking arms in public. It feels nice — not demeaning. At the end of the day, men are — in general — taller than women. And if they aren't their arms loop around their partner's waist rather than around their shoulders.

Sometimes it's not sexism. It's simply logistics.

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What do you think? If a man puts his arm around your shoulders do you feel as if he's trying to "own" you? Let us know in the comments section below.