As a child I was rich in role models and none of them were nice. I liked the sass and swag of Princess Leia, Grease’s Rizzo, Ripley from Alien and Enid Blyton’s Naughty Amelia Jane.
The ultimate role model, however, was Helen Mirren. As a child, I watched her in Norman Lindsay’s film “Age of Consent”. She starred as Cora, an island-bound young woman forging a new life for herself, who posed nude for an artist (James Mason). She was equal parts vulnerable and fiercely self-reliant – she stood her ground and remained unashamedly emotional.
Mirren has since become synonymous with proud intellect, dignity, talent and sexuality. An unapologetic and fierce artist who doesn’t suffer fools. No girl or boy could find a better role model.
So it was disappointing to see her playfully tolerate Michael Parkinson from an unearthed clip regurgitated to YouTube. People applauded her conduct when she gently batted back his claims that she was “sluttishly erotic” and may have been hindered in her pursuit of becoming a serious actress because of her “equipment” (a reference to her body).
Mirren recently told the Daily Mail that she was wrong to be so tolerant towards him, “I was very polite with Michael, far more polite than I should have been.”
While discussing the sexism she faced in the 60s and 70s, she gave the following advice for young women “If I’d had children and had a girl, the first words I would have taught her would have been “F*** off””.
Mirren continues “because we weren’t brought up ever to say that to anyone, were we? And it’s quite valuable to have the courage and the confidence to say, “No, f*** off, leave me alone, thank you very much ... You see, I couldn’t help saying, ‘Thank you very much,’ I just couldn’t help myself.”
It’s an incredibly important point that plays on the ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ expectation we place upon girls. Girls are meant to be polite, not swear and, above all, be nice.
When we swear we convey two messages: that we are asserting ourselves (perhaps aggressively) and that we’re not afraid to be considered vulgar. Such concepts are anathema when it comes to our expectations of girls and, later, women. When we tell girls not to swear, we’re sending a message they should not assert themselves, that they should accept whatever behaviour comes their way.
It goes back to another of the cardinal sins we train our girls against, the sin of being unlikeable. Assertion is not only unladylike, it is unlikeable.
We respond to likable people – it’s natural, but considered more crucial for girls, apparently. In one of those dependable product-related ‘surveys’, Arbonne (who make health and beauty products) told the Daily Express that their survey of 1,000 people revealed “a beautiful woman needs kindness, a sense of humour, good manners, compassion, confidence, intelligence and unselfishness.” Only two descriptors out of seven relate to anything close to assertion - confidence and intelligence.
It’s an interesting mix, because most of the traits listed as desirable for women are about likeability. They’re traits that don’t serve them – making others laugh (even though we’re told women aren’t funny), giving to others with kindness, compassion and unselfishness and pleasing others with good manners. It’s less about being a complete person and more about being a person for others completely.
In the latest Quarterly Essay, Anna Goldsworthy wrote on sex, freedom and misogyny – with every incident where a woman was verbally or physically abused, those who didn’t speak up were commended for being “tough”, “being a good sport” or “she gets on with it”. The message that we reward girls and women for not speaking up, for not swearing and maintaining politeness in the face of rudeness is emphasised because god knows you don’t want to be accused of playing the gender card. That never goes well.
Meanwhile, the world continues to pay women less, protect them from sexual and physical violence less and tells them they are less employable than a childless man. And we want girls to be polite and likeable in the face of this?
Laurie Penny brilliantly stated that “It seems that as soon as women stop asking politely for the change we want to see, the crackdowns come quick and hard ...” Of course, there will be consequences. The suffragettes knew that all too well. “But they also knew what we must now begin to remember – that the consequences of staying quiet and ladylike are always far more serious.”
Why wouldn’t we want our girls to say f*ck off instead of thank you to the rank sexism that abounds today and restricts their safety and equality?
Surely they need the release during the bombardment of threats placed against them – their sexual activity, their looks, their ability to earn a wage and career comparable to men, their social media presence, their thoughts and how they should respond to the barrage of unwelcome behaviour they are told they are to blame for attracting?
I want a daughter who says f*ck off to all of that.