Actor Helen Mirren addressed graduates of Tulane University in a May 20, 2017, commencement speech peppered with candid one-liners and an adoration for New Orleans — a city she once called home.
“Why the hell are you graduating?” she quipped, professing her love for the Big Easy. “What possible reason is there to leave here and go find jobs?”
Between jokes, however, Mirren touched on a handful of more serious-minded subjects.
In the speech, Mirren explained why she was hesitant to call herself a feminist until only recently.
According to Mirren, she used to reject the “feminist” label. But, as she admitted behind the lectern Saturday, she’d also fundamentally misunderstood what feminism was all about.
After noting how “life improves for everyone” when women are given respect and freedoms, Mirren explained why she eventually came around to the label on a more personal level (emphasis added):
“I didn’t define myself as a feminist until quite recently, but I had always lived like a feminist and believed in the obvious: that women were as capable and as energetic and as inspiring as men. But to join a movement called feminism seemed too didactic, too political.
However, I have come to understand that feminism is not an abstract idea but a necessity if we — and really by ‘we,’ I mean you guys — are to move us forward and not backward into ignorance and fearful jealousy.“
Learning that Mirren wasn’t always a self-identifying feminist may come as a surprise to longtime fans.
Spanning five-plus decades, Mirren’s extensive career in theater, TV, and film includes a handful of trailblazing roles for women, including her work in the U.K.’s “Prime Suspect” — a rare crime series that championed feminist themes in the 1990s.
More recently, stories highlighting Mirren’s belief in gender equality have made waves online, too — like when she hilariously dropped the f-bomb while pointing out Hollywood’s sexist casting problem, or when she refused to play nice after being asked a misogynistic question by Michael Parkinson in a resurfaced clip from 1975.
Mirren’s prior hesitation to identify as a feminist reflects the unfortunately familiar disconnect between what feminism actually represents and how it’s often portrayed.
Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” By that standard, aren’t the vast majority of us feminists? You’d think so. Yet, as one 2013 survey found, just one-fifth of Americans identify as such.
Whether through ignorance or partisanship, the word “feminist” has been mischaracterized — and badly. Feminism, in seeking to secure women the same rights men have enjoyed for centuries, has been explicitly labeled as a movement that is “anti-men.” Feminists have been cast as lesbians who don’t wear makeup or bras or shave their legs or underarms. And while some feminists might be lesbians who don’t wear makeup or bras or shave their legs, this narrow caricature (created and perpetuated by anti-feminists, natch) has succeeded in keeping people from joining the cause even though they are feminists.
The feminist movement has, at times, had its shortfalls — like its historical exclusion of women of color and those in the LGBTQ community, for example — so it’s understandable why some groups have rejected the label throughout the years. But the idea of feminism has always been one of equality and empowerment for everyone. With the success of January’s Women’s March and the increased commercial marketability of women’s empowerment messaging (for better or worse), more people are comfortable with the feminist label — and that is welcome progress.
It’s a cause Mirren believes is important enough to shout from the rooftops — or from behind lecterns.
“Now, I am a declared feminist,” she told the Tulane graduates. “And I would encourage you to be the same.”