sarah millican’s excitable red balloon

Yesterday, I was idly flicking through Twitter when I came across a link to this article by Sarah Millican.

In case you’ve been living in a remote hill tribe in the Himalayas, Sarah Millican is a highly successful comedian from the north of England. She started performing in her early thirties after going through a divorce, and within a few short years has become a comedy superstar, with sell-out tours and regular TV appearances. Pretty impressive by anybody’s standards, let alone for a woman in a career typically dominated by men. In the entertainment industry (and, let’s face it, in life in general), women are often judged first and foremost on their looks, rather than on what they have to say. Women are supposed to be beautiful and sexy, not smart or funny. Whoops. Someone tell that to Sarah Millican…

In her article, published in this week’s Radio Times, Millican describes her joy and elation when, in 2013, she was nominated for a BAFTA.

“The quiet girl at school. The awkward girl at college. The funny woman at work. A BAFTA.”

In the entertainment world, this is basically like winning the lottery, only knowing that you have won through talent and hard work, rather than pure luck. As Millican writes, “If winning is chips and gravy, then being nominated is still chips. Lovely, lovely chips.” (A woman after my own heart.)

She recalls how she and a friend went into John Lewis and picked out a new dress for her to wear. A dress which made her feel special. She then describes how she and her husband drove to London, how she posed awkwardly on the red carpet, and how they then went on to have a thoroughly wonderful evening. She didn’t win, but it was still fabulous. Until she got in the car to go home, checked Twitter, and discovered thousands of hateful tweets from perfect strangers, bitching about how fat and ugly she looked in her horrible dress. And she cried and cried.

In her article, Millican explains that the reason she chose to buy her dress from John Lewis, rather than a “fancy expensive designer” was because she is “a size 18, sometimes a size 20”, and that designer shops simply do not make clothes for people like her. However, this is a woman who has made a lot of money. She could have paid a seamstress to make her a beautifully flattering dress in her favourite colour. The BAFTAs is, after all, no ordinary event. But she didn’t. You see, Millican understood why she was attending the BAFTAs, even if her critics did not. She was attending because she had been nominated for an award in recognition of her achievements as a comedian. Not as a model, or even as an actress, but as a comedian.

Actresses are usually cast in either lead roles or character roles. Which category they fall into depends largely on how young and beautiful they are. Actresses who are not slim and conventionally attractive are seldom cast as the romantic heroine, and on the rare occasions that they are, the fact that they eventually manage to get the guy, despite not being “a looker”, is usually central to the plot. (Bridget Jones, anybody?) This implication that only beautiful people should be allowed to fall in love and live happily ever after is disturbing enough, but that’s a discussion for another day. The point is, actresses who are cast as leading ladies know, however talented they may be, that their success is in no small part due to their looks, and that when they attend events such as the BAFTAs, people will notice, care about and comment on what they are wearing. They therefore take great care in selecting the perfect dress with which to wow the media, because it comes with the territory.

Comedians, on the other hand, do not achieve success or fame by being beautiful, but by being funny. If anything, conventional beauty is a disadvantage to a comedian, because a large part of what makes them so successful is the fact that ordinary people can relate to and identify with them. They are often self-deprecating about their own appearance, talking about their wrinkles and stretch marks and rolls of fat, and audiences find it hilarious because they are plagued by the very same imperfections and insecurities themselves.

Millican was nominated for a BAFTA because of her success as a comedian. She therefore expected any media attention which came her way to be focused on why she was there, not what she was wearing. Her physical appearance is not relevant to what she does or why she was nominated for an award. Don’t get me wrong, she wanted to look nice. But she assumed (naively, in retrospect), that since she is Sarah Millican, and not Keira Knightley, a dress from John Lewis would suffice.

And, really, what could be more perfect for her than a dress from a department store? Until a few years ago, she was a perfectly ordinary woman with an ordinary job. She wasn’t a rich celebrity. She had experienced the same everyday triumphs and disappointments as everybody else. Wearing a dress from John Lewis to the BAFTAs says, “Hello, I’m Sarah Millican. I’m just a normal person like you. I might be rich and famous now, but I’m still the same person I was before, and if I met you in the pub, or at someone’s wedding, we could be friends.”

In fact, if she had worn that dress to someone’s wedding, people probably would have said, “What a lovely dress! Where’s it from?” But because she wore it to the BAFTAs, people somehow think they have the right to criticise and sneer.

This is the kind of behaviour we expect from nasty little bullies in the school playground. Most people have to deal with it as children, some more than others. We don’t expect to have to put up with it once we are successful adults. We assume that, now we are in our twenties and thirties, we have left the playground behind us. Apparently Twitter is now proving us wrong. The particularly odd thing about Twitter is the way it provides direct access to celebrities, in a way that we have never had before. This enables bitter, unfulfilled people who are stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships to make unkind remarks to people who are hugely successful and have achieved far more than they ever will. It is, quite literally, playground bullying, magnified by the power of the internet. But, as my head teacher once told me, “Nobody kicks a dead dog.”

The other thing I find really distasteful in all of this is the blatant sexism. Only in this case, it is sexism liberally dished out by other women, who really ought to know better. (I doubt whether many of Millican’s Twitter trolls were male, because most men simply do not care what women wear to the BAFTAs.) Men are simply not subjected to this level of scrutiny over how much they weigh or what they wear. On the red carpet, they will all invariably be wearing black suits. No one will tweet about who wore it best, but about what they said, and whether they won. Millican’s critics on Twitter live in the same world as she does; a world in which women still have to fight to be recognised for their accomplishments rather than their appearance. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of making the problem worse, they used Twitter to congratulate Millican on her huge success? (Or, as Thumper’s mother taught him, in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”)

Dress shopping is expensive and stressful. If my boyfriend and I attend four weddings in quick succession (as we did last year), he can wear the same black suit every time, whereas I need several dresses. In this age of social media, I would very quickly be busted for wearing the same dress to four weddings in a row, even if none of the guests are the same. And because I am only human, I care about what people think. So I stick my credit card back together with sellotape and go shopping again, whilst complaining about how much easier this is for men. And yet, there’s something magical about trying on a new dress in a shop, feeling like a million dollars, and getting excited about wearing it. I would be the last person to suggest that all women should wear black suits to weddings, parties and the BAFTAs, in the name of gender equality, because I love getting dressed up and seeing what everyone else is wearing.

Would you ever go to a party and tell another guest that you thought she looked awful in the dress she had chosen? No, of course not. Neither would I. Because that would be deeply unkind. And I doubt whether any of Millican’s Twitter trolls would either, because they simply wouldn’t dare to say something like that to someone’s face. But for some reason, when people say mean things on Twitter, they appear not to realise or care that what they have done is essentially just that. The person they are being cruel about knows what has been said about them. And so does the rest of the internet, which makes it a hundred times worse.

In Millican’s own words, she “felt wonderful in that dress”. And as I read her account of how her discovery of what people had been saying about her was like a pin to her “excitable red balloon”, my heart ached. I wanted to cry for her. She had had a wonderful evening, and deserved nothing less. What right did those small-minded people have to spoil that for her? She may be a “celebrity”, but she is first of all a human being, with feelings, just like everyone else. Her vulnerability is part of what makes her so funny and so touching. It is her ability to stay true to herself which makes her so unique.

To Sarah: you are fabulous. Please don’t ever change.

And to all those mean-spirited little bullies: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Get off Tw*tter and do something worthwhile.


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