A surprise invite to the premiere of Suffragette left Juliette Burton with a fire in her belly and a shit-eating grin on her face.
Walked out of the Department of Business Skills and Innovation. Standing in front of Westminster Abbey, I saw the text and made the call. Staring up at the beautiful building, pacing around in front of the iron railings and red brick ornamental edifice, I spoke to my friend.
“Seriously? Are you serious?!” I repeated at him. Always a good thing to check. When you work in comedy sometimes it just makes sense to check people aren’t joking.
“I’m serious! Can you come?”
“Can I come to the Suffragette premiere tonight at Leicester Square?” When I get nervous I parrot back questions. It’s quite an annoying habit.
“Meryl Streep will be there. Helena Bonham Carter. The head of the BFI.”
“Well, I was going to go to my local pub quiz. It’s not been on since February. That’s eight months without good pub quiz action…”
And it’s almost 100 years since this incredible story happened; since that incredible number of incredible women stood their ground for our sake; for my sake. To have our voices heard. I won’t lie to you, I’ve been excited about the release of this film for far longer than any other. Even more than Beauty and the Beast when I was eight. This may not have epic musical numbers and big ball gowns, but that’s the point – it’s REAL. This is not a fictionalised, idealised story. This is gritty, heated, reality. I have had the release date in my diary since May. I watched the trailer online 10 times in a row and cried every time.
“Meryl Streep might become your new BFF…”
“And you’ll be lonely if I don’t come.”
“Not really, but sure.”
I couldn’t believe it. Stepping out of one of the best jobs I’d had in a long while (speaking about mental health in a humorous way to a group of bright, beaming, enthused and interested civil servants – men and women), I was now on my way to a red carpet. Underpinning it all was the very real message: we have come so far, we owe so much and yet we still have so far to go.
I went into an eatery, sat down to collect my thoughts and ordered some food. Part of my reason for speaking about mental health is that I’ve struggled all my life to have a voice, to say what I really feel and think even to myself. I lost my voice through all the heavy weight of ‘being a woman’. Good girls are seen and not heard. If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all. Shut up.
And I did. For years. When I was being bullied by boys at primary school. When I was abused by a boy in secondary school. When I couldn’t cope. I just shut up. I shut my mouth. And I didn’t open it even to eat. My hunger strike turned into lack-of-hunger and loss-of-appetite… for life. I sacrificed years of my life upon the altar of eating disorders and I shut up.
“No matter how big the stars and how loud the crowds, we were all there to pay homage to a group of women who did more for us than we could ever fathom.”
Now I have a voice. And I’ve worked hard to find it and use it to the best of my ability. For good. To break barriers. To change perceptions. To fight for a better future for little girls and boys who might not get bullied, might not be abused, might not fall ill – because of the changes we fight for now.
I always thought myself a feminist but earlier this year something happened that reignited my commitment to pushing forwards and continuing the fight for the true equality the suffragettes began. Earlier this year I inadvertently became caught up in the Beach Body Ready Twitter and media debate about body-shaming, body confidence, mental health stigma and bodies – not just female – being used as commodities. Without pushing the feminist angle, I stated my case (read more here).
For me this wasn’t only a feminist issue. And yet I was called a “fucking feminist getting salt in your vagina because you’ll never look as good as [the model]”; “first world feminist”; “social justice warrior taking offence at anything”. I was called “the feminist equivalent of ISIS”.
At the time it hurt. It frightened me. Now I’m smiling. I learned a lot about MRAs and MGTOWs. I learned a lot about anti-feminism. I didn’t seek to. But it was the only way I could cope – to try to understand where these voices were coming from, to understand them better.
I could’ve shut up. I could’ve withered away and backed down. But I and many others didn’t. We stood firm because we want things to change. And they will. They are changing. Slowly. But it’s an ongoing battle. It’s progress not perfection. And it’s a battle being fought around the world for equality in every area of life – from getting the vote, to gender non-specific toys, to the way women are portrayed in adverts and magazines and films.
Those anti-feminist quotes are now in the talks I do about mental health stigma, the talks I do about feminism; they’re in my current stage show. “The feminist equivalent of ISIS”. That might go on my next show posters.
ISIS: the ancient Egyptian goddess of health and wisdom.
I contemplated all this as I quietly, slowly, mindfully climbed my Everest and ate my meal.
OK, now I was running late. Running through Leicester Square the crowds were already gathered. My phone battery was dead and why the hell don’t they have plug sockets just in the ground? In the pavement? On a lamppost maybe? Anywhere! Security took pity on me as I desperately searched the crowd for my friend with the ticket. What did we do before mobile phones?! I dived into what I hadn’t appreciated was one of the poshest hotels in London – the Hampshire Hotel – and begged to plug in my phone and get changed.
I nearly started stripping in the lobby (because I’m that classy), but instead found a toilet and changed. As luck would have it, that morning I was having such anxiety about the job that I’d used one of my tools – take three outfits with me just in case I start panicking that maybe I’ve worn the ‘wrong’ outfit (no such thing, but try telling my anxiety disorder that when I’m in the middle of hyperventilating. Believe me, it’s easier to humour my frightened inner child and pacify her by gently gesturing, “Look, see, it’s OK! I’ve brought the other clothes/your safety blanket. You can change if you want). Nine times out of 10, I don’t change. And I hadn’t that day.
But now I had another, posher, more sparkly outfit for the premiere and higher heels. So it wasn’t a designer full-length red-carpet gown but in retrospect I feel proud of the fact I wore lilac wide-legged trousers with a sparkly collared blouse to the premiere of Suffragette. It felt fitting to wear trousers to a celebration of the fight for equality.
Clutching my heels and multiple bags I ran past all the full-length gowns and sparkly frocks, black ties and cameras to greet my friend, Daniel Waterman of Carse & Waterman Productions.
He and I have worked on some great music videos together and he’s one of my favourite people. Particularly tonight. Not that friendship can be bought but after a difficult few months this gift was the boost I needed. He and his sister and guest looked fantastic but moreover they ARE fantastic.
We made our way onto the red carpet. Now I’ve done some events like this before but never this big. I want to tell you I was calm and collected and totally cool. I want to tell you I swanned around signing autographs. I want to tell you all that. But I can’t. Because I didn’t.
Instead I beamed from ear to ear. I soaked it all up. I saw Carey Mulligan being interviewed by personal icon Lauren Laverne mere metres away. I grinned. Hoping one day my presenting or acting work might get me there.
But I wouldn’t have been able to even have that hope if it weren’t for the real heroes. And that was the sobering thought of the whole evening. No matter how big the stars and how loud the crowds, we were all there to pay homage to a group of women who did more for us than we could ever fathom.
Meryl Streep walked past me. My new best friend. I think she adores me. We took a selfie together. Bet she’s going to follow me on Twitter next. Typical Streepy. Ah, the laughs we had!
“I’m SO ANGRY. This film is letting me feel ANGRY. Years of therapy couldn’t do that and this film can. Wow.”
Received a text about a protest outside the Odeon in Leicester Square. I’m already inside and other than being aware that the film is starting late I didn’t see any disruption at all.
I didn’t see the protests of Sisters Uncut. When I first heard of it, I misunderstood and thought it was a group protesting the film itself. When I realised it was a group making its voice heard to speak out in support of women around the world who still are in need of a voice, I got it.
Sarah Kwei from the group said: “We protested to highlight the devastation that domestic violence cuts are making to the lives of women across the UK. Rather than protest the film as such, we wanted to use the publicity of the night to remind the world that the fight is far from over.”
What better place to do this?! The suffragettes weren’t protesting the king’s horse taking part in Derby day – they wanted the world’s media to hear their voice. And that publicity gave the original group a wider audience. Why not use the media attention to highlight the ongoing battle? Good on Sisters Uncut. Keep speaking out ladies. Get your voices – and the voices of those not yet strong enough to speak – heard.
After incredible talks from the film’s writer, director, the BFI’s programmer and its Chief Exec – all women – I felt inspired and excited. Here was the moment. The film we’d all been waiting for. The chance to glimpse a small part of what the suffragettes did for us.
I made notes:
• “If you want me to respect the law, make the law respectable.”
• I love berets. Must buy one.
• “Suffragette? Soldier.”
• None of us can simply ignore bullies.
• Is it too much to say our fight is the same as theirs? They began it, we’re continuing it. It’s still one group of people trying to shut up another group of people who deserve to be calmly heard.
• I’m SO ANGRY at all of this! These characters aren’t just characters – these attitudes really did exist! And they still exist in many parts of the world. Even if on paper we’re equal in the UK, we’re really not. I’m SO ANGRY. This film is letting me feel ANGRY. Years of therapy couldn’t do that and this film can. Wow.
• I’m laughing at the ignorant awful sexist things that are being said. Laughing. Because what else is there to do?
• “The finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” YES.
• ANGRY enough to speak out. Girls are to be seen and not heard. Don’t be angry.
• “I would rather be a rebel than a slave!” YES MRS PANKHURST!
• “You’re not well in the head.” Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?
In a bar drinking a cocktail called ‘Dirty Damsel’. It felt fitting. Strong women have been fighting for decades, centuries, to have their voices heard. We’re still fighting. Thanks to those who came before us, our voices are clearer, stronger and actually being listened to by some. Those who try to shut us up are fighting a pointless battle. We really are half of the human race and we are no longer locked away. We must keep fighting to be heard.
I raise a glass to you all who came before us, all who stand with me and all who are yet to speak.
I may be drunk.1754 Views
Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.