Stephen Fry and the bag lady

Last weekend saw one of the most exciting evenings in the UK cultural calendar – the BAFTAs. From an event that was once simply thought of as ‘the UK Oscars but not as good,’ the BAFTAs have become a world-renowned mark of recognition in their own right, attracting the biggest stars and movie makers. It’s an event that garners an incredible volume of media coverage, whether you’re talking about UK broadsheets, US news or the mass of global social media. So, most of us realise that if you take to the stage at the BAFTAs and you say something controversial, you’re doing it to a pretty wide audience.

Stephen Fry is often thought of as something of a national treasure and it was perhaps this much loved status that led him to make a rather ill-advised comment when he was presenting the show last Sunday. Fry is a long time host of the BAFTAs and has described the awards in the past as ‘the highlight’ of his year. He’s always managed to maintain a (mostly) balanced combination of humour, wit, sarcasm and up to the minute references. However, after costume designer Jenny Beavan collected her award this year, he made a comment that has had a huge backlash, “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to an awards ceremony dressed as a bag lady.”

Now, this is one of those comments that when you hear it – and when Fry explained that he knows Beavan, it’s sort of an ‘in’ joke – you almost think this is all just a storm in a champagne flute. But some have questioned that this is perhaps just the kind of everyday sexism that we shouldn’t be brushing off quite so easily. The pressure on women to look a certain way is widely acknowledged, and yet never changes, and awards ceremonies and red carpets intensify this by around a million thanks to circles of shame, terrible pap pictures and criticisms of unflattering choices or stars who haven’t dressed for their body shapes. Is this just another layer of damaging judging that people like Stephen Fry – who has spoken openly about his own image issues and problems with experiencing prejudice – really should think a bit more carefully about perpetuating? Many people on Twitter thought so and were pretty vocal about it.

Whatever your thoughts on the issue, it has been the story of the BAFTAs (even overshadowing Leonardo di Caprio’s lothario antics in his hotel suite), particularly as it has resulted in Stephen Fry quitting Twitter. When the attacks after his comments began he responded “Will all you sanctimonious f***ers f**k the f**k off Jenny Beavan is a friend and joshing is legitimate.” When people pointed out that the ‘joshing’ was taking place on a global stage in front of a global audience, in a professional context, not in someone’s living room, he promptly quit Twitter saying the fun is over and “too many people have peed in the pool.”

So, what’s the takeaway here then? Well, perhaps the awesome power of Twitter is the biggest lesson to learn. Topics blow up quickly and the glare of the spotlight is intense – trying to respond to, or justify, anything is exhausting and foolhardy. However, storms also pass very quickly and Twitter moves on. Which is why I think Mr Fry will be back – it’s not the first time he’s quit Twitter, and something tells me he won’t be able to resist a triumphant return. At least once the BAFTA wounds have healed.

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