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20 November 2019

Kathy Burke’s All Woman: funny, expletive-laden straight-talking

By Eleanor Margolis

Like so many British kids of the Nineties, I grew up with Kathy Burke. I belly laughed at her on Ab Fab and Harry Enfield, before I was even old enough to understand what I was laughing at. She was just this big, sweary antidote to bullshit. I remember being oddly transfixed by her as Waynetta Slob, a character who – admittedly – has aged poorly. But still, I’m not sure anyone else on earth could deliver the line, “I am smoking a fag,” with such sheer comic genius. Funny women like Burke were the reason, aged about six, I told my mum I wanted to be a “chameleon”. I meant “comedian”, but the sentiment was there. (Until about a week later when I wanted to be a gladiator, because of Rhino from Gladiators).

Judging by the first episode of her new Channel 4 documentary series, Kathy Burke’s All Woman, Burke hasn’t changed. The premise is simple: Kathy Burke meets various women, running her hilarious gob about the beauty industry and modern feminine ideals. And as it turns out, 50 minutes of Burke taking a look at the current state of women’s beauty standards – particularly the cosmetic surgery side of things – is worth watching for the quotes alone.

“Steam yer fanny? Fuck off,” says Burke, when she is introduced to the concept of a “vajaycial”; representing eye-rolling women everywhere. Because Burke – proudly “fat”, straight-talking, and eminently likeable – is basically the anti-Goop. Now in her fifties, she has become the nation’s “Nuclear Nana” (Burke’s feminist punk wrestling alias). And if you’re not desperate to sit down with her over a cup of tea and a plate of custard creams, basking in her uncut and expletive-riddled wisdom, you must literally be Gwyneth Paltrow.  

While chatting to “Big Sue” Tilley – the subject of one of Lucian Freud’s most famous portraits – Burke quite gloriously calls bullshit on Freud’s truly David Brent-esque assertion that libraries should be “retitled beauty parlours” because learning things that makes you beautiful. “Very interesting,” she says, “from the man who fucked every woman that he met.”

Burke’s first stop in All Woman is a visit to Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson. As the latter sits in a whirlwind of hair and makeup brushes (a procedure she says takes hours), she tells Burke about her various cosmetic surgery treatments, from two boob jobs to lip fillers, all of which have cost her tens of thousands of pounds and landed her with endless “stick” from the public. This path began, Barton-Hanson says, with bullying at school, which prompted her to have her ears pinned back. Now, having done her utmost to conform to conventional beauty standards, she’s received abuse, and even “death threats” for being “fake and plastic.” The two women discuss the ludicrous double standards at play here.

“I don’t want young girls to have unrealistic expectations like I did,” says the former Love Island contestant, who assumed she could be physically sculpted into self-acceptance, but ultimately discovered that surgery “didn’t fix anything.” Barton-Hanson is painfully aware of the irony of this statement – knowing she probably wouldn’t have become famous if she hadn’t played this game to begin with. 

Burke later chats to the exact kind of “young girl” Barton-Hanson mentioned. She meets 20-year-old shop assistant, Laura, in a cosmetic surgery clinic, awaiting a breast enlargement consultation.

“You can never sort of win on a level of confidence,” says Laura, with a rising inflection that suggests genuine uncertainty. Burke tells her that she’s gorgeous the way she is and, well, that’s kind of that. As funny and compelling a presenter as Burke is, the programme lacks any kind of analysis or theory – other than our obsession with social media – to explain why women are under so much pressure to look beautiful.

There always seems to be a temptation for older generations to assume that “kids today” are somehow doomed. Throughout the programme, Burke says she’s “worried” about young women and girls. And although this worry is completely understandable (and – we learn – the product of Burke’s own issues with self-esteem, when she was in her teens and twenties), there’s no real acknowledgement that the difficulties young women face today are basically the same as those they’ve faced for thousands of years, if in different forms. Burke is grateful that she didn’t have the likes of Instagram to contend with when she was young, but she still struggled with self-image. This first episode of All Woman only pricks the skin of an industry rotten to its marrow. 

And while Burke talks about the beauty of fat bodies with “Big Sue”, the assumption seems to be that this kind of body positivity is exclusive to their generation. This, of course, is far from the truth –the body positivity movement is now mainstream, in part thanks to Instagram: plus-sized models and influencers’ social media followings can reach the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands. Model Tess Holliday, who is a size 22, has a following of nearly two million. That not a single mention of this trend is made in the episode seems like an oversight. Although Burke does touch on the idea of challenging beauty standards, in an interview with rapper Nadia Rose.

As much as I could listen to Kathy Burke say “fuck” on repeat for hours on end, I’m hoping that coming episodes of All Woman might look a little more deeply at what it means to be a woman in 2019. But even if they don’t, I’ll probably continue watching, even if only for Burke.

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