Friday, 3 February 2012

Why I hated The Iron Lady

The day before I went back to Bristol for my second term, my mum offered to take me out to lunch and to the cinema to watch The Iron Lady. I wasn’t planning on seeing it but wasn’t going to say no to the kind offer so went happily (and it was a nice afternoon) but I came out of the cinema feeling as angry as I ever have after a film.

I couldn’t believe – whether intentional or not – its glorification of Margaret Thatcher and her 11-year premiership. The film didn’t have a responsibility to give a play-by-play history of the 1980s: true. It was also showing things from Thatcher's point of view and therefore didn’t always have to show what she didn’t see and what or who she didn’t think about. But the attention it paid to her ‘successes’ (Falklands etc.) as if to try and arouse admiration and to personal tragedies (which naturally provoked sympathy) was staggeringly high in contrast to the complete neglect of the plight of the millions of workers who lost their jobs and the lack of anything even mildly related to policy.

I don’t understand recent films about world leaders focusing obsessively on their physical or mental deterioration. I mean, I know it’s one logical way to make a film: to start it in the present day and use flashbacks to tell a story, but I don’t see the point (I recently watched a Fran├žois Mitterrand biopic) when about people like Thatcher or Mitterrand, the two longest-serving modern leaders of their countries, who had such eventful careers that it’s going to be challenging to fit much into one feature film even when you don’t waste so much time showing them old and ailing. At least half if not two-thirds of The Iron Lady showed Thatcher suffering from dementia, hallucinating, forgetting everything and thinking she was talking to her late husband Denis. I’m sorry she has dementia – I really am. It’s a horrible disease that no-one deserves, but I don’t see why, in a film about someone who had one of the most incredible political careers ever - and when you've got an actor as talented as Meryl Streep playing her - you’d make an illness (that lots of people have) feature so much.

With so much of the film showing Thatcher as a victim: a victim of dementia, a victim of teasing when a teenager, a victim of sexism in Parliament and victim of the 1979 IRA bombing which killed her good friend Airey Neave, even someone who detests her politics as much as I do felt sorry for her. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have covered any of these, but it seems entirely wrong to cover personal tragedy she suffered without even acknowledging the tragedy of the millions out of work, evicted from their homes and condemned to hardship during the Thatcher years.

For most of her life, Thatcher was not a weak elderly woman struggling about and finding it difficult to go and buy a pint of milk (the irony…). For most of her life – for good motives or bad – she was an MP who supported making the rich richer and allowing the gap between rich and poor to widen for the sake of freedom of enterprise and unregulated neoliberalism. Why then, especially with Streep claiming not to be a fan of her politics, was this glorification allowed?

What angered me most was the way the film almost painted her as a feminist icon. It showed her taking on the sexism rife in Parliament rather than perpetuating it, as she did by making it seem like women can and should only get to Number 10 by aspiring to be like men and acting in as alpha-male a way as possible. Thatcher created the misconception that Britain is now an equal society in which women have as much opportunity to become Prime Minister as men. It is not. She wasted the unprecedented opportunity she had to raise up other women - only one woman ever served in a Thatcher cabinet. Instead, writes Michele Hanson, 'she thought of how she could poop on the poorer ones'. As author Bidisha puts it: 'She liked what macho, sexist, patriarchal men always did: war, defence of the status quo, established power, entrenched inequality, heavily rigged individualist competition and absolute freedom, not as in emancipation, but greedy savagery of an unregulated market in which man eats man and woman is neither seen nor heard.'

She also damaged the feminist cause by giving women in a position of power a bad name. In a similar way that the disastrous 12th century reign of Matilda helped maintain the sexism in the royal line (and prevent there being another Queen until the Tudors), that ever so harmful casual sexism she brought about – the ‘look what happened the last time we let a woman run the country’ that you hear down the pub – stunted the progress of feminists for a generation. Now, again, maybe it isn’t the duty of the film to teach the viewer about all this, but at the very least it could have avoided sending out the opposite message: that Thatcher is someone women should be grateful for – as if!

I was also disappointed with the way the film lumped opponents together as one. Not only did it fail to acknowledge the scale of the hostility towards her, it grouped opponents – Labour, the miners, the IRA et al – together to the extent that you could hardly tell the difference. It was almost as if everyone supported her apart from 'extremists' in the Labour Party, the IRA and the rioters in Brixton.

Even the bit I thought was perhaps the best - coverage of the Falklands War - was horribly one-sided. It suggested the 1983 election was entirely down to the fervent patriotism that followed it (which there was), not admitting to its impressionable viewers – who understandably wouldn’t know about the Gang of Four, who left Labour to form the SDP in 1981, splitting the vote so the two (Labour and SDP-Liberal Alliance) obtained 53% the vote but, divided, were thrashed by Thatcher’s Tories on a mere 42% even with the Falklands bounce. It could have at least shown something like the clip of teacher Diana Gould taking her on on the BBC to recognise that not everyone - less than half the electorate, in fact - loved her.

Don’t waste your time or money on it. Certainly not unless you're a Thatcher fan in need of reassurance that she was a force for good. Give me a break!