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On Thatcher: Icons and Iron Ladies.

2012 January 10

A spectre is haunting London. My daily commute, never a joyful affair, has recently been lent a further dimension of irritation by adverts on buses, hoving into view with tedious regularity, bearing the image of Meryl Streep dolled up as Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Thirty years on from Thatcher’s rise to power, and after a minor rash of small-screen depictions – Andrea Riseborough in The Long Walk to Finchley, Lindsay Duncan in Margaret – Streep will now portray her on the big screen, the prospect of which I could have happily lived without.

Having as I do firsthand experience of the impact of Thatcher’s thirteen years, her government’s break with prevailing consensus and bloody-minded devotion to neoliberal orthodoxies, an objective and rational evaluation of the woman is probably beyond me. That said, her presumably impending death – although I do have a longstanding appointment at a pub in King’s Cross to dutifully raise a glass – is something to which I’ll be largely indifferent. It won’t matter. Thatcher as a person has far less bearing on the current world than what she represents. The damage has been done, the battle lost, and much as I might appreciate a Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the 1980s, Thatcher and her co-conspirators are by now too old and whiskey-soaked to be held to any meaningful account.

Efforts to humanise Thatcher, even when they enlist Meryl Streep, seem discomfiting and deeply bizarre. What she means has transcended what she was, is and will be. The purpose of this post, therefore, apart from being an exercise in detachment for me, is to look briefly at some aspects of Thatcher’s image in political and pop culture, and to consider the effect of her gender on her role as a woman in power. Quick, before the next bus goes past.

The Icon Lady

Meanings of all kinds flow through the figures of women, and they often do not include who she herself is.

– Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens

Thatcher’s visual staying power in political and pop culture is as great as her impact on oppositional music. The face of Thatcher most often called to mind is that of what Angela Carter termed her ‘balefully iconic’ post-1983 premiership: encased in true-blue power suits, wielding a handbag, her hair lacquered into immobile submission, her earlier style solidified into a heavily stylized femininity bordering on drag. Paul Flynn, in a fairly tortured discussion of Thatcher’s status as a gay icon, put it down to her ‘ability to carry a strong, identifiable, signature look… an intrinsic and steely power to self-transform’, and a ‘camp, easily cartooned presence’. The startling evocative power of this look, its ability to summon up its host of contemporary social, cultural and political associations, is why I jump when Streep’s replication of it intrudes into my vision. It’s like being repeatedly sideswiped by the 1980s, which is something the last UK election had already made me thoroughly sick of.

Poster for the film The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher peers condescendingly at the viewer against a blue background.The iconic capacity of Thatcher’s image has been compared in articles and actual mash-ups with that of Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara. The artist Alison Jackson observes that all three ‘had what it takes to become a modern icon: big hair, high foreheads and a face that would allow you to project your own fears and desires on to it.’ Conversely, subsequent political leaders – including both Blair and Cameron – have had their own faces conflated with Thatcher’s, usually as part of left-wing critiques meant to signify the closeness of their policies to hers. Thatcher’s image is here used as an instantly recognisable political signifier, communicating a set of ideological ideas in a single package, as well as a self-contained political warning sign.

Although the kind of passive objectification associated with Monroe might seem at odds with the idea of Thatcher as a great historical actor with narrative agency in her own right, the images of both women are used in a cultural tradition in which the female figure in particular becomes a canvas for the expression of abstract ideas (think justice, liberty, victory). The abstract embodiment of multiple meanings, and the strategic performance of traditional ideas of femininity, constitute sources of power which Thatcher and her political and media allies exploited to the hilt in their harnessing of support for the policies she promoted.

Iron Maidens

Thatcher’s image, rather than appealing solely to a particular aspect of femininity, was a tense mixture of conflicting and mutually reinforcing signifiers. Angela Carter identified it as a composite of feminine archetypes, including Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington, Elizabeth I as Gloriana, Countess Dracula, and one of PG Wodehouse’s aunts – tropes sharing a certain type of burlesqued and grotesque dragon-femininity. The 1981 Falklands conflict allowed the discourse around Thatcher to reference the precedents of both Queen Victoria and Churchill, and she was photographed on a tank in an image that the Daily Telegraph described as ‘a cross between Isadora Duncan and Lawrence of Arabia’.

Justine Picardie, in a grimly fascinating read, roots Thatcher’s style in the rigid grooming of well-turned-out 1950s femininity in general and her sartorially plain Methodist upbringing in particular:

Interviewed by Dr Miriam Stoppard for Yorkshire Television in 1985, she gave a glimpse of a childhood desire for the luxury of colour, and shop-bought extravagance, whether a new dress or sofa cover: ‘that was a great expenditure and a great event. So you went out to choose them, and you chose something that looked really rather lovely, something light with flowers on it. My mother: “That’s not serviceable.” And how I longed for the time when I could buy things that were not serviceable.’

Even at the height of her political power, she chose to retain the ‘pretty’ and ‘softening’ effects of her trademark horrible bows. Alongside this tendency towards aspirational frivolity, she cultivated connotations of the provincial housewife – a ‘Housewife Superstar’ – wearing an apron while on the campaign trail and being shown washing dishes while contesting the party leadership.

Her ‘Iron Lady’ speech distinctly echoed the ‘body of a weak and feeble woman… heart and stomach of a king’ construction associated with Elizabeth I in its drawing on the tension between conflicting signifiers:

I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western World. A cold war warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. Well, am I any of those things? Yes… Yes, I am an iron lady, after all it wasn’t a bad thing to be an iron duke.

Not a Man to Match Her?

Thatcher’s courting of various feminine roles did not prevent the assigning of masculine attributes to her – notably in oppositional parodies and satire. Her iconic Spitting Image puppet was shown wearing a suit and tie and smoking a cigar, addressed as ‘Sir’, and given a more or less explicit emasculating effect upon male colleagues and political opponents:

Outside satire, the 1984 Miners’ Strike has been conceptualised both as a mass emasculation of ordinary male miners and an overt bout of cock-duelling between Thatcher and miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, each of whom were criticised for an absolutist and stubbornly Napoleonic approach to the conflict rather than a more ‘feminine’ openness to negotiation and compromise.

As Dawn Fowler notes in her consideration of dramatic treatments of the Falklands War, a problem with such portrayals of Thatcher is that she ‘can be represented as simply denying her true feminine self in favour of a crazed fascist agenda.’ The Comic Strip’s satirical take on Thatcher’s battles with Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council presented her as the victim of alien or demonic possession, the ending of which left her soft and passive – restored to her presumably appropriate, natural form. Both applauding Thatcher for her ability to overcome ‘traditional’ feminine weakness and irrationality and behave symbolically as a man, and castigating her for her failure or suppression of a ‘true’ soft and accommodating female nature, are equally dubious in the qualities they seek to assign to ‘real’ women.

Thatcher was repeatedly likened to a female impersonator, a man in blue dresses. The reason for this is simple, and apparently shatterproof: we have so firmly linked power and masculinity that we think a powerful woman is a category error. Instead of changing our ideas about power, we change the sex of a powerful woman.

Sarah Churchwell

No Job for a Lady?

While Thatcher’s election to Prime Minister was of course a landmark for women in politics, her much-vaunted ‘grocer’s daughter’ outsider status was mediated through an Oxford education and marriage into wealth. The number of prominent women serving as MPs and Cabinet ministers prior to or alongside Thatcher – Nancy Astor, Margaret Bondfield, Betty Harvie Anderson, Jenny Lee, Barbara Castle to name a few – make her ascension exceptional but not unique. Nor should Thatcher’s progress in the male-dominated world of British politics obscure how little she actually did for women once in office: the lack of women appointed to ministerial positions; her disparaging of ‘strident Women’s Libbers’; her invariably male ideological protégés. Historian Helen Castor, discussing the ‘extraordinary’ parallels between the iconography of Thatcher and that of Elizabeth I, points out that both women emphasised themselves as the exception to a rule:

…what those two women both did was not say, Women can rule, women can hold power. They both said, Yes, OK, most women are pretty feeble, but I am a special woman.

At a point where Thatcher’s chosen ideology is resulting in falling standards of living for women – and men – across Britain; where the dim and insubstantial Louise Mensch can manage to position herself as a rising star, and where the Home Secretary’s political decisions make fewer headlines than her choice of shoe, I’m relieved to see that attempts to rehabilitate Thatcher as any kind of feminist icon are largely being resisted. It remains to be seen whether The Iron Lady, and its fallout in the form of frankly offensive Thatcher-inspired fashion shoots, means that her image is now undergoing a further transcendence into the realms of irony and kitsch (as has happened with both Marilyn and Che), or whether this is part of a conscious revival of the political associations her image originally carried and to which we are being returned – conditions profoundly unfriendly to female independence and agency despite the women occasionally employed as their shock troops.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    January 10, 2012

    I’ve been out of the country, I came into Heathrow and casually looked to my left, to be confronted by a six-foot version of the Thatcher movie poster. I actually did a comedy double-take jump in the air, making warding signs and shouting OH DEAR GOD etc. They should warn us before putting that stuff out there. Age-guidance ratings for movie posters?

    And everywhere the idea that a woman in power must be an icon for feminism, even when her policies hurt women, even when her time in power hurt the *perception* of women in politics for generations.

    • Stephen B permalink
      January 10, 2012

      (By which I mean: great article, and I hadn’t seen the Elizabeth parallels but they’re worryingly clear once it’s pointed out.)

    • north5 permalink
      January 10, 2012

      (The film has an age guidance rating; it’s been given 12A, which makes it unsuitable for miners.)

      • January 10, 2012

        :D I made that joke on Twitter the other other day – the scary thing is I remember it being made in the Eighties…

    • January 10, 2012

      “even when her time in power hurt the *perception* of women in politics for generations.”

      Thanks, this is a key point which I didn’t really bring out: Thatcher as the default mode for a Woman In Politics, because she was the most visible example.

  2. January 10, 2012

    I have seen the film. I thought it was good and quite balanced. She’s a figure of great admiration and also great hatred and they show both. They also show her going a bit mental towards the end (well you’d have to be to think the poll tax would go down well with anyone or their dog). The flashbacks of her in the 40s as a young woman getting stuck into a career full of patronising men are particularly good (can’t remember the actress playing the young MT but she’s fab) and totally inspiring. It’s also a touching love story with her husband and a sensitive look at senile dementia.

    You know… just in case someone actually wanted to know what the film was about…

    • Rhian Jones permalink
      January 11, 2012

      Thanks – I look forward to watching it. The casting of Jim Broadbent as Denis seems particularly inspired, and I’m also keen to see how Olivia Colman plays her daughter Carol.

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