FOR a while it seemed the makers of The Iron Lady – the Margaret Thatcher biopic that hits UK cinemas at the turn of the year – were in a no-win situation. The daughter of a Grantham grocer was nothing if not a Marmite figure.
Those who loved her had no desire to see her depicted as a befuddled old lady, eking out her final years in an Alzheimer’s-induced fog of half-remembered glories; those who loathed her (and let’s face it that’s everyone but a handful of Tory grandees) had no desire to have their long-standing view of her as a human wrecking ball softened either by a quasi-sympathetic portrayal or their affection for Meryl Streep.
Streep didn’t help matters by enthusing about the “privilege of being able to look at a life deeply with empathy”. Thatcher is a woman for whom the natural laws of empathy were long ago suspended; a woman whose early demise even those liberals who balked at the sight of Colonel Gaddafi being dragged through the streets would have greeted with giddy displays of triumphalism.
To understand how that visceral hatred endures you only had to visit the website Is Thatcher Dead Yet? which charted her deteriorating health when she was taken into hospital with an infection last year. More than two decades after her resignation the vast majority of us may have stopped fantasising about how we will celebrate her passing, but we’re sure as hell not ready to accept her as one of the 20th century’s most inspiring figures.
Yet last week, as a select few were treated to a sneak preview of the film, the mood seemed to be shifting ever so slightly. Not amongst her adoring fans. Lords Tebbit and Bell pronounced the movie a travesty, Tebbit saying Thatcher bore no resemblance to the “half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep”. But amongst the chatterati there seemed to be a growing willingness to accept the validity of a film that tries to move away from the Spitting Image caricature and paint a more nuanced picture of a formidable if flawed woman.
While no-one has faulted Streep’s performance – some critics have complained the film fails to show the human cost of Thatcher’s policies. Thatcher without Thatcherism, one reviewer called it. And that’s a huge loss, particularly for a generation who didn’t experience the fall-out first-hand.
But I don’t have any problem with reappraising Thatcher as a human being. Anyone who has seen the Brian Clough biopic, The Damned United, knows you don’t have to like a public figure to find them compelling. And it’s possible our obsession with the destruction Thatcher unleashed has blinded us to the complex human being who loved her family and knew how to switch from homebody to Boudicca in order to bend others to her will. Maybe it takes an outsider like Streep to point out that Thatcher’s policies were born of an ideological conviction that seems to have all but disappeared from politics today.
Where I draw the line, however, is at any attempt to recast Thatcher as a feminist icon. This spurious notion has been raised before, most memorably by the author Tim Lott, who claims the model of female potential Thatcher provided – an ordinary housewife who gains wealth, power and authority – has more resonance with women today than the Andrea Dworkin/Greenham Common version of a braless, humourless sisterhood of wimmin. Last week, former Tory MP Matthew Parris suggested The Iron Lady is a “feminist” story about male prejudice and a “woman’s vision”.
Of course, it’s errant nonsense. Thatcher breached the defences of the Tory Party and Westminster, not by challenging the deep-seated prejudices of those institutions, but by playing along with them; behaving exactly like a man. Oh, she used her sexuality when it suited her, but her arrogance, her obstinance and her famous three hours of sleep a night regime – all those flamboyant displays of machismo – were just attempts to prove the lack of a Y chromosome didn’t stop her having balls.
Once in power, Thatcher – who once said she owed nothing to women’s lib – showed no more interest in helping her gender. She may have bemoaned the sexual discrimination she faced campaigning on the streets of Finchley, but she showed little interest in equal pay, rape or domestic violence. In her 11 years as prime minister, she appointed only one woman to the cabinet. Indeed, far from paving the way for women to rise to the top, she slowed their trajectory, providing a vivid example of how much havoc one female could wreak. In truth, Thatcher was a Queen Bee who revelled in being the lone woman in a man’s world. She was no more a feminist icon than OJ Simpson is a black icon. And it would take more than an Oscar-winning performance to convince me otherwise.