Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Iron Ladies

with 3 comments

by Bronwen

I just saw The Iron Lady, and I can highly recommend it, although it was very different from what I expected.  Although it dealt with Thatcher’s politics (sort of), it mostly focused on a private character study of the former prime minister, emphasizing her role as a woman in politics from the 1950s to the 1990s and her struggle with her husband’s death.  And let me just say that whatever your politics, the movie makes clear that there’s one thing we can all agree about: Meryl Streep is a legend.

There has been an interesting reaction to the film by both the British public and its public intellectuals.  Richard Vinen (at my alma mater, King’s College London, and author of Thatcher’s Britain) has been in the press several times in the past month, attempting to explain Thatcher’s lasting power in British political rhetoric, first in the New York Times, and then, after receiving hate mail,  in the Financial Times.  He wrote that Thatcher exists essentially as a fictional bogeyman in British politics, despite the fact that both parties have agreed (rightly or wrongly) with her policies after the fact.

Vinen’s New York Times piece takes the film as a call for backbone amongst Britain’s politicians.  In times of crisis, he claims, the British need a polarizing figure like Thatcher, who drove conservatives to the right and Labour to the left and made people choose a solution to the crisis from those two sides.  He says that in Britain

The major political parties look remarkably similar today. All are led by clean-cut 40-somethings who blend social liberalism (support for same-sex marriage and opposition to the death penalty) with acceptance of the free market.

The Daily Mail and the Telegraph have both jumped on the film as a reason to write about their favorite subjects: Thatcher, Thatcher’s legacy, the wimpy Tory politicians these days. The Telegraph piece is entitled ‘The Iron Lady shows us what we’re missing’ (!).  There seems to be a call across the governing Conservative party that what is needed is Thatcher’s determination, iron will and willingness to do something – even if it is something deeply unpopular.

I’m still trying to figure out why this movie was made now.  It is a British film (Film 4, Pathe, and the National Lottery) with an almost entirely British cast, writer and director. So it should be expected to be aimed at a British audience.  As it’s not a British election year (the next one isn’t scheduled until May 2015), it seems safe enough to make this film now.

But, as an inherently, if not overtly, political film, it comes out the year before an American presidential election.  And being a cultural narcissist, I can’t help but think that there must be some kind of reason for the timing.  It’s not as if this was some British summer sleeper that got picked up in America – it came out right on schedule for the Oscars.

And so I have to wonder if this somehow has something to do with the recent attempt by several political pundits and bloggers to move Hilary Clinton from Secretary of State to Vice President.  Bill Keller’s op-ed in the New York Times was way-off in why she’d be good (or, for that matter, why Biden would be a good Secretary of State!) but he clearly is participating a more general movement to reinvigorate democratic politics with brand Hilary.  And in some ways the movie could be about her: the daughter of a small town businessman who encouraged his daughter’s drive and ambition and participation in politics; a divisive political figure who inspired loathing among large groups of Americans; a keen political mind with a reputation as a hard-minded strategist.

Although the similarities end with their politics, in terms of political character, the sort of small-business-friendly ‘compassionate governance’ that Thatcher seems to believe she embodies in the film (regardless of the harsh realities of her policies) and her foreign policy nerves of steel are not miles off Clinton’s self-portrayal.  In fact, a leaked memo from Clinton’s campaign revealed that her strategists were cultivating a Thatcherite image. Keller describes her as having

a Calvinist work ethic, the stamina of an Olympian, an E.Q. to match her I.Q., and the political instincts of a Clinton. She has an impressive empathic ability — invaluable in politics or statecraft — to imagine how the world looks to an ally or adversary. She listens, and she learns from her mistakes. She was a perfectly plausible president four years ago, and that was before she demonstrated her gifts as a diplomatic snake-charmer.

Given the left’s current (unwarranted, in my opinion) feeling that President Obama has not done enough, Thatcher’s call to ‘do something’ chimes with a renewed interest in choosing a running mate for 2012 who they believe would ‘do something.’ Although Democrats and Conservatives don’t have much in common, both parties seem to be wishing for their iron-willed ladies.

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Written by apini

January 13, 2012 at 05:19

3 Responses

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  1. I think the answer as to why this film is being released now in time for the Oscars is simpler than the one you suggest here: the success of “The King’s Speech”. I think this is an attempt to piggy back off the success of another British film that also dealt with certain traditionally understood conservative themes. More importantly the success of “The King’s Speech” showed that a thoroughly British film can still be well received in the US. I think the motivations of the filmmakers for “Iron Lady” originate more from what they perceived to be a profitable business opportunity and less from any kind of political calculations that might position Clinton into the VP role.

    Christopher Petersen

    January 13, 2012 at 11:00

  2. Are you implying that neither Sarah Palin nor Michele Bachmann qualify as “iron-willed ladies?” 🙂

    David Weinfeld

    January 13, 2012 at 15:22

  3. Oh, undoubtedly, Christopher (even the scene where she learns to use her ‘voice’ is a direct allusion to the King’s Speech!). I just thought it was interesting that they coincided in the popular moment and was looking for a link 🙂

    And Dave, I’m sure that’s what they were playing on as well, but the conservative-Conservative comparison is less interesting that the Democrat-Conservative one, I guess. Plus I’m bored of thinking about Bachmann. Next!

    Bronwen Everill

    January 13, 2012 at 18:26


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