Margaret Thatcher back in the headlines in Britain

“The Iron Lady” missed many of Thatcher’s flaws and political failures, and inaccurately portrayed her as a feminist.

The film producers painted a somewhat inaccurate picture of history in the making of The Iron Lady [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Baroness Margaret Thatcher is again firmly in the spotlight in the UK after the release of The Iron Lady – a biographical portrait of the first and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom. Sitting in the packed cinema after queuing for nearly an hour and eventually managing to get two of the last four tickets, love or loathe her, no one can accuse The Iron Lady of not having pulling power.

Meryl Streep (who is surely Oscar-worthy in her performance) portrays Lady Thatcher in the present as an 86-year-old fighting dementia looking back over her life and career. British Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised the timing of the film saying: “It’s a film I wish they could have made another day.” His argument is somewhat fair. I did wonder 104 minutes later how accurate and comparable Thatcher’s dementia is in the film in relation to her dementia in real life.

One can’t help but wonder if that is the reason for the Thatcher family refusing an invitation for an early screening of the film? It understandably must make for uncomfortable viewing for her loved ones.

Artistic licence pushed aside for a moment, walking out of the cinema, I felt a sense of disappointment that the Iron Lady was a real missed opportunity, politically. The Iron Lady isn’t a film about Thatcherism and Britain under her rule, but about a lonely woman, battling an awful illness, reflecting back on her formidable determination to rise and rule in a hideously male-dominated environment. Does this make Lady Thatcher a feminist heroine as depicted in the film? Absolutely not, but more on that later.

Scared to take a political risk

The film’s producers played it safe – far too safe, focusing politically only on the decision to invade the Falklands, the miners’ strike, and Maggie (literally) dusting herself and loyal Denis down after the IRA bombed her hotel in Brighton. The Iron Lady is a one-woman show seen only from Margaret Thatcher’s viewpoint.

Hollywood portrays life of the ‘Iron Lady’

In an obvious attempt to humanise her, we follow Margaret Thatcher making the “right decisions”, governed only by her beliefs, values and opinions. The thing is, however, Thatcher is such a decisive figure, her “right decisions” weren’t in fact the “right decisions” at all. By following only her beliefs, values and opinions (for all her supporters) there are millions that despise everything she stood for.

This wasn’t touched upon in the film – only fleetingly at the end with scenes of her bullying and undermining her cabinet; refusing to back down over the decision which led to her ultimate downfall: the devastating consequences of the introduction of a poll tax.

How on earth could she have ever thought that would make her popular with the electorate? Who would dare justify that a poor housewife looking after her family in a tiny terrace should pay the same as a millionaire roaming around his sprawling estate? Talk about being out of touch with your country.

Putting it bluntly, if you wanted to watch the film to learn about Thatcherism, you are left disappointed. Where were the references under her rule to the deregulation of the financial markets? The references to the sale of 20 state-controlled companies, including British Telecom, allowing the rich to buy shares in the newly privatised firms sold quickly to make a quick profit? No, unless I blinked and missed it, it didn’t appear.

I didn’t once hear “Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” in reference to her time as Education Secretary, where she planned to end free school milk for children older than seven. There was surprisingly no mention of her cuts to higher education, described as “one of her most vigorous nationalisations”. And no mention of Thatcher making history by becoming the first Oxford-educated post-war prime minister to be refused an honorary doctorate after academics led a campaign against her.

Her contempt for the enemy that were the trade unions – her ultimate nemeses – was briefly touched upon in the film. Scenes of people driving up with cars filled with black bags, then tossing them onto mountains of rubbish piled high in the streets, as MT held her starchy pressed handkerchief to her nose in disgust and disdain. The political insight and detail was desperately missing, though that showed the beginning of the Iron Lady’s fight to strip the “British disease” of all their power. A fight she fought ferociously and was determined to win.

This links neatly to the UK’s miners’ strike, lasting from 1984-1985, described as “the most significant post-war industrial dispute”. Thatcher continued her war against the miners for a decade, succeeding in the selling off and shutting down of the coal industry. She will never be forgiven by them for her systematic destruction of British industry, crushing and destroying the livelihood of millions of working class people across Britain, who still harbour resentment against her today.

There was also no mention – within 104 minutes – of unemployment under her rule hitting 3.6 million, or that interest rates rose to a staggering 17 per cent, resulting in thousands losing their homes – including, for many, the formerly council-provided social housing that Thatcher encouraged them to buy in the first place. And on the subject of the “right to buy” council houses – was it the right thing to do? It certainly divided communities and reduced the stock of social housing.

No mention either of cutting the cash for local councils, in reducing social services funding for public spending and services. She began to lose support from her own cabinet, but MT wasn’t going to rust – she responded in true Iron Lady style announcing at the 1980 Conservative Party Conference Speech: “The lady’s not for turning.”

Margaret Thatcher portrayed as a feminist

Margaret Thatcher was absolutely not a feminist. My definition of a feminist is someone who cares about women, who cares and fights for their rights in all walks of life and is someone other women can look up to and trust. Thatcher possessed none of these qualities. Her achievements were remarkable in achieving in what she set out to do, but were and are a one off. It was ludicrous that there was an attempt to depict her as some sort of feminist hero in the film.

“She was always on the look-out for ‘great men’ and said: ‘When a big man has a big idea I never like to stand in his way’.”

– Charles Moore, biographer

She should not be used as a shining example of a woman who was indicative of equal opportunities and who fought the gender and class stereotypes on behalf of other women. She famously said: “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib”. She cared about herself, loved power and flirted with powerful men to get what she wanted. She loved men, not women.

In the film, the scene that really made my stomach churn was when she was getting ready to go to the Commons, her children running after her, banging on the car windows, pleading with her not to go. MT doesn’t even look at them, just puts the car into gear and drives off, leaving her children sobbing in the gravel. In the actions of a true Iron Lady, she then shoves the children’s toys that had been left on the passenger seat into the glove box and checks her lipstick in the mirror.

Her biographer Charles Moore wrote: “As for women, Margaret Thatcher showed precious little interest in them.” Moore even admits, “On the whole, the women who got on best with her were those who played vital support roles – secretaries, advisers on clothes, personal assistants.” I bet Thatcher wasn’t pleased about that revelation.

This quote really made me want to scream: “She was always on the look-out for ‘great men’ and said: ‘When a big man has a big idea, I never like to stand in his way’.”

What about looking out for “great women”, Margaret? Where were your “other great women” supporting you in your Cabinet? There were none. If she was a woman that bothered to support and care about other women then she would “never stand in the way” of a “big woman with a big idea”.

Even the film hinted at her close allegiance with men over women in her personal life. Her relationship with her mother was portrayed as frosty and distant, compared with her father, who she evidently idolised as her hero. She was short-tempered and curt with her daughter, Carol, when she attempted to help her with closure and gently tried to get her to move forward on a practical and emotional level. However, despite her requests that her son Mark visit, she soothed him and pretended to not be disappointed when he called her in the middle of the night to inform her that he wouldn’t be able to come and see her.

One of her most famous quotes (for all the wrong reasons) was spoken in the words of a true non-feminist: “There is no such thing as society.” Without society in Britain, we have no sense of community, morality or values. Without society in Britain, we have nothing – and as the famous Greek proverb stated: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Riz Khan - Arab feminism

In light of the revolutions across the Arab world, what challenges are women facing in this new political era?

Published On 2 Mar 2011
More from Author
Most Read