The Iron Lady: Lloyd’s Thatcher Shows the Strength Necessary to Lead

Courtesy of Louise Haywood-Schiefer via Flickr

The Iron Lady is a film that has been engineered to win Academy awards, but behind the artsy appeal, the glitz and the glamour lies a solid critique on the modus operandi of western political systems, wherein the events of Margaret Thatcher’s life echo our current political situation. Phyllida Lloyd’s film portrays Margaret Thatcher through a retrospective as she looks back on her life from the brink of senility. Through this lens Lloyd focuses a great deal on the personal aspects of Britain’s first female prime minister’s life, which can really be summed up in one word: meh. Regardless of the presence of politics and heavy themes in this film, it plays more like a personal memoir than a biopic of arguably the most powerful woman in decades. While presenting an occasional challenge to traditional forms of public administration and governance, Lloyd’s film is less probing than one would have imagined.

Thankfully, the film also covers Thatcher political life, which is powerful enough to carry the film. So, if you will allow me, I’ll just skip right over all the family troubles, memory loss, and grief and cut right to the meatier issues: femininity in power, popularity & policy, and strength in a leader.

Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power can easily be viewed as simply a feminist victory. However, as portrayed in Lloyd’s interpretation there is a deeper rhetoric that runs counter to this idea. We are introduced to Thatcher’s political career through a scene wherein the senior members of the conservative party dismiss her as a grocer’s daughter. Whether this is a commentary on her sex, her social status, or both is indistinguishable, but it implants the idea of a patriarchal political society firmly in the viewer’s mind. Throughout the rest of the film we witness Thatcher overcome numerous obstacles, but it is not that she overcame them that is worthy of note it is how. In one scene with her campaign managers, she is stripped of various bits of her personality in order to conform to a more masculine identity; her voice, her appearance, and her behavior. This process raises a question that has implications for the western political system. Though there are more women in political positions today, than during Margaret Thatcher’s time, has the practice of adopting more masculine traits in order to achieve political success changed? Criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s cold demeanor plagued her presidential run in 2008 and were by far the more benign complaints.

Once Thatcher is elected Prime Minister the focus shifts the dichotomy of pragmatism and idealism. Thatcher is shown to be a staunch conservative idealist that adamantly defends her policies so much so that, the tag-line “never compromise” is well earned. In her battles with the Unions and the Labor party the rhetoric runs consistently along the lines of: I’m right and you’re wrong, so we’re going to do it my way. This aspect of the film echoes a larger relevance to the current political travails of President Obama. With a good deal of talk about “reaching across the aisle” spouted by mainstream political analysts as the accepted only way forward, Thatcher’s successes through combative politics throws this assumption into question. That this combative posture was utilized in a system designed to foster coalition building and compromise, rather than our two-party system where one party always holds a majority is especially intriguing.

Meryl Streep does a phenomenal job playing Margaret Thatcher as an immensely strong leader. Whether it is combating militant Irish Republicans, rebuffing Argentine aggression, or bringing the axe down upon the coal mine industry, the audience is given the feeling that Margaret Thatcher IS the British Government and that it is her will alone that accomplishes these tasks. Hyperbole or no, Lloyd’s Thatcher shows the strength necessary to direct the Conservative party, push legislation through parliament, and eventually secure success. The film puts forward that the executive must be strong enough to work unilaterally and more importantly that they must maintain the unity of their party. Returning to the American system, the internal divisions within the Democratic Party have shown that President Obama lacks control. If Phyllida Lloyd’s film is to be believed the candidates in this year’s election will need to lead their respective parties not just in name alone if they want to lead effectively and satisfy the electorate.

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