As a person who cares about women’s leadership, The Iron Lady should be a no-brainer. A film with an AMAZING tour-de-force performance by Meryl Streep playing a woman who was the longest serving Prime Minister in the western world. She gives one of those performances (even better than her recent amazing performances) that leaves your mouth agape at her talent. It was so awesome to see such a strong and powerful woman onscreen.
But I must admit that I am conflicted about this film. There is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher made great strides for women in politics because she broke down gender boundaries and proved a woman could be as tough or tougher than the guys, but at the same time we can’t forget that Margaret Thatcher was not known for being a part of the sisterhood – far from it.
The film in deciding to focuses on the gender barriers hopes that her breakthroughs will trump the rest of her horrific political views. But it just doesn’t work. Gender is just one piece of the puzzle, it’s not the whole thing. That’s always been one of the biggest issues for me related to women in leadership positions — just because you have a vagina doesn’t make you a feminist. (ie Sarah Palin) As we said at White House Project where I worked a decade ago – it’s not the gender, it’s the agenda.
The film is told in flashbacks from the perspective of Thatcher who is currently suffering from dementia. Certain things happen which cause her to recall significant moments from years ago. The screenwriter Abi Morgan has created a film that is fiction but based on real life events. There is no doubt that Margaret Thacher accomplished many things no woman did in her time. You see how she learned her conservative politics at her father’s feet (he was a grocer and also the mayor of Grantham) and how committed she was to going into politics (after she studied physics at Oxford.) She told Dennis Thatcher the man she was to marry (and their loving relationship is one of the humanizing pieces of her in the film) that she would never be a woman in the kitchen washing cups like her mother. And she wasn’t.
No matter how many barriers she kicked down, Margaret Thatcher was still a product of her generation. She went to Parliament at a time when there were hardly any women, and from what I can tell, she liked it that way. To heighten the gender issues there is a hardly another woman in the film aside from her daughter who while taking care of her mom seems to earn her wrath because she is there and not her twin brother (whom mom clearly likes better.)
Thatcher took her duty to public service very seriously and worked her way up into leadership. You see how she takes her supposed deficits in being a woman and makes them into assets. There are some fun scenes where you really get a sense that this woman was alone in a sea of men (we know that is exaggerated and that there were other women MPs.) She learns to talk differently, loses her hats, and gets a helmet head haircut all done to be taken more seriously. Those are things no young woman today could believe would be necessary. But that’s the way it was, and remember it’s 20 years since Thatcher was in power and no other woman has gotten close.
We live in a world where seeing movies about older women and movies about women in power are few and far between. This movie has both, and for that reason I completely understand Meryl Streep talking about how this movie appealed to “every feminist bone in her body.” But because there are so few of these movies the expectations are quite high especially in a film that stars Meryl Streep. The reality is that just like gender does not trump agenda in politics, gender does not trump agenda in The Iron Lady either.
(Disclosure: I worked with the Weinstein company to invite women bloggers and women leaders to the film’s premiere earlier in December.)