Unwitting Feminist: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”


Meryl Streep has been raking in awards and nominations for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. But accolades for best picture, best director, or best script? Zip.

That’s the conventional wisdom on The Iron Lady: Streep deserves the Oscar for playing the British Prime Minister, but director Phyllida Lloyd does not craft a movie equal to the performance. That’s typically when someone snorts that Lloyd also directed the critically panned Mamma Mia! Reality check:

Not only did that musical showcase a bold, silly, sexy, singing Streep,
it was also her all-time biggest money-maker, grossing $610 million
worldwide.

No one expects that kind of global take for Streep’s
current biopic. The Oscar winner is consistently so fantastic that when
she channels Thatcher, political icon and real woman, audiences tend to
be a little jaded about her talent. What can’t this actress do?

Still,
as Thatcher, Streep faces steep resistance: Few liked Maggie — at
least not publicly. She was the cod liver oil of politicians, nasty but
effective. Working with Lloyd, Meryl creates a monumental woman in
sensible shoes, from early ambition to late dementia. She takes this
Tory tyrant and creates if not a feminist role model then a formidable
woman who refused to wash the teacups of the lesser men around her, and
boldly went where no Englishwoman had gone before: 10 Downing Street.

Streep herself defined the challenge
inherent in playing a powerful woman onscreen: “There’s no part like
this because there’s no woman like this. I’m going to turn that down
because I don’t like her politics? My God,” Streep told Donna Freydkin of USA Today,
“Part of what interested me about this whole thing was seeing why we
are so uncomfortable on a certain level with women leaders and with
their male partners feeling diminished. It’s an interesting thing for us
to contemplate.”

More than 20 years after her political reign,
Thatcher’s detractors remain impassioned. And her legacy is
controversial. In 2009, Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the liberal
Labour government, released a fact sheet celebrating “Women in Power: Milestones.”
Oops! The list omitted Thatcher’s name. Another reality check: Maggie
was the longest-presiding British P.M. in the twentieth century, winning
three general elections, as well as being the first woman to lead the
Conservative Party and to become Prime Minister. 

What we have
here is a controversial woman in power (and a meaty character onscreen)
whose rise was all the more remarkable because she was a grocer’s
daughter who attended Oxford University, where she got an incredible
education in both academics and class snobbery. Thatcher as written (and
in reality) was a woman, wife, mother, and leader who drove her own
destiny. She was a women’s libber role model without embracing the
feminist movement.

Sophisticated audiences of both sexes would like to believe that they
are undeterred by the prospect of a powerful woman. However, the cries
that this movie should confront Thatcherite politics and her ideology
miss the point. It’s a telling sign of resistance to a movie where a
woman is unabashedly carrying the narrative.

Much like Stephen Frears’s 2006 Oscar-nominated The Queen, which delivered Helen Mirren a best actress Oscar, The Iron Lady
constructs a very personal look back at a living legend’s private life
and public career. In this case, it’s seen through the lens of a
widowed, out-of-power Thatcher recalling the past subjectively through
the lens of dementia. Nothing could make this chosen point-of-view
clearer than the opening scene, when the elderly, anonymous Thatcher
wanders out to buy milk and is shocked by the current price of a pint –
and her disrespectful treatment by fellow customers. We meet this
once-powerful character at a point of intense yet mundane vulnerability,
and we empathize. The scene succeeds because Streep, too, seeks
anonymity within the role. She disappears, humanizing the public figure
in these private moments.

A parallel situation was the reception to Oliver Stone’s 2008 W. Critical
reaction to this brilliant film with a terrific title performance by
Josh Brolin as George W. Bush was filtered through writers’
understandable resistance to embrace the man and sacrifice political
pieties. At Filmcritic.com, the DVD review led with politics: “As
President Bush’s second term winds down and the race for 2008 spins at
fevered pace, now is the time to make a statement — reflecting on the
failures of the current administration and projecting our hopes for the
next. Oliver Stone’s W. is not that statement.” The truth was:
Stone wanted to give us the man and his psychology, not the straw man or
the messiah. No Oscar there, but plenty of critical censure.

Resistance to The Iron Lady
as a whole, rather than simply a single Streep performance, reflects
unspoken but existing conflicts. Liberal viewers are not supposed to
like this woman, but if we get wrapped up in the story as we should,
then we do. If we deny her humanity, what does that say about our own
politics? If women can’t recognize her struggle to make a difference
outside the home simply because her beliefs are at odds with ours, what
does that say about our notions of inclusiveness? Love her or hate her,
Thatcher was the rare decisive woman in power who fearlessly took
unpopular and difficult stands that she thought right, darn the costs of
popularity among voters, the media, and her colleagues.

In light of Stone’s W., it may also suffer from a gender-neutral
problem in American politics, where we have become so polarized, and
self-centered, that we lose sight of the humanity of the opposition –
male or female — when they fail to confirm our own convictions.

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