The recent death of Margaret Thatcher prompted me to look again at the Thatcher ‘biopic’, The Iron Lady, a film which provoked some manufactured outrage in the right wing press on its release.  In fact, The Iron Lady is in many ways a fairly standard biographical film, since it begins from the premise that Margaret Thatcher is a significant historical figure whose greatness is already given, and it seeks to tell her story through its presentation of ‘key moments’ in her  life.  Where the film is distinctive, and disturbingly so (and it is this that the right-wing commentators initially picked up on), is in its framing of Thatcher’s successful years as Prime Minister through a narrative about aging as a process of inevitable decline and loss. Although my reasons are different, I think they were right to protest, and I will explain why.

The opening scene features a now senile Thatcher ‘escaping’ her carers and tottering to a corner shop (ironic echoes here of her father’s business) to buy milk, where she is bewildered by the increase in price (a not so subtle reminder of the ‘milk snatcher’ slogan) and faced with the realities of multicultural Britain in the jostling mix of customers and staff (another reminder of her early remarks about immigration). The rest of the film interweaves flashbacks to Thatcher’s youth, marriage and young motherhood, and then her career as Prime Minister into its main story of the ‘present day’ woman as a lonely and isolated figure, confused and rambling, and comforted only by hallucinations of her dead husband. This Margaret Thatcher is a shadow of her former self: with a mind weakened by dementia and a body marked by decrepitude, she epitomises the idea that old age for women axiomatically means loss of mental and physical capacity. The film’s presentation of the senile Thatcher in these terms is not only very similar to other recent films about aging in which older women are cast as inexorably doomed to mental and physical decline, albeit supported by loving and caring husbands (see Away From Her, Amour), but it presents a sharp contrast with films centred on older men which emphasise longevity, survival and physical resilience (see, for example, Grumpy Old Men, About Schmidt, Something’s Gotta Give). Not only is the difference between the way aging is depicted for women and for men in such films notable for its divergence from real life (women are not disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s in old age, many older women are cared for by younger female relatives rather than by male partners), it points to the problem at the heart of The Iron Lady.

For, while this depiction of decrepitude might be applauded as simply ‘telling the truth’ or even as a pleasurable form of revenge on a hate figure by many on the left, to regard such a representation in this light is mistaken. First, there is no single ‘truth ‘about anyone’s life story, since the telling of such stories may begin or end at a variety of life stages and it is not uncommon for biopics to end at the height of a subject’s career rather than with their dotage; Thatcher’s life story could therefore just as easily have focused on the ‘triumph’ of the third term election as its closing point. Second, and more importantly here, the film’s emphasis on her physical and mental decline into dementia and confusion as she ages has disturbing precedents in other biopics about famous women. Most notably, the biopic of Iris Murdoch, Iris, (2001) used a similar framing device of Murdoch in her youth and old age and ended with the novelist’s descent into burbling neo-infancy. Ostensibly ‘sympathetic’ to Murdoch, the film’s foregrounding of the writer’s Alzheimer’s served primarily to replace one public memory of Iris Murdoch as a brilliant intellectual with another much more disturbing vision – that of her as a confused and babbling old woman. Indeed, this account foregrounded Murdoch’s reliance on the loving support of an infinitely tolerant husband (played by Jim Broadbent who also plays a sanitised version of Denis Thatcher in The Iron Lady) who had bravely borne her sexual affairs with fortitude and humour and was now gallantly supporting her in demented decline. In other words, it effaced the very thing Murdoch herself had been famous for – great writing and a pin-sharp intelligence – and replaced it with an image of her as diminished and dependent. The Iron Lady charts Thatcher’s decline in a similarly ‘sympathetic’ fashion, inviting pity and even affection for the aging ex-premier, while also reminding us of the inevitability of decline – even for a woman famed for strength of will and stamina. That it chose to tell Thatcher’s story in this way was not a simple matter of truth-telling but a deliberate decision, and one which chimes with the conventional ways in which older women are often represented. Rather than vigorous and tough, Thatcher is ultimately presented as feeble and weak; instead of showing her as physically strong (she famously slept only for five hours every night and had a taste for whisky) it depicts her as physically enfeebled. In other words, Thatcher is transformed from a figure with traditionally ‘masculine’ characteristics to one who displays traditionally ‘feminine’ ones. The Iron Lady is finally brought down by human weakness, it seems, and how much ‘safer’ she then appears; no longer a challenging or threatening figure but a stereotypically doddery old woman.

This matters to everyone, not simply to those who identified with her politics, and especially to other older women. If aging for women is consistently represented as an inevitable descent into physical and mental incapacity in which regression into a quasi-infantile state is a norm – even for the strongest and most powerful – the real issues facing older women who hold down difficult jobs, make tough decisions, keep the show on the road, or who are themselves carers are diminished too. Their strength and fortitude is rarely celebrated in film, and the preponderance of images of older woman as frail, weak minded, confused or chaotic is too common to be dismissed as unimportant. The key issue here is the way in which The Iron Lady renders the spectacle of Margaret Thatcher’s dementia so central to its story, and in so doing reiterates some very powerful ideological assumptions about the way in which women age. Margaret Thatcher was in ‘real life’ a powerful, challenging and politically contentious figure whose politics did a great deal of damage to working people’s lives and to the principles of a just and equal society. But, by reducing her to a pathetic and querulous victim of old age The Iron Lady manages to both deny her agency as a politician, and to reiterate a deeply disturbing but increasingly common depiction of aging women as inevitably passive and diminished. That doesn’t help anybody.

Estella is now the Labour Councillor for Lockleaze ward in Bristol (since May 2013) and also Associate Professor of Film and Culture at the University of the West of England.  She has been a Labour Party member since 1981 and has been a film lover all her life. This is the second ‘View from the Stalls’ blog. More are to come.

Posted on June 14th, 2013 by Estella Tincknell filed under: Blog