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Margaret Thatcher: a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits

The V&A is wrong to turn down Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe; we can’t deny the importance of her sex appeal, used to disarm male colleagues in a hostile environment.

The article was originally published on 10/4/2013

You can ask if Thatcher was a feminist, but it's a bit like asking if the lioness who ate your leg off is a feminist. There's a critical difference between a woman who exercises individual power, and a person who believes that the unequal distribution of power between men and women at large needs to be redressed: Thatcher was definitively the former and not the latter.

But even if she didn't acknowledge gender politics, she still had to exist within them, and her public image was defined by sex - both her gender and her sexuality. Margaret Thatcher was sexy, and she knew it and used it to gain and maintain power.

Westminster politics are a hostile enough environment for women now. For Thatcher to survive in the parliament of the 1950s, she had to be extraordinarily determined and resilient. To rise to the highest office, she had to do more than just resist sexism: she had to use it to her advantage. What else could she do? Being a woman in power made her a freak.

You only have to look at the film and photos from her rule to see how shockingly she stood out from the mass of men who comprised both her own cabinet and her peers as world leaders, a jewel-frocked siren in a sea of grey suits.

She had to decide whether to let that freakishness be perceived as a flaw, or turn in into a strength. With her pristine lipstick and pussybow blouses, her handbag and housework metaphors, Thatcher exuded femininity.

And the less ladylike the environment, the more insistently feminine her look seemed to become, until she achieved a kind of camp at times: a primly headscarfed head poking from the turret of a tank. Having an image that reinforced gender conventions made it much easier for her to defy them in practice: the predominance of men over women seemed secure as long as ultra-ladylike Thatcher was the only exception.

The Conservative Shadow Cabinet at the State Opening of Parliament in 1976. Photograph: Getty Images

One of her greatest propaganda wins was establishing a reputation for frugality through the story that she bought her own ironing board to Downing Street: the anecdote turns up repeatedly in her obituaries, even though her claims on the public purse for living expenses in recent years suggest that parsimony wasn't quite such a priority for her. But the ironing board was the perfect emblem for her rule, because it united her command of the national economy with the acceptably female realm of domestic economy.

And of all the slogans that opponents tried to pin on her, the one that stuck hardest was "Milk Snatcher". Documents released in 2001 showed that Thatcher had opposed the policy of withdrawing free school milk, but the monstrous anti-maternal image of a woman minister denying milk to children seemed to have an indestructible power. When Spitting Image satirised her, it stripped away her femininity. "The whole image was of an impenetrable hard body, the hair and clothes," says Sue Nicholson, who made costumes for the puppets. "As her term in office progressed, she was portrayed in a more masculine way, ending up as a cigar-smoking Winston Churchill look-a-like."

Mannish, mad-eyed Thatcher bullying her cabinet was a glorious caricature, but it overlooked how much she used flirting as means of control. In Jon Snow's retrospective Maggie and Me, over and over her former colleagues recall her ability to disarm them by coming slightly too close - and how ill-equipped they were to deal with it, when their only experience of commanding women up till then had been the matron at their public school.

Alan Clark recorded his feelings on her "very small feet and attractive ankles" in his diary (they were lusty feelings, of course, this being Clark); Francois Mitterand said she had the "eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe". No one ever considered the erotic potential of Ted Heath, and of course the objectification of Thatcher was wildly sexist - but given that it was probably unavoidable, she played it cannily by making a weapon of it rather than a weakness.

It's hard to imagine any female politician now adopting the style Thatcher did, but then no female politician has to negotiate the circumstances Thatcher did. Is it demeaning to mark a female politician's death with speculation about which leaders of the free world she probably fancied?

Certainly. But in Thatcher's case, I don't think we can understand her without understanding how much sex contributed to what she was.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era