When Theresa May first became Prime Minister, I was overcome by a familiar sense of dread, the same one I get whenever a woman with odious politics achieves a position of dominance.
“She’s going to be awful,” I thought, “But she’ll also be held to far higher standards than any man. Will it always be possible to separate justified outrage from misogyny? Or will this be another situation in which left-wing women are expected to take one for the team?”
I remembered this, vaguely, from the end stage of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. This sense that while, yes, I could see her years in office had wrought devastation, there was something about the unbridled glee at her removal, the particular delight in kicking a woman when she was down, that felt, well, extremely gendered (and yet to say so, given the context of her actions, would have felt terribly petty).
“How,” I wondered, “Can we ever fully distinguish criticism of a woman’s politics from horror at her deviation from the prescribed feminine role?” And yet it turns out I needn’t have worried. Ten months after May’s ascent to 10 Downing Street, a mere two weeks before the general election she swore she’d never call, I can say this with certainty: I’ve never seen a criticism of May’s cruelty and ineptitude that I haven’t thought was utterly bang on.
She really is bloody useless. Or rather, were she in the kind of job that everyday “hardworking people” are wont to do, she’d be classed as bloody useless. Neither you nor I could turn up for a meeting and demand that a project be signed off, funding secured, without any revelation of plans as that would mean “putting our cards on the table”. Neither you nor I could talk in endless circles, promising to make a success of something we’ve already insisted is a success, but then again might not be a success, unless we determine to make a success of it. Neither you nor I could, with a straight (let alone artfully sneering) face, dismiss as “hysterical” the very campaign we’d been a part of 10 months earlier. You wouldn’t get away with it as a man, and as a woman you wouldn’t even dare try.
Yet politics is different. Time was when you had to display at least some semblance of competence and sincerity. They might have been wrong as hell, but you got the sense that on some level, even the likes of David Cameron meant it. Nowadays you don’t even have to bother, providing you can be cruel. Unbridled cruelty is the only quality required. That hardness alone stands in for everything else. “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind” has been turned on its head. Cruelty has become an end in itself, kindness a mirage, a pretext, a privilege we can’t afford. It doesn’t matter if the messages are inconsistent, as long as there’s common theme that involves playing off “people who need help and support” against “taxpayers” (God forbid that most human beings are both of these things. I guess we’re meant to think Tories are self-gestating, self-weaning, never-ageing biological miracles).
And the interaction of this with gender politics is fascinating to see. Like Thatcher, May weaponises femininity and uses sexism to her advantage when she can. Yet also, in playing the battleaxe, the “bloody difficult woman”, she does something more than restate her perceived exceptionality. If kindness is weakness and kindness is feminine, then the cruel, right-wing woman outplays the soft, left-wing man. The nastier she is, the more she forces Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into the role of the woman whose every flaw is scrutinised. She’s Thatcher minus the blood, minus the politics, minus the belief in anything. Only the cruelty and lust for power remains. While beleagured 1980s Labour leader Michael Foot might have faced a similar sort of ridicule to Corbyn, at least Foot had ideologies at which to take aim. Corbyn has nothing but shadows.
When Hillary Clinton lost the US election to a man so vastly, visibly inferior to her in terms of experience, intellect and all-round capability, it was a devastating blow for women. Forget the idea that for a woman to compete with a man, she needs to do everything he can only “backwards and in high heels”. Unless she can actually be a man, she might as well give up. At least unless, it appears, she doesn’t even try to compete. Unless she empties herself of all compassion, all thought, and becomes a simulation of power so raw, so devoid of purpose, it doesn’t even have to be male.
It’s not true that if a woman works hard, she can access the same opportunities as a man. Hillary Clinton proved that. Yet Theresa May manages to combine profound incompetence with mind-blowing destructiveness and she’s on the verge of winning a general election.
This, surely, should provide hope to incompetent, cruel women everywhere. You can do it, too. Your sex doesn’t matter, just as long as you tear out your heart.