22 July 2016

Forget about Thatcher, Theresa May is her own woman


Theresa May’s first PMQs had the political columnists reaching for the superlatives – and it was indeed a performance worthy of praise. She was clear, confident, and commanding, and made Jeremy Corbyn look like an understudy who’d barely learnt his lines. Unfortunately her performance also had many male commentators reaching for the clichés, and making comparisons between her and Margaret Thatcher, which in turn had me reaching for the sick bucket.

I’m not the first person to notice this, of course. Several others have, over the last couple of days, commented on the “inevitable” comparisons made between Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher – and that in itself has tweaked my fury nerve. Why is it inevitable? The answer to this is that it isn’t. Except to people who don’t have the imagination to see beyond a women’s sex when commenting on her profession. So, the fact that these odious (or indeed, as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing would have it “odorous”) comparisons are being described as “inevitable” is in itself a cause for gnashing of teeth.

That fact is that a woman has become Prime Minister. A talented person has got a top job. What is interesting about this is that this person is from a group who are routinely discriminated against. They are underpaid, under-promoted, under-represented on company boards and in films, and many of this group are subjected to violence and sexual abuse throughout their lives, even at home from those that are closest to them. That a person from this group – viz.“women” – has become Prime Minister is interesting. It’s fantastic. It’s a cause for celebration.

Or not.

Let’s look at the comparisons and comments that her performance at PMQs elicited. “Pure Thatcher! The intonation! The voice!” shrieked Jon Craig, Sky’s Chief Political Correspondent. Well, not really Jon. Theresa May has a quite different voice from Margaret Thatcher. She hasn’t (thank goodness) had the “training” to lower her voice to an unnatural pitch, and she’s got far more colour across the range of her voice – again because she hasn’t had all her higher register flattened out. But she does speak RP (received pronunciation) and she is English so I suppose her intonation might be similar. In the same way that it is similar to mine. And my next door-neighbour’s. And lots of your friends and family.

The Mirror also felt that Mrs May “channelled Thatcher” at the dispatch box on Wednesday but Michael Deacon in the Telegraph took it much further. “She wasn’t merely channelling Thatcher,” he wrote, “She was doing a Spitting Image impression of her.” Hmm. Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image incarnation was a beak-nosed, bulgy-eyed monstrosity voiced by the brilliant actor/impressionist Steve Nallon – who is a man by the way. Oh and the puppet peed standing up at a urinal, cementing the implication that Mrs T was actually a man all along. Right. So Mrs May is not just “a bit” like Mrs Thatcher, she’s actually a caricature of her that questions her very femaleness. I see. Personally the only 80s flashback I was having on Wednesday was caused by Jeremy Corbyn, who reminds me of nothing more than a grumpy 1980s Student Union representative – but maybe that was just me.

Leaving the 80s behind, Michael Deacon then likened Theresa May to a bird of prey as he described how she “leant over the dispatch box [and] glared coldly at her prey…” What’s this about? Is it that female birds of prey are bigger than their male counterparts, and therefore more lethal? Leading us to believe that power in a woman’s hands is far more than power per se, and that like the female insects and arachnids that cannibalize the male, it actually makes them deadly? I don’t know. I would however, like to think that our Prime Minister might be able to fix someone with an excellent questioning stare without being likened to a sparrowhawk.

Moving on, Mr Deacon then enjoyed a sexual allusion as he described the Tory MPs listening to Mrs May as being “in ecstasy,….wailing, groaning for more. Their excitement was downright unseemly. They were watching the Labour Leader receive a spanking. And by the sound of things, feeling quite envious.” Here we have the old idea that all Conservative MPS are sexual deviants who like nothing more than being put across a middle-aged woman’s knee and dealt a good whacking – the sort that were portrayed in “Personal Services”, the 80s film about the brothel madam Cynthia Payne. What I find depressing about this allusion being wheeled out again now is that it tells us that male commentators are still incapable of observing a powerful woman without sexualising that power. Powerful men aren’t automatically likened to gigolos and sexual Dominants. No, men are allowed to wield power as power – in any form – but when women have power it has to be reduced, as everything always is with women, to the sexual. That’s it. Sex. In the end it’s all we’re good for.

I’m sure these clichés and Thatcher comparisons will continue as long as Theresa May is PM and I’ll as doubtlessly continue to be enraged by their inaccuracy and laziness. But for now I’d like, briefly, to compare the two women myself, and point out that in a very significant area they have nothing in common, and that in becoming our second woman PM Theresa May owes absolutely nothing to Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher had no time for feminists. She categorically denied being one, describing feminists as “unfeminine” and “strident” and accusing them of doing “great damage to the cause of women.” Great damage like getting women the vote, and campaigning for equal pay, and pushing to make marital rape an offence for example? Margaret Thatcher was one of the group of women I call “Anti-Sisters”. They’re the ones that want to be the only woman in the room, and who actually discriminate against other women in order to protect their own status. Madeleine Albright summed it up nicely when she said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” By contrast to Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May has been photographed wearing a “This is what a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt, and has appointed a higher percentage of women to her cabinet than any Prime Minister before her. She has a history of mentoring women in the Conservative party, encouraging them to stand as parliamentary candidates and helping them become ministers. And whatever your politics, you have to admit that she’s a great role model of modern womanhood.

Theresa May is clever, talented, bold in her decision-making, clear-sighted in her politics, and has been chosen by her peers to lead this country through what’s going to be a difficult couple of years. So if male commentators could focus more on that, than on any imagined likeness to a woman with whom she has almost nothing in common, I for one would be extremely grateful. And if they don’t, well, they deserve a jolly good spanking.

Fiona Laird is a Theatre Director and writer.