The Iron Lady: A Portrait of the Arsehole as an Old Bat

I saw The Iron Lady. To my surprise, I didn’t completely hate it.

I had seen the film criticised for being too soft on Thatcher, or lionising her, and completely glossing over some incredibly salient issues during her stint as Chief Dickhead, most important being the miners’ strike. It did indeed have these flaws, yet I read the film differently.

The narrative is framed around an elderly Thatcher in the present day reflecting on her life. In the present day segments, Thatcher is portrayed as deep in the throes of dementia, hallucinating her dead husband and swilling rum. The first time we see the character is her hand snatching milk, having wandered away from home. Past and present repeatedly collide for the frail old tyrant and we are treated to a brief history of Margaret Thatcher shown through the eyes of Margaret Thatcher.

Of course the biography is sanitised, therefore. The story is shown to us entirely through an unreliable narrator. Our designated protagonist is reflecting on her life from a position of fragile mental health and a memory-impeding condition. It is hardly surprising, then, that all of Thatcher’s orations are accompanied by stirring orchestral swells, and she is seen as a lone crusader battling against all odds. Her memories culminate in her leaving Downing Street to rose-petal strewn floors, surrounded by adoring fans rather than the more familiar crying woman in a car. The narrative is sanitised, as the narrator has sanitised it.

Yet reality creeps in. The film makes use of newsreel footage, which shows us the poll tax riots, the public sector strikes and the sinking of the Belgrano. At one point our designated protagonist is told “you can’t just close down conversation that isn’t what you want to hear”. In the next scene, she is shown turning off a television just before a newscaster describes the criticisms laid against Thatcher. This, ultimately, is what the film is about: a fallen tyrant deep in denial about her wrongs.

More interestingly, even in Thatcher’s favourable memories of herself, she is still a complete and utter raving bellend spouting dangerous neoliberal nonsense. No amount of swelling strings can cover it. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the writing draws attention to parallels between Thatcher and the current government, choosing to emphasis public sector strikes over the miners and discussing the deficit. To the informed viewer, this film draws a clear line from Thatcher to Blair to David Cameron, demonstrating how one can play with words to hide the hideous truth.

While some have compared The Iron Lady to Downfall in its humanising of a seemingly inhuman target, I feel it is closer to Lolita. What appears to be sympathy is in fact a desperate bid from an unreliable narrator to cast themselves as a much-maligned hero. Thatcher is Humbert Humbert, and Britain is an unfortunate pubescent girl. If only the film were an iota as good as Nabokov or Kubrick.

I went into the film expecting to despise it. I went in expecting conservative propaganda, a Forrest Gump for this generation, and what I got was something more interesting and complex. It was a poor film about Thatcherism, but I left feeling uplifted. Maybe, just maybe, Thatcherism itself will end up sad and alone, marooned at the top of the stairs without even an imaginary husband for company.

On the obscenity of everyday life

Today in the UK, a person stands trial for distributing allegedly “obscene” DVDs. These DVDs contain scenes of fisting, watersports and some fairly hardcore BDSM activities, which are considered to be “obscene”. Now, these activities are perfectly legal to watch if you happen to be in the same room as the participants with their consent, but it is, for some strange reason, possibly illegal under British law to represent them on film. The outcome of the trial will therefore be very interesting–if the DVDs are deemed “not obscene”, this opens up an avenue for porn to contain such activities.

What is deemed “obscene” and “not obscene” is a thorny issue, and appears to be defined arbitrarily. In the current obscenity trial, one of the contentious issues is that the “four finger” rule was violated–usually, porn sticks to insertion of only four fingers to avoid the legal trouble full fisting entails. Likewise, the British Board of Film Classification has deemed films depicting female ejaculation to be problematic, ludicrously believing that squirting is the same as urine and is therefore subject to the same censorship as watersports.

It is curious to note that what is considered to be prosecutable under the Obscene Publications Act appears to be entirely content of a sexual nature. ObscenityLawyer lists the following:

·“sadomasochistic material which goes beyond trifling and transient infliction of injury”
 ·“torture with instruments”
 ·“bondage (especially where gags are used with no apparent means of withdrawing consent)”
 ·“activities involving perversion or degradation (such as drinking urine, urination[…] on to the body…)”
·“fisting”

This demonstrates our peculiar hang-up about sex. If one literally interprets the word “obscene“, it can be taken to mean “repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral and ethical principles” or “disgusting to the senses”.

Here, I can count dozens of instances of things which I perceive to be obscene: indeed, half of day-to-day life appears obscene. There is the egregious the egregious, such as newspapers running a vast colour photograph of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse on their front page or triggering videos advising women not to get into an unbooked minicab or they will be raped horribly. Then there’s the low-level, less visible stuff which is dictionary-definition obscene nonetheless: consider that we have a government whose goal appears to be to tear the welfare state to pieces and redistribute the shreds to their rich mates. Consider rape culture, street harassment, the trivialising of violence against women. All crassly disregard moral and ethical principles, and all are utterly repugnant.

Yet none of this considered obscene, at least not by law. The law–and I again thank ObscenityLawyer’s brilliant post on the issue for this–states that the material must be likely to “deprave or corrupt”. This ambiguous definition is steeped in society’s aversion to sex but not violence. Therefore, a picture of a murdered man may be run on the front page of a newspaper where a big dripping cunt may not. Therefore, Michael Gove may cheerfully quietly privatise state education  and the papers will report it as though he is doing good humanitarian work, while had he had a fist up his bottom most people would cry obscenity.

Yet the low-level stuff, the morally and ethical disregard can and does deprave and corrupt. It seeps into our vocabulary: suddenly “choice” becomes anything but, and basic right for every person to live in dignity becomes seen as a dirty word. It cannot be prosecuted because the legal system is a part of the same obscenity: for example, is it not obscene that it took 18 years to convict two (of more murderers) for a racially-motivated crime, while children participating in poverty riots were convicted in days?

The system looks at obscenity in porn through the lens of the acts itself, but here is nothing inherently obscene about consenting adults fucking on film, no matter what kinds of sex to which they are consenting. Yet we may critique things which are obscene–is there coercion and a lack of consent in some porn? Does some porn convey misogynistic attitudes? These instances are real obscenities.

So much of society is riddled with genuinely repugnant content, everywhere we look. And it’s far worse than a bit of fisting.

“It’s just a show, I should really just relax”

After the post where I pointed out some sexism in a TV show, I found myself being chided with the MST3K mantra: I was told it was just TV, and I didn’t need to worry about the ins and outs of it all. Some claimed that they were “embarrassed” to be women and/or feminists because I had pointed out some sexism in a TV show–the feeling here is mutual, and I am thoroughly embarrassed to share an identity with people lacking such a capacity for critical thinking.

It’s just a show, they told me. I should really just relax, they said.

And they’re wrong. I fail to see why one should not criticise something in the mass media for displaying problematic content. It does not mean one needs to disregard the entire thing because it is utter crap: this post at Social Justice League provides a handy guide to being a fan of things which are problematic. In short (though you should really read the whole thing, as it’s brilliant), one needs to acknowledge the problems and not make excuses for them; not gloss over issues or derail conversations about problematic content; and acknowledge other, less favourable interpretations of media you like.

After all, there are very few films, TV shows or books which are completely unproblematic. It is all produced within an oppressive system wherein racism, sexism and ableism prevail and therefore seep into popular culture. Cracked hit the nail on the head with their deconstruction of “Five Old-Timey Prejudices That Still Show Up In Every Movie“, and there are heaps more on top of this.

Should we therefore “really just relax” when we see something on the screen that we would never stand for in real life? Of course not. As for the defenders of sexism on screen, are they perhaps as willing to let oppression slide in the meatspace? I suspect that they may, and that worries me greatly, and strengthens my resolve to call bullshit where I see it.

The function of critiquing and drawing attention to oppression in mass media is made clear by MediocreDave (again, you should read the whole article, as it’s great):

My only answer is of course it’s ok to seek escapism, to watch things for pleasure without composing a political response. But that’s why we need to force improvements of our popular entertainment, so that it’s possible to watch them without having to confront the tiresome and horrific inequalities that define our daily lives. Art can only ever be so far ahead of the society that produced it, and is likely to be a fair way behind, and as such will always be riddled with problems which, in our ignorance and privilege, we may only be dimly aware of. If we attempt to deny ourselves and each other, explicitly or implicitly, the act of critical analysis of the art that we consume, be it by claiming that the work doesn’t warrant so sophisticated a reading or by declaring that offence taken is somehow not valid, we leave ourselves disenfranchised. If we value our ability to watch a television program unchallenged as higher than someone else’s ability to watch it uninsulted then we have probably picked the wrong side in a long established relationship of privilege and degradation. We may choose to sit quietly through the objectionable bits of a work of art, from time to time, even when it offends us, but we can’t expect other people to do so with us (even on Christmas day) and we must be prepared to acknowledge it when the things we like problematically contain things we have to hate.

 Be angry if you feel angry. Listen to others’ anger. Perhaps, then, we will finally have shows where we can really just relax.

Irene Adler: how to butcher a brilliant woman character

SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses the plot of Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia and the original source material, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia.

It’s pretty ghastly when a story written over 120 years ago has better gender politics than its modern reimagining. With BBC’s Sherlock, this is exactly what happened. The most recent episode, A Scandal in Belgravia puts a modern spin on the Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia, and manages to engage in a horrifying mess of feminism-fail by the end.

The feminism-fail is hardly surprising when the series is written by Stephen Moffat, whose previous works include heteronormative, binary-obsessed Coupling and episodes of Doctor Who which include womb-magic resurrecting the dead and saving some trees among other horrors. For much of Sherlock, I was actually pretty impressed with Moff. Maybe, just maybe, he had finally managed to write a female character who was awesome.

And this is the thing. For at least 80 minutes, the character Irene Adler was really awesome. Irene Adler was updated from a controversial opera singer who had affairs with the nobility to a dominatrix to the rich and famous. As with the original, Adler was portrayed as incredibly smart–an intellectual match for Holmes himself.

In the original story, Adler is clever enough to fool Holmes himself and escape, not allowing a scandalous photograph of a Bohemian royal to fall into Holmes’s hands and sneaking herself out of the country. All in all, she is fierce, resourceful and clever. Holmes himself is impressed and learns that women can be clever. Given the story was written rather some time ago, this is progressive in a way which seems thoroughly sexist these days.

In Sherlock, for the first 80 minutes, the character of Adler is much the same. She is an intellectual foil to Sherlock, anticipating his every move in order to stop him getting hold of an iPhone containing scandalous photographs of what we can only assume is Kate Middleton in a ball gag.  In the first scene in which she and Sherlock meet, Adler is completely naked. I read this scene as Adler being intelligent enough to know that Holmes has a nasty habit of reading all sorts of details about a person’s life from their clothes, and therefore gave him little to go on, although given the sexism towards the end, I may be optimistic in this assessment.

Everything goes horribly wrong at the end. Out of nowhere, Adler reveals that much of her security arrangements and her outfoxing of Holmes is down to advice received from Moriarty. That’s right. Irene Adler goes from being the fierce, resourceful, clever woman to being somebody who had to ask a man for help in order to succeed. She is not allowed to be brilliant in her own right, only through the advice from a dude who has some tension with the main dude in the show. In the space of a few lines, Adler is reduced from an active force to a passive pawn in Moriarty and Holmes’s ongoing cock-duelling.

It gets worse. We are shown what had appeared to be moments of affection between her and Holmes that we had been shown previously in the episode, and Holmes informs us that he was actually checking her pulse and pupil dilation, and he has concluded that she loves him. This is in spite of the fact that Adler has previously pointed out to Watson that she is gay. Holmes being Holmes, he is right. Holmes is such an uber-dude that a lesbian has fallen in love with him and thoroughly fucked up all of her security arrangements by the password to the only thing keeping her safe being an allusion to her crush.

Adler is left friendless due to her fluttery lady-emotions being her downfall, and we are solemnly informed that she has been beheaded by terrorists. Fortunately for Adler, in the last few moments of the show we are informed what actually happened: she was rescued from certain by Holmes. In the course of the episode, Adler goes from being a genuinely awesome female character to a damsel in distress who is propped up entirely by men.

While the original story was written over a century ago, none of this bullshit happened. Adler is consistently portrayed as strong and bright. Yes, she does what she does so she can get married, but here’s the crucial point: she does it all herself. 

Not so for the recent adaptation. In this, we are shown that as women, we’re always going to need a man to rescue us. We just can’t do it on our own: were we to try, we’d end up losing vital documents and on the headless end of a jihadi-beheading. Once again, Moff has managed to put women in the place he want them.

I would gladly keep the sparkling, sexy, sharp Irene Adler of most of the episode, and cut off the end entirely. And if the BBC need to fill up the full 90 minutes, why not extend the scene where she is beating Sherlock Holmes with a cane? And perhaps, let’s see him beg for mercy. Twice.

There’s a reason I didn’t write a review of 2011

Everyone else seems to be churning out the end-of-year reviews and predictions for 2012. I did not.

I didn’t write a review because I expect 2012 to be much the same, but escalated.

I expect the nice things to escalate, the delightful growth of friendships, meeting more like-minded people and having a better grip on what makes me happy.

And I expect all the terrible things to escalate. Capitalism will find new ways to horrify; the state will escalate its attacks on everyone who is not a rich white dude; kyriarchy will continue to insidiously prevail.

2012 is merely the sequel.