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The Iron Lady wins twice: Hollywood imitates Australian politics

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Friday, 2 March 2012


Australian audiences had much to contend with during this year's Academy Awards. The battle between Hugo, The Artist and The Descendants for top picture was nearly overshadowed by a late runner into the nominations – a saga of backstabbing, manipulation, egos and number crunching.

All that was missing from the ALP Leadership Challenge was the bling, the frocks (especially thigh flashing ones…), and the tuxedoes. Yet in both dazzling events, the Iron Lady won. Meryl Streep held up her second Oscar triumphantly, resplendent in a draped gold dress that echoed her hard-won statue. And Prime Minister Julia Gillard emerged from the leadership fight in confident red, and a beaming smile. They looked every inch winners.

They both had a tough time to the finish line. Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher was considered by many to be a betrayal of the memory of the former British Prime Minister's unyielding grip on her country. Streep's crime? To depict the Milk Snatcher in her dotage, befuddled by Alzheimer's disease. Her former personal assistant Cynthia Crawford, who worked for Thatcher for the 11 and a half years of her tenure at Downing Street, said: 'To produce this in Lady Thatcher's lifetime is beyond the boundaries and very cruel, but it is only a film, which will soon be forgotten. Her name and her legacy will forever be mentioned in the history of Great Britain.'

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Likewise, Australia's Iron lady got especially bad press leading up to The Challenge. The media gleefully ran with reactions from the faceless men of "the Australian Public" and these comments were resoundingly sexist. On one hand, Gillard was accused of having people buy her tampons, on the other she was branded as menopausal. It seemed that wherever you looked, Gillard's uterus was in the firing line.

The country's fascination with the man formerly known as the Foreign Minister wasn't subjected to such scrutiny. Was I the only one interested in the fact that Kevin Rudd has a dodgy ticker and was lobbying to be the contender for the country's top job? It seemed that the Australian public would prefer to have a man with a bovine heart value – his second major heart operation, no less - in command rather than a healthy, menstruating woman.

Both Iron Ladies have suffered the usual slings and arrows of politics even harder because of their gender. In "The Gender Agenda: Gillard and the Politics of Sexism" (Feb 26) Anne Summers wrote that "there can be no doubting that Australia's first woman prime minister has had to endure levels of vitriol never before seen in federal politics. And it is extremely personal."

The Oscars are a night to relive choice moments of nominated films, and on the very day of the Leadership Challenge, we were treated to astounding parallels with our own PM's battle. In snippets from The Iron Lady, there was Streep, in her perfectly coiffed Thatcher hairstyle, declaring "I have done battle every day of my life…" No wonder she charged to The Falklands without blinking an eye. Equally, Gillard announces "I don't have a defeatist bone in my body."

Throughout The Iron Lady, the message was clear – it's always been a battle to have people accept that running the country is a job for a woman as equally as it is for a man.

Streep's portrayal of the almost schoolboy bullying Thatcher endured on the job had the effect of engendering sympathy from viewers, which I suspect is one reason many hated the movie. For a great many loathed Thatcher, in her day and even now, in bitter memory of the tough measures she forced on the nation. And that includes fellow cast member Richard E Grant, who "does a Rudd" on her (albeit successfully), as "the heroically self-regarding Richard E Grant playing the equally self-preening Michael Heseltine."

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Rudd has been quick to point out that he is a "proud father of three" with such regularity it appears as if he is gloating over his own fertility rather than the privilege of parenting. Of course, Thatcher and Gillard differ in that the former had twins. Still, in the movie we are treated to working mother guilt as Thatcher brushes aside toys from the car seat as she drives into work, leaving her children desperately running after her. Gillard is simply branded "childless" as if that is either a crime against her gender or a state of being which means she is incapable of being, well, the sort of gracious and gloating parent that Kevin Rudd obviously is.

At the Academy Awards, the political movie The Ides of March was up for an Oscar, but it didn't win. Though how fitting was the film grab they showed of Philip Seymour Hoffman, almost as if they knew it would resonate with the Aussie audiences on that very day. "The only thing I value in this world is loyalty and without it you have nothing and you are no one…" Hoffman said. Indeed.

The film that won the Academy Award for best film was The Artist - again, a case of art imitating life for Australians. For here is a movie about a man who couldn't accept change, and failed to reinvent himself when he is moved aside from his starring role to make way for the new.

Rather than get on with his life, the former silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) can only complain about how life has let him down. Who rises up instead? Why, it's another Iron Lady, the irrepressible Peppy (Bérénice Bejo), a young upstart with drive and ambition. She plays the game, and becomes a star not just because of her talent, but unlike Valentin, because of her talent for getting along with the studio bosses who have the power.

As Academy Host Billy Crystal noted, "This has been a great year for strong feminine characters." He could have been talking about the ALP Leadership Challenge.

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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