‘Why Margaret Thatcher is Sexier than Sarah Palin’: On Irony and the Iron Lady
A familiar British accent—plummy, Oxonian, with a slight raspiness that hints, to those who know the backstory, at the daily, liberal use of Rothmans Blue King Canadian cigarettes and Johnny Walker Black Label—was coming out of my radio. Talking about being spanked by Margaret Thatcher. And liking it.
It was Christopher Hitchens, promoting his just-published memoir, Hitch-22, on The Leonard Lopate Show. He was telling—and not for the last time, I suspect—the story that practically every American review of the book has managed to mention, and telling it with a relish that may not have been entirely unrehearsed. The more his host squirmed at the salaciousness of the story, and at Hitchens’s X-rated flights of fancy (this, after all, was public radio, home of the pledge-drive tote bag and the Weekend Edition lapel pin), the more Hitch seemed to be enjoying himself.
Leonard Lopate: You also tell the story about getting a spanking from Margaret Thatcher.
Christopher Hitchens: Yes, I’ve had physical contact with Mrs. Thatcher—Baroness Thatcher.
Lopate: Were you an admirer?
Hitchens: Sexually, I was; not politically.
Lopate: You thought she was attractive, physically attractive? The Iron Lady?
Hitchens: When she was first elected as leader, most of the press…thought the Tories had gone mad and they’d chosen this shrill, suburban housewife; everyone wrote in this rather snobbish way about her. Well, they must have been wrong, mustn’t they, because she went on to change the course of events very dramatically, and British society. And I thought I was earlier than most to see that she had something charismatic, I would say, that was partly sexual. She had the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen on a woman, and amazingly beautiful eyes.
Lopate: Well, people say the same thing about Sarah Palin; do you support Sarah Palin because of that?
Hitchens: No, she’s got no charisma of any kind. I can imagine her being mildly useful to a low-rent porn director. Mrs. Thatcher, you see, would be no good in that way; you can’t picture it. But you’ve already pictured Sarah Palin, haven’t you?
First, to the spanking: as Hitchens told NPR host Scott Simon (who introduced him as “a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy”) on another whistlestop on his promotional tour, he and the prime minister met at a House of Lords event when the post-9/11 libertarian hawk and vorpal swordsman of the New Atheism was lefter than he is now. Hitchens had written an article for The New Statesman in which he argued, “contrary to the prevailing view at the time, which was that she was a frumpish suburban housewife of no talent, that I thought she had a great future, and that among other things I thought she had some kind of charisma which was highly sexual.” Apparently, the Iron Lady had caught wind of it, and welcomed Hitch into her gently smiling jaws. Talk turned to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe policy, as it so often does; he was right, she was wrong, but ever the gentleman, Hitch bowed to acknowledge the Lady’s point.
And then she said—I can still hear it—she said: “No, bow lower.” So, all volition deserting me, I did bow lower, and then straightened up again. She said: “No, no, much lower.” So again, I found myself sort of bending right forward. There were witnesses to this, as I say in the book. And all the while she’d been rolling up a parliamentary audit paper…[and] smacked me right across my bottom. And then, as I regained the vertical with some difficulty, she walked away, rolling her hip—I swear it—and looked over her shoulder and said: “Naughty boy.”
“(Soundbite of laughter),” notes the NPR transcript.
What, exactly, is going on here? I’m not referring to the near-universal inability to believe that the Hitchens tongue was not firmly in the Hitchens cheek when he suggested that Thatcher, in her prime, might have been attractive or—cue the shrieking Psycho strings—sexy, even. De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say.
The more interesting question is: Why does a certain sort of Englishman squirm with delight at the thought of being taken in hand and sharply disciplined by Milton Friedman’s idea of Emma Peel? And the flip answer is: the English Vice, French prostitutes’ wry term for caning or spanking as sadomasochistic sex play. The Freudian roots of this fetish lie in the liberal use of the birch in the country’s all-male prep schools (private schools, in American parlance, though the English perversely insist on calling them “public” schools). One source explains, “The English ‘public’ school system used corporal punishment for many years and and it is claimed that many an English schoolboy acquired a taste for such treatment that carried on into his adult life. You may recall Swinburne’s many references to Eton’s block and ‘birching,’ claiming that his own proclivity for that particular pasttime had been cultivated by such school practices.” In Hitch-22, Hitchens exhumes memories of his public-school years, which may have given him an appreciation for the sexual frisson of a good thrashing, whether administered with a parliamentry audit paper or something…stiffer. Certainly, in his Vanity Fair essay on Eton, the Vatican of homoerotic flagellation, he approaches the subject with a suspicious eagerness, describing the “flogging block over which boys were stretched to be thrashed with a birch rod until they streamed with blood” with a zeal reminiscent of Foucault’s gorenographic description, in Discipline and Punish, of the drawing quartering of the regicide. (Premonitions of his later fondness for B&D?) Hitchens: “And here in the [Eton] museum is an actual block, complete with birch. (Algernon Charles Swinburne never got over his obsession with this ritual of punishment, and produced reams of flagellomaniac verse under the pseudonym Etoniensis.)”
History repeats itself, first as punishment, then as pleasure.
Fascinatingly, Hitchens isn’t the only Englishman to have fallen prey to Attila the Hen, as her detractors called her. In his review of Hugo Young’s Thatcher biography, The Iron Lady, Martin Amis quotes his father Kingsley, who thought Thatcher’s beauty “so extreme that…it can trap me for a split second into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2200. The fact that it is not a sensual or sexy beauty does not make it a less sexual beauty, and that sexuality is still, I think, an underrated factor in her appeal (or repellence).”
At a loss to explain his father’s Thatcherphilia, the younger Amis wonders if it has to do with the aphrodisiac effects of power or “another cliche: the English love of chastisement.” The poet Philip Larkin was in thrall to Thatcher’s enchantments as well, says Amis. When the poet and the P.M. met, she quoted one of his lines back at him: “All the unhurried day/ your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.” The poem from which it came, Amis notes, “is addressed to a Victorian waif who has been drugged and raped.” And who said Mrs. Thatcher hadn’t a flirtatious bone in her body? This is unmistakably a pick-up line. Of course, it’s Jack the Ripper’s idea of a pick-up line, but still.
So maybe Mrs. Thatcher’s attractions, lost on this product of American public education in 1970s Southern California, are the attractions of the expensive call girl who plays the stern disciplinarian, chastising her naughty boys into an ecstasy of agony.
Of course, Hitchens’s professed weakness in the knees regarding the Iron Lady may be ironic, an underhanded way of highlighting his foe’s ideological unattractiveness by making us laugh at the very idea of Maggie as a hottie. Except she isn’t. His foe, that is. As he writes in Hitch-22, “The worst of ‘Thatcherism,’ as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was…the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.” Perhaps Mrs. Thatcher cast a spell on the youthful Hitch because he saw his future, right-er self reflected in those raptor eyes?
Likewise, the sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard’s eyebrow-raising insistence that Mrs. Thatcher always made his heart flutter looks, from a distance, like calculated outrageousness. When the going gets weird, the weird get normal—knowingly normal, pushing the pose to the point of abnormalcy. Ballard is best known for novels like Crash, about fetishists whose special pleasure is the car crash, and stories with titles like “Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty,” a clinical account of the, er, titular operation. For an aesthetic provocateur of his reputation, living quietly in a semi-detached house in the yawningly unremarkable London suburb of Shepperton and proclaiming your mad love for Maggie, She-Wolf of the Neocons, is the best revenge. Only the unimaginative Think Outside the Box; the truly perverse can make thinking inside it look positively depraved. That’s why Throbbing Gristle’s seemingly irony-free obsession with Abba was Throbbing Gristle at its weirdest, just as David Bowie in a suit straight off the rack at Sears, singing “Little Drummer Boy” with an embalmed Bing Crosby, is weirder by far than Bowie in a feather bustier, with his eyebrows shaved off, singing “I Got You, Babe” to Marianne Faithfull in Mother Superior drag.
The genius of Ballard’s very public crush on the Iron Lady, passionately expressed in his writings and interviews, is that we never know if it’s an elaborate prank or the sincere expression of a man who is aristically radical and culturally liberal but on some issues politically conservative, in a reflexive way that has little to do with ideology and more to do with class and age.
Is he putting us on when he writes, his artistic credo, “What I Believe,”
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
Is he the adoring fan or the Swiftian social satirist when he tells a interviewer, “I’ve always admired [Prime Minister Thatcher] enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. [...] She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci—the merciless muse—in her. Also the archetype of the Medusa. [...] She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond…it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.”
Ambiguous is the word. Ballard, a staunch supporter of Thatcher’s military action in the Falklands, seems to approve of the P.M.’s decisive leadership and British-bulldog willingness to stand up to threats on the world stage. At the same time, his Jungian and Freudian points of reference—the femme fatale, the emasculating Medusa, the maternal schoolmarm who is also a birch-wielding headmistress, come to take her naughty boys in hand—is deeply ambivalent. Male Thatcherphilia is always unsettled by its latent homoeroticism; the man who thrills to Maggie’s cruel sneer, who dreams of being dominated by the nation’s headmistress, also wonders about the deeper implications of his attraction to an Iron Lady whose sexual sizzle owes a lot to her symbolic masculinity—that is, her appropriation of male power, in the same way that much of a dungeon mistress’s voltage is as semiotic as it is purely physical, its zap greatly enhanced by vestments of butch power like jackboots and riding crop. All that’s missing is the femdom strap-on.
Amis makes this point explicitly in his review of the Young biography, when he points out that Yassir Arafat’s joking sobriquet for Thatcher was “the Iron Man”; even the roaring poster woman for Second Wave feminism, Gloria Steinem, when told that the English never thought they’d have a female prime minister, snapped back, “They were right.” Amis notes the pervasive worry that “one day Mrs. T. will start heading for the wrong toilet.”
Of course, the insinuation that an assertive, decisive woman who knows her mind and speaks it, and who can lead a nation and project its military power as authoritatively as an man, is too manly to be all woman is sexism of the most drearily commonplace sort. There’s a ha-ha-only-serious subtext to Stephen Colbert’s introduction to his Glamour magazine list of “10 Women with ‘Lady Balls,’” topped, of course, by Thatcher. “Good news, girls!” he writes. “You don’t have to be a man to have balls. You can be a lady and have ‘lady balls,’ or what I like to call ‘Thatchers,’ after England’s Iron Lady, who had a lordly pair of lead swingers.” Likewise, the right-wing attack pundit Ann Coulter is dogged by the persistent rumor that she is, in fact, a transman, a secret hidden in plain sight, in her critics’ eyes, who see evidence that she was not born female in her allegedly knobby wristbones and supposedly overlarge Adam’s apple. The implication is clear: strong, successful women are only strong and successful to the extent that they overcome the failings of the weaker sex, at which point they’re derided for for their mannishness.
Conversely, Hitchens’s insistence on Thatcher’s beauty, like many such protestations by men of various political persuasions, can be read as another sort of sexism, one that insists on sexualizing, and thereby diminishing, a powerful woman—reducing her, as always, to exquisite skin, arresting eyes, a rolling hip. Intriguingly, Hitchens hints that his early insistence on Thatcher’s sexually charged charisma, at a time when the media elite were peering haughtily down their noses at the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, was a shot across the bow of privilege in England’s never-ending class war, and therefore a victory for the socialism Hitchens espoused in those long-ago days.
What makes the mystery of sexiness so impenetrable is its overdetermined nature; it has only partly to do with the physical. For this writer, for example, the mind is an erogenous zone. In all fairness, Mrs. Thatcher’s skillful cut-and-thrust during Prime Minister’s Questions bespeaks a nimble intellect, and her academic achievements (degrees in chemistry and law), and apparent interest in ideas (a habit her dear, dense friend Ronnie Reagan never managed to acquire) are commendable. Sadly, though, the contents of that mind are crushingly dull, depressing in their utter predictability: Friedrich von Hayek? Check. Milton Friedman? Check. A truly sexy mind ranges beyond the shopworn curriculum of its ideological worldview and questions itself, even.
(Even so, Hitchens is right in saying that Thatcher has more sizzle than Palin: as a conservative MP, she was at least polymorphously perverse enough to support the decriminalization of homosexuality and to vote in favor of abortion rights; Palin, by contrast, is as original a thinker as was ever soldered together from Real Doll parts and programmed by Focus on the Family.)
Sadly, then, those of us who thrill to intellectual arousal—especially those of us on the left—are fated to remain immune to the Iron Lady’s charms, such as they are. That cruel mouth, whose downturned corners look as if they were incised with a knife, always struck me as perfectly apt for a pitiless slasher of social programs, sworn foe of trade unionism, devout believer in the economic shock treatment prescribed by neo-liberalism (a theory whose stringent application had a disastrous effect on England’s working poor), and bosom friend of Augusto Pinochet, whom she lauded for “bringing democracy to Chile” (presumably by shutting down his nation’s parliament, banning trade unions, and persuading 3,200 of his political critics of the error of their ways by disappearing them into unmarked graves). Aren’t the eyes the windows of the soul? If so, in what sense is that blood-congealing stare sexy? The envy of any basilisk, it could render a man impotent at a hundred paces. Maybe it’s just my left knee jerking, but there’s no desert island small enough to make me see Margaret Thatcher the sneering moral absolutist and heartless downsizer, eager to give the intransigent laborers and the shiftless poor a good thrashing, as a hottie.
But I can easily imagine Maggie in a crush video, her stout, sensible shoe stamping on a human face—forever.