What do we expect of our female leaders? Is it an unfair expectation that a female in a position of power be more sensitive to the issue of racial discrimination than a male counterpart? And does the experience of systemic gender discrimination influence women to be more prone to champion the causes of oppressed or marginalized persons? These were questions I found myself mulling after viewing Season 4 of Netflix series THE CROWN, a show which has generated criticism and praise over its provocative depictions of powerful women, notably Queen Elizabeth, and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The series hasn’t shied away from controversial subjects and in episode eight explores the political movement to end the racist travesty that was the apartheid system of South Africa.
In my previous post, I discuss the fraught relationship between these two powerful women. Their opposing values would play out on the global stage as they clashed over the issue of apartheid in South Africa. Episode 8 is effective in demonstrating how Margaret Thatcher earned the title “The Iron Lady.” After viewing her response to the movement to impose sanctions on South Africa, it seems that a more apt description would be “The Heartless Lady.” THE CROWN makes apparent that despite whatever gender discrimination she experienced in the political arena and her own modest middle class background in status-obsessed Great Britain, none of this contributed to making Thatcher a prime minister with a sense of decency, capable of governing with a sense of morality toward a righteous cause.
In earlier episodes, Thatcher demonstrates her lack of compassion towards the working class segment of British society who struggled in the face of austerity measures and other economic policies that made life so untenable. So, it should come as no surprise that she demonstrated a similar antipathy and callous response regarding attempts to dismantle a brutal system that kept Blacks in their native country of South Africa locked in a perpetual state of government sanctioned oppression, violence and subjugation. Episode 8 deals specifically with the issue of economic sanctions and the ensuing dispute and power struggle that erupted between Queen Elizabeth and Thatcher: the former urging the latter to pursue a policy of strict economic sanctions against South Africa in a coalition with 48 other countries of the Commonwealth in an effort to dismantle apartheid. Thatcher is opposed to the use of sanctions calling it “morally offensive.” But the episode illustrates that it’s the compassionate and thoughtful reasoning of the female monarch who prevails thus sparing the reputation of Great Britain and the spectacle of being embarrassed on the international stage.
Thatcher defends her initial refusal to impose trade sanctions against South Africa on the grounds she doesn’t want to join forces with other countries that are in her view “unstable despotisms with appalling human rights records.” But her racism and ulterior motives are quickly exposed. During an explosive exchange with Queen Elizabeth, Thatcher’s words are reminiscent of the political turmoil that has engulfed the United States in recent years: “There are ways of Britain being great again. And that is through a revitalized economy, not through association with unreliable tribal leaders in eccentric costumes.” And Thatcher’s lack of empathy may not have been the only factor driving her reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa as she tells Queen Elizabeth that her son has business interests in South Africa. Thatcher’s values or lack thereof are a warning of how poorly served we are by bigoted leaders of any gender who are indifferent to the suffering of any group.
Thatcher eventually signs a statement, agreeing to employ economic “signals” against the South African government, the damage has already been done to the relationship between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and therefore not permitted to interject her political opinions on matters of government. It’s a fascinating conceit: that one of the most influential women in recent history is not permitted to vote or even state her opinion. But on the moral issue of apartheid she sent her own “signals” to the press and the public that she is displeased with the lack of compassion that Thatcher once again conveyed to the world by not taking a stronger stand against South Africa.
Thatcher will eventually be driven out of office and apartheid will soon follow suit. Thatcher’s own experiences with hardship and discrimination seems to have desensitized her to the struggles of people of color, both in her native country and abroad. Her personal battles afflicted her with a self-righteous belief that if she could overcome obstacles then there could simply be no reason or rational for others to not succeed. It seems counter-intuitive that it’s the woman born into great wealth, privilege and power who is the compassionate figure, the one whose position imbued her with a sense of duty to overcome the great moral challenges of her era. By the end of the season, Thatcher is a diminished figure, an appropriate and inevitable fate for a powerful leader who history will best remember for her divisiveness and harsh economic policies.
Next Up From Me: The shy teenage girl who nearly brought down the British Monarchy
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