In the days of the old Hollywood Code, female characters were inevitably punished if they strayed from traditional sexual mores. Today, female characters (and many men as well) must suffer if they violate a different, unwritten code. This new code declares that one’s worth depends on personal relationships, not public actions, and that sacrificing family time for the sake of achievement is nothing but short-sighted selfishness. Hollywood enforces the Gospel According to Anna Quindlen.
What matters, then, is not the nature of Thatcher’s policies, or even the quality of her real-world family relations. It’s that she dared to forge her identity in public, through what she did rather than what people she cared about, and that she did it very well. For that unseemly daring, we must see her suffer.
Hollywood has no trouble with public women as long as they are hereditary monarchs, who have no choice about their role. It can deal with the power of Elizabeth I, who had to rule to survive. But the more democratic, liberal power that arises from the combination of ambition, competence and popular appeal — the power of a Margaret Thatcher or, for that matter, a Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada” (another Streep character) – – is more problematic. A grocer’s daughter who becomes prime minister could be anyone (even if she is in fact an extraordinarily gifted person). Her ambition thus casts doubt on the audience’s own choices, or at the very least poses an alternative to them. Some people do in fact die regretting their unfulfilled ambitions and uncompleted work. The Gospel According to Anna Quindlen is not always true.