Monday, April 8, 2013 will go down in history the day on which two particularly significant women passed from this life: Annette Funicello and Margaret Thatcher. I put them in that order on purpose. Maggie was the older of the two and the more recently famous, but Annette comes first alphabetically, and I honestly believe that she had the more positive influence on the world we live in. I stated in a Facebook status on Tuesday morning that I would not want to see Annette’s death overshadowed by Maggie’s, and this received mixed responses. So I thought I should explain why I see things that way.
Not that I am a huge fan or deep resenter of either of them –– and they each had plenty of both –– but I recognize both of these women as having reshaped people’s perspectives on how society should work and what makes people valuable. I don’t think either of them actually thought particularly deeply about the matter, but in following the paths that came naturally to them they both left a huge mark on the world in this regard –– probably greater than I ever will in both cases. Some consider the world to be better off for what one or the other of them contributed; some consider one or the other of them to have profoundly damaged the basic values that we should live by. I’m ready to take something of a middle position on both accounts.
Both of them had relatively full, rich and long lives. Both had been out of the public eye and profoundly disabled by degenerative diseases that eventually killed them for over a decade already, so it’s hard to consider either of their passings to be particularly tragic. Rather both provide especially good opportunities for reflection on what makes particular individuals, and human life in general, valuable. What values should we be fighting to protect from women like these, and what new perspectives represented by women like these should we be heartily embracing?
Annette was the embodiment of two monumental cultural aspects of the 20th century: the Disney princess cult and the early years of rock and roll. Both have a rather mixed cultural legacy in terms of providing purportedly harmless entertainment while sending conflicted messages to young people about what they should be looking for in life and trying to make of their lives.
Disney was never edgy in the same way as Warner Bros cartoons. It was perfectly natural to see Bugs Bunny in drag starting to seduce Elmer Fudd, or to see Daffy Duck flying up to join a migrating flock of his own species promising, “I’m good company! I know lots of off-color jokes!” Mickey Mouse would never do or say anything of that sort. Even the pants-less Donald Duck gave no indication of ever being a sexual being in those sorts of ways. Old Uncle Walt was a stickler for traditional propriety. His amusement parks were famous not only for their wiz-bang adventure rides and tie-ins to children’s films of various sorts, but also for the clean cut, white bread image that all of their workers were required to maintain.
But Disney’s stock and trade was folk tales and fairy tales from various parts of the white-skinned world, with most of the brutal violence and sexual innuendo of the originals scrubbed out and replaced with post-war American Dream optimism of various sorts. Then to increase their market appeal new abstract forms of sex and violence were introduced: Chaotic but bloodless chase scenes, gun fights and brawls helped maintain the myth within Disney versions of these tales that with sufficient courage, determination and magical weapons of various sorts, good could always defeat evil in violent conflict. When it came to sexuality, all of the Disney female role models are built like Barbie Dolls, and boys’ and girls’ abstract desires to hug and kiss each other, and perhaps to run away together to take things further, were part of the essential dynamic of most classic Disney stories. Annette was basically a live action model who enabled Disney to present this fantasy princess character in more than animated form.
The sixties fundamentally screwed up that clean-cut cultural image for everyone though. Attempts to keep depicting the Beatles, the Beach Boys and their clones as “really nice young men” were destined to failure, and at the end of the decade Woodstock provided the perfect symbolic funeral for that fantasy of traditional respectability living on in popular youth culture. Annette, however, even while surrounded by armies of corny rockers and bikini-clad go-go girls, never stepped out of the wholesome, principled yet drool-worthy image of the real life Disney princess.
But regardless of the wholesomeness of her image, very carefully guarded by the Disney apparatus, Annette became the first child starlet of the television generation to go from being a cute little pre-pubescent girl to watch cartoons with to being a full-blown glamour girl and sex symbol. Her essential commercial value was based on being “lovable” in two very different senses. In this regard she paved the way not only for later generation Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but for many other little show business girls who have had identity issues in the process of becoming sex symbols. The open question remains, is this a bad thing? Should we rather be steering little girls away from having a value based on their capacity to make boys hornier –– from living according to expectations set by men’s sexual fantasies? Or on the other hand, if some girls are able to play this sort of role while still maintaining a capacity to carefully choose their mates, and if they can eventually establish the sort of family life that they want for themselves, like Annette did (sort of), where’s the harm in that?
It could be argued that the whole underlying theme of the musical Grease –– written as a nostalgia piece about the fifties already in the seventies, and still running strong as a popular DVD and a staple of amateur theater nearly 40 years later –– was to explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in Annette’s public image. Whatever the case, she simultaneously played the roles of both the Disneyesque “good girl” and the object of teenage erotic desire with a rare sort of dignity. With her open display of intense sex appeal combined with her deep traditional values she leaves us asking ourselves how much we are willing to respect women who live up to our other cultural standards but willingly allow themselves to be sexually objectified–– a question worth asking ourselves repeatedly from era to era.
And then there’s Maggie. No one could accuse her of allowing herself to become a fantasy sex object –– quite the opposite. It is said that no one who really knew her would ever think of calling her “Maggie” even; such a casual nick-name was the total antithesis of her persona. But as she was a public figure who is otherwise a stranger to me, I’ll take the liberty.
Margaret Thatcher’s image and impact is based quite directly on not being attractive, and not being particularly lovable in any sense. To the extent that she is loved by anyone it is for her unsentimental attacks on the post-war socialist norms of British, European and global politics. She didn’t seem to care about people as people. She was more interested in whipping the lazy plebes into shape and getting things operating as efficiently as possible to fulfill the desires of the rich and powerful, and for this she made no apologies.
The hallmark of Thatcher’s reign was the Falklands War of 1982, where she sent the Royal Navy and Air Force to keep the Argentinians from permanently taking over these chunks of rock out in the south Atlantic. In order to keep these islands –– and the 3000 British subjects and 500,000 British sheep living on them –– British, as a matter of principle, Mrs. Thatcher decided that it was worth expending £3 billion and a thousand or so lives. More importantly, she couldn’t have remained in power to solidify her tax cuts for the rich and service cuts for the poor without such an exercise in reinforcing what was left of British imperial pride.
It says something further about Maggie that she considered Chile’s General Pinochet to be a good friend and Nelson Mandela to be a dangerous terrorist. Yet this was perfectly consistent with the rest of her agenda: busting up labor unions as far as possible, selling off government-owned corporations to finance tax cuts, arguing that economic polarization is not a bad thing, reducing government spending on poor families with children and offering them some potential savings in turn by making late-term abortions easier to come by. Yet many of my acquaintances in America’s religious right still want to see her as a cultural hero. Go figure.
Some consider Mrs. Thatcher to have been the British female equivalent to Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan is somehow seen as having improved the world, Thatcher too must have been a force for good. Their combined opposition to Communism and all political phenomena associated with such are believed to have been the final factors bringing about victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance.
After Thatcher, Reagan also began a new era of military adventurism and wars of choice. Seeing how well Thatcher’s little war off the coast of South America played out, a year and a half later Reagan decided to declare a little war of his own in the same region, seizing control of the little island country of Grenada. Grenada had become independent of Britain less than a decade earlier and it had been going through a string of unstable Marxist dictatorships ever since, so it looked like a pretty good place for the US to start restoring order in the world and telling these Marxists where to go. After that came the covert proxy war for control of the Central American country of Nicaragua, paid for by secretly selling weapons to Islamic dictatorships that the US Congress had refused to sign off on. Without Thatcher’s example of rebuilding national pride through military adventurism, Reagan might never have gone down such paths. Had that not happened, conceivably the Soviet house of cards that Thatcher’s other dear friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, was trying to keep standing, might have collapsed a bit more slowly. Revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania might have begun a little more hesitantly or they might conceivably have been quashed a bit more aggressively. This is probably just idle speculation, but it is the best justification I can think of for according some sort of historical respect to the Iron Lady.
The only other justification I can think of is that there were certain industries in Britain that were effectively stagnated and collapsing, but which were being kept standing by the government’s fear of civil unrest and voters’ rage were they to face the inevitable and close down these losing operations. Chief among these was their national coal mining industry. In order to get to a place where these hopeless ventures could be phased out and people would start looking for more sustainable long-term economic alternatives for their families and their villages was to have the sort of political leadership that didn’t care about causing pain to working people. Thus Thatcher’s natural lack of empathy may have enabled the country to make necessary transitions that a more humanly attuned leader would have kept trying to resist.
All the same, I find it rather tasteless for the British political left to have street parties celebrating Maggie’s death. I can appreciate the humor in playing “Ding-dong, the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz privately in honor of the occasion, but I can’t see a justification for marching down the street with banners making such a proclamation. Even less do I go along with further reinforcing this message by changing the W-word to the B-word there. It just becomes grossly inaccurate; Maggie had none of the loyalty, empathy and protectiveness that typifies female dogs, so she should not be posthumously referred to as such!
In any case, as I was saying, both of these ladies which passed on Monday were “important” in terms of having a significant influence on the world they lived in, albeit not necessarily an entirely positive influence in either case. In both cases their legacies leave us with the question of what makes particular people valuable and/or important. In Annette’s case her importance was based on the abstract, sanitized sensual attractiveness that she came to represent. In Maggie’s case it was a cold-hearted rational consideration of what particular people are useful for politically and economically that characterized her thinking and her impact on her era. Neither of these perspectives represent a value system that I can heartily endorse, but there are aspects of each worth paying heed to.
Something of a middle ground between Thatcherite and Funicelloian values can be found in Aristotle’s thought on the matter. Aristotle famously advised his son, Nichomachus, to establish his personal value through recognizing what various things make people happy –– things people come to desire for their own sake, not as a means of getting something else –– and to build strategic friendships and alliances with those who are the most capable of providing such happiness for others. The good man is one who can fairly exchange means of gaining happiness with others at the highest possible level. Some people have more to offer than others in this regard, but everyone has something to offer, even to his or her superiors, in terms of appreciation and respect. The satisfaction to be gained by receiving these intangible goods in exchange for other favors is not to be underestimated, but nor can it be assumed that having enough respect for another can be currency enough to settle all debts. In any case, however one does it, one must always take care to give as good as one gets, and get as good as one gives.
That taken into consideration, this would seem to leave us with a risk of seeing other people merely as means of satisfying our selfish, animalistic desires for physical pleasures or social dominance. The solution to this, and the point of life as I see it, is to move beyond that level of thought and desire, towards a more interconnected one. In this regard I agree strongly with the point made recently in a sermon by my good virtual friend, Brian Zahnd, where he cites Dostoevsky in defining hell as a place of not being able to love. Being able to meaningfully connect with others, not just as a means of getting “stuff” from them and not just in order to establish some sort of dominance over them, is what makes life truly worthwhile –– what keeps life from becoming hell for us. While I didn’t know either of them personally, of course, I have the strong impression that Annette seemed to get this a lot more clearly than Maggie did.
Whatever the case, may they both rest in peace, and may the better parts of their legacies go on to overpower the results of their limitations.