Scott St. Clair: Thatcher, Funicello and the Coming of Age

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annette-funicelloFor boys growing up in the 50s, Annette Funicello led us to feel like a man even though we didn’t understand the feelings. For young men in search of role models in the 80s, Margaret Thatcher taught us to think and act like a man when others cowered in fear. On Monday, we lost both of them – Funicello at 70 from complications from MS and Thatcher at 87 from a stroke — two women who, in their own unique way, bent men to their will without expressing a need to become one.

 By doing it their way, they confounded and angered bra-burning feminists — Betty Friedan can take “The Feminine Mystique” and go suck an egg — because their feminism kept them women. Very influential, powerful and accomplished women, but women nevertheless.  

 We knew Annette from “The Mickey Mouse Club,” a Walt Disney-produced daily variety show for kids


on ABC from 1955 to 1959 that featured Disney cartoons, musical guest stars who introduced kids to classical music, serial-format episodic dramas and song and dance routines performed by bright-eyed, well-scrubbed kids.

 But we tuned in to watch Annette (check her out at the 40 second mark on the clip) as she morphed from a young teen to a woman about whom we dreamed. She was the pin-up in our minds, so we glued ourselves to the set not for “Spin and Marty” but for her — until, that is, she showed up as a regular in the 11-minute-episode series about two guys who spend their lives at a dude ranch summer camp.

 Annette’s wholesome image couldn’t hide a developing voluptuous femininity. As one writer noted, “Boys loved Funicello because of her curves. Girls wanted to be like her.” Sexist, you say? Tell it to Susan King who wrote it.

 Dark and alluring, Annette was to pre-teen boys what Sophia Loren was to those a half-generation older. Except she smiled a lot, which we needed because Sophia-like looks sizzling with sultry sensuality would have sent us screaming in fear to our mothers.

 By the time we were old enough to comprehend those feelings, Annette had moved on to make a series teen-focused beach movies like “Beach Party” with pop star Frankie Avalon where she always appeared in a one-piece swimsuit while the other girls were in bikinis.

 While she remained the first love of our lives, we moved on to other women who, quite frankly, abused us: Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose in 1970, and Liz Taylor never returned my calls.  In the meantime Annette married, had kids divorced, re-married and largely disappeared from view content to live her life and cash well-earned residual checks until she went public in 1992 that she had been diagnosed with MS five years earlier.

 For the balance of her life, she was an MS activist, published a volume of memoirs and went to the track a lot with her second husband, a harness-racing trainer.

 As for aging boomers in our late teens and twenties we were too much into protests, pot and radical politics who still sang “M-i-c…k-e-y” at the drop of a hot until some of us came to our senses through the example of another Hollywood veteran, President Ronald Reagan, and his good friend, ideological soul mate and the toughest guy on the block, Margaret Thatcher.

 “An empire ruled by a woman!?!” was one response after she became British prime minister in May 1979. Britain and her empire parted ways decades prior, so the comment was typical ignorance and chauvinism that greeted her as she took up residence at 10 Downing Street. Not since the 17th Century had the country seen a comparable and formidable woman – Elizabeth I, she of the Golden Age and the sinking of the Spanish Armada — take the helm of the ship of state. And she didn’t disappoint.

 Armed with free-market economic proposals grounded in Hayek and Friedman and by sheer force of will and gutsy determination, she transformed a ruined Britain to a strong and growing one. Lower taxes, privatization of heavy industry and an emphasis on personal responsibility were the pathway to success, and she herded Parliament up that pathway whether it wanted to go or not.

 Like her friend Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher brought middle-class values and virtues from obscurity to predominance. And again like Reagan, she believed in the people at a time when they’d been told for years not to believe in themselves. Britain hadn’t seen her kind of stiff-upper-lip-and-carry-on resolve since Winston Churchill offered nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

 When the weak-willed in her own Conservative Party got wobbly in the knees during the tough times and suggested going back to the misery with which they were comfortable, she defiantly shouted out at a party conference, “”You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!”

 She smacked down the coal miners’ union who had strangled Britain’s economy and ability to produce energy for decades by outlasting them during a year-long strike. When she was done, John Bull could turn on the telly when he wanted to, not when the union said he could.

 She taught a junta of comic-opera, tin-pot Argentine generals who tried filching the Falkland Islands out from under the Union Jack that the British lion not only still roared, but had flesh-shredding teeth.  

 Without flinching, she joined with Reagan in re-arming in the face of Soviet expansionism, earning from a Russian “journalist” what he regarded as an insulting tag: “The Iron Lady.” Instead, she wore it as a badge of honor and in that spirit she supported deployment of U.S. nuclear cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, a strategy that drove peaceniks and communists nuts but also hastened the end of the Cold War.

 Rooted in what she learned growing up above her father’s grocery store, she knew what she believed and why, acted on her beliefs with courage and conviction and didn’t waver in the face of opposition. She stood for hard work, enterprise, thrift, savings, frugality and honesty. She listened, engaged, negotiated, compromised and did all those things necessary in politics, but she never retreated and she never apologized for who she was or what she stood for.

 We’re judged not just by the company we keep, but also by the enemies we make. Considering the scruffy scrum of buggers who disgracefully rejoiced at her passing, she made the right kind of enemies: venal, grasping, hand-out, brutish, greedy, lazy leftists and socialists. Or is that redundant?

 In the end, it was her “friends” who did her in. Alleged political “allies” in the Conservative Party who had forgotten to don their big-boy breeches ousted her as head of the party even though the British public had supported her as prime minister for the longest period of time in over 100 years. She was the better and bigger man undercut by those who acted like nervous old women.

 Before Margaret Thatcher, a woman in charge was an oddity to be endured until a man came along. After Maggie, a woman in charge was taken for granted. Absent her lead, Hillary Clinton would be but a footnote in history sitting in Little Rock watching Bill eat vegan.

 Because nothing happens randomly in an ordered universe, the same-day deaths of two women who were alike in no way whatsoever except achieving success and impacting the world by doing it their way has meaning. Maybe you have to be old like me to see it, but it’s there. Annette Funicello guided us to manhood, and Margaret Thatcher taught us manhood — women who knocked the props out from under the notion that it’s a man’s world.

 Because of these women, we are better men.

Scott St. Clair is a journalist, rhetorical pugilist, agent provocateur, aider and abbetor of James O’Keefe and a former competitive Highland piper. He says what he thinks, means what he says and doesn’t suffer fools. He’s also a member of the Victoria Taft Blogforce. His opinions are entirely his own, and you shouldn’t expect them to mirror yours.








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