With just a few days left until polling day, it would probably be fair to say that the general election has not played out quite as the Conservative Party – or, indeed, many of the rest of us – had anticipated.
The healthy lead with which the party entered the campaign has been substantially eroded, frittered away in part as a result of some ill-considered manifesto commitments, and in part by a series of increasingly hesitant media performances from the Prime Minister. The authority which Theresa May commanded as recently as her Lancaster House speech in February appears, perhaps temporarily, to have deserted her.
A side-effect of these increasingly awkward media performances has been the popularity of the suggestion that there is something slightly robotic about the Prime Minister. While some cartoonists, most obviously Martin Rowson, have been depicting May as a robot for some months, since the beginning of the general election the frequency of the comparison has increased remarkably. While some social media users have taken to referring to May as the #maybot, others have suggested that May communicates in binary code. The satirical website The Poke, meanwhile, has invited its readers to tell the difference between May and Buck Rogers’ robotic sidekick, Twiki.
Theresa May is far from the first politician to be thought ‘robotic’. The earliest example of the genre which I can find is David Low’s 1928 cartoon, ‘The Prime Robot’ – surely a reference, as James Sumner points out, to Eric, the robot built for that year’s Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers – in which Stanley Baldwin is replaced by a mechanical man.
Other political robots would not appear until after the Second World War. Tony Benn in particular appears to have been a popular target, with his enthusiasm for science and technology making his transformation into a robot an obvious subject for cartoonists and satirists alike. Hugh Gaitskell’s reputation as a ‘desiccated calculating machine’, meanwhile, saw him transformed by the cartoonist Emmsworth into an enormous calculating engine.
Most popular by far with cartoonists, however, were Doctor Who references – and especially to the Daleks. Figures as diverse and unlikely as Alec Douglas Home, Charles de Gaulle, Tony Benn, Douglas Hurd, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Michael Gove, and, indeed, Theresa May have been depicted as Daleks, complete with the obligatory sink-plunger and, in May’s case, cleavage and leopard-print. There have been, in fact, several Dalek Theresa Mays.
Of course, these comparisons were rarely, if ever, intended to flatter their targets. However, these analogies appear to work in quite specific ways when applied to female politicians. The appearance on The Lenny Henry Show of Thatchos – a cyberman complete with bouffant hair, pussy bow, and black handbag – is perhaps a case in point. The cybermen are, as any good Whovian will know, a race famed for cold calculation and the elimination of all emotion, qualities which Thatchos displayed in abundance in the sketch.
That Thatchos, and her companion, Dennos, seem to be the sole examples of political cybermen hardly seems a coincidence. My colleague Lisa Dowling has suggested that Margaret Thatcher was an ‘inconvenient deviant’ in the sense that she did not conform to conventional expectations of her gender – because she did not come across as particularly ‘warm’ or ‘nurturing’, and could often seem ‘selfish’ – and it is impossible to read her depiction as a cyberman as anything other than attempt to play upon and draw attention to this ‘deviance’.
The Doctor Who parody was far from an isolated example, and, as Marcus Harmes has pointed out, the suggestion that the Prime Minister was not quite human was a common trope of the satire of the period. An episode of The Comic Strip Presents… depicted the Prime Minister as a cyborg with a robotic arm and green blood, and Spitting Image more than once suggested that there was something inhuman about the way Thatcher behaved.
Of course, the suggestions that May is robotic are perhaps nothing more than an innocent attempt to play upon her awkwardness in front of the camera. However, the consistency with which female politicians are compared to robots – the way in which Margaret Thatcher was portrayed in the 1980s, the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had been replaced by a robot – ought to make us suspicious that there is something more sinister going on…