When I was writing yesterday’s post about dictators and culture, I was reminded of how fascinated I’ve always been by the women who the partners of authoritarian or repressive leaders. They’re a fascinating reminder that second-wavey ideas about women being more peaceful or nurturing than men can be entirely and terrifyingly untrue. And they’re a great way of examining the moral choices that allow such regimes to thrive.
1.The Director: Jiang Qing. I should have mentioned this former actress as a perfect example of the dictatorial effort to set up the government as a source of joy by dominating culture, and you could tell a fabulously scary story about her through a look at a single production. She interfered with the Beijing Opera, interfered what she called “revolutionary plays” ran the film section of Communist China’s propaganda ministry, and even discovered Joan Chen. Glee and Smash would have absolutely nothing on her in a story that could be about both the coercive power of government and the tyranny of people who are convinced they’re artistic visionaries.
2. The Escapee: Malyamu Amin. To a certain extent, The Last King of Scotland is an exploration of the life and death of Kay Amin, Idi Amin’s youngest wife, who is said to have had an abortion go wrong. But the movie isn’t from Kay’s perspective — her mutilated body is the means by which an arrogant young Scottish doctor comes to consciousness. And wouldn’t it be fascinating to see a tyrant through the eyes of his first wife, to try to understand what it must be like to see your husband become a monster — and to watch her make the decision to get out?
3. The Mother: Sajida Khairallah Talfah. Gillian Darmody and the other nightmare mothers of antihero television have precisely nothing on Saddam Hussein’s first wife in terms of producing deeply messed-up. One of her sons, Uday Hussein, was apparently a serial rapist and killed the man he believed introduced Saddam to his second wife at a party for another authoritarian leader’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak. He also ran a nasty little sideline torturing Iraqi athletes who underperformed in world competitions. Her other son, Qusay, managed to keep his crimes at the level of the state, wiping out the environment that was the home to the Marsh Arabs and rare bird species, and cracking down on dissidents. Her husband may have also murdered her brother. What can it be like to be the widow to such a man? The mother to such dead sons? She does play a role in House of Saddam.
4. The Pretender: Magda Goebbels: In a sense, she was the closest thing Germany had to a first lady, because Adolf Hitler hid his relationship with Eva Braun to avoid putting anything in the way of German women’s fantasies. A wealthy divorcee when she married Goebbels, she was humiliated by his affairs (though she had her own) and asked Hitler for permission to divorce his propaganda minister. Ultimately, they stayed together, and Magda supported the regime even though she privately doubted it, made no move to save her Jewish stepfather from death in a concentration camp, and helped kill her six children before killing herself with her husband. Again, it’s not as if there haven’t been portrayals of her on film before. But it would be fascinating and dreadful to see the story from her perspective, to see Magda go from bourgie flirt to participant in a genocidal regime.
5. Eva Peron, again. Sure, we’ve got Evita. And yes, her husband is nowhere near as bad as the spouses of the other women on this list. But in some ways, the more interesting story about Eva Peron is what happened to her after she died. Her enbalmed body was supposed to go on display in a monument that would rival the Statue of Liberty. Instead, it vanished for 16 years, and she ended up buried under another name in Milan. Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita turns the mystery into a macabre and fascinating horror, complete with wax replicas and corpse desecration. But either way, it’s a fascinating illustration of how an even more restrictive regime tried to erase the memory of the one that followed it, and to dismantle a cult of personality.