What we can learn from The Favourite, the original gal pals of the British Monarchy

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Fox Searchlight

What we can learn from The Favourite, the original gal pals of the British Monarchy

December 5, 2018

I’m a fan of historical period dramas. They’re decadent, sexy, tragic escapism. But historical fiction is also formulaically devoid of diverse stories, save a very few. They are often completely devoid of people of color, Eurocentric, and romanticizing of gross things like monarchy and feudalism, with nary a queer story line in sight. I don’t go to historical period dramas in hopes of seeing myself and wouldn’t unless I was a powerful, white cisman; and after seeing the trailer of the The Favourite I assumed it would be much of the same, except maybe this time with more women.

As a self-proclaimed queer history nerd, I was always trying to sniff out queer figures in my college history lectures. I sat in an LGBTQ history class my freshman year and devoured queer tidbits like Abraham Lincoln’s bed fellows, Roman boy love, Cha-U-Kao, and Sappho, among others. I saw myself in these stories, rare glimmering moments of representation. But from what we learned in history classes, you wouldn’t know that queer women even existed before the 1900s so I had never heard of the queer queen of 18th century England.

The Favourite, which just earned five Golden Globes nominations, follows the relationship of Queen Anne played by a phenomenally unhinged Olivia Colman and her ‘royal favourite’ and childhood friend Sarah Churchill. The royal favourite was the intimate companion of a ruler, in a wide ranging definition from a political confidante, close trusted friend, or extramarital lover. Sarah, played in the film by Rachel Weisz, is a combination of all three to Anne. Their relationship is deep, rooted in a childhood friendship and present day dependency. They call each other childhood nicknames and critique each other lovingly. But everything is disrupted when a young cousin of Sarah arrives, Abigail, a charming, manipulative Emma Stone. What unfolds can only be described as a delicious and devastating love triangle.

Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, and Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman. Fox Searchlight, 2018.

Abigail’s character is fun to watch and interesting foil but at the core of the film is the complicated, heartbreaking relationship between Anne and Sarah. Larger issues are at play, such as political power and expediency so there is plenty of manipulation throughout their interactions. But underneath there is a deep love. The relationship between Anne and Abigail is equally complex and interesting. One built on, at first, mutual trauma. Anne, who had lost 17 children, confides in Abigail, who we have learned grew up in squalor and at the hands of male violence. This kind of shared trauma—which transforms into care and affection—is also especially familiar. Anne is also disabled by a disease that confines her to her bed or a wheelchair, which the favourite often is trusted to push around. The added level of physical dependency deepens and also complicates the relationships Anne has with both women. It shows a physical need for care that is beyond just lust and desire. The needs of all three women are vastly different, but can be found in one another.

The relationships in the film are incredibly complex and laden with power dynamics, a topic not often touched even in contemporary queer romances with women. An inevitable comparison is the 2008 film, The Other Boleyn Girl, another film taking on a love triangle among British royals in a similar period. This film delved into power dynamics in royal relationships, where hierarchy rules all, but at the center is King Henry, clearly dominant in his royalty and masculinity. He, like many other male monarchs, used power and force to court women, who had to remain too subservient for fear of retaliation. In light of #MeToo and contemporary abuses of male power, films like The Other Boleyn Girl and others reflect a reality we still see today. But in current events and films, historical and contemporary, queer people and the complicated power dynamics of their relationships are not frequently represented. How does age and power affect queer relationships in ways similar and different to heterosexual ones? The film demonstrates how age, class, and hierarchy effects all relationships throughout history including ones between queer women.

Another point of the film worth noting is that all of these women have—or, have had—relationships with men, as was expected during the time period when the film takes place. Those relationships are peripheral to the main story except for in the case of Abigail, who marries during the film and becomes a Lady. There may be an inclination to view Abigail’s character as bisexual, as she also does have somewhat of a relationship with a man while also courting the queen. But what’s important to remember, is this story is a modern fictionalization of a true scenario. And that true story took place in the 18th century where words and concepts like bisexuality and lesbianism, in name, did not exist. And while they did not have access to such terms and identities, these relationships very much existed. The film does a great job of depicting different kinds of queer relationships that existed and continue to. The one between Abigail and Anne is influenced by need, manipulation, seduction, etc. And the relationship between Anne and Sarah portrays them as genuinely in love.

Abigal Masham, played by Emma Stone. Fox Searchlight, 2018.

What also undeniably helps is the film's ability to verge into absurdity and not take itself too seriously, despite serious subject matter. It’s grotesque, witty, snarky, and edgy. Sarah threatens and curses whenever she pleases. Anne flops around with messy hair. Abigail winces after saying something awkward. They throw up. They curse. They’re insecure. They cry in pain. They cry to manipulate each other. They love each other. They’re real complex queer female characters albeit set in unreal world 18th century royal British court. And let us not forget, this is Rachel Weisz’s second role this year playing a queer woman after Disobedience. Both are different, rich, fascinating characters rendered wonderfully by Weisz. She is a phenomenal actress who most likely faced someone urging her to not become typecast as “the lesbian one.” As is well known, women of all ages in the film industry fall victim to typecasting and there aren’t yet too many lesbian roles for women. Overall, The Favourite depicts queer female relationships in a nuanced way and the fantastic actors bring life and realism into queer female characters that otherwise would’ve been a footnote in an English history book.

I never thought I would see myself and my own relationships mirrored in a historical period drama, but I did in The Favourite. Ultimately, queer stories happened everywhere and at every time period. Let’s hope to see more depictions of queer female relationships across history and from different parts of the world that we can learn from and see our contemporary selves in.

Sabrina Bleich is an amp Contributor. She graduated from Yale University in 2016 with a degree in History. Prior to working at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan as the Film Program Manager, she served as a researcher and translator for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. She has been involved in a queer, feminist comedy group and wellness collective as a producer and organizer. 

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