'The Favourite' is a game-changer for complex female characters in film
The Favourite follows the surreptitious scheming, posturing, and underhandedness in which two cousins — Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, and Abigail, played by Emma Stone — engage to maintain their high-standing positions in Queen Anne’s court in the early 18th century. Sarah and Abigail’s rivalrous relationship involves manipulating, deceiving, and seducing the physically and mentally deteriorating queen, played by Olivia Coleman. These characters could easily have come off as shrewish or unlikable, but the stereotypically sexist misinterpretations that plague complicated women, both on screen and in the world, are expertly avoided in these performances. The Favourite leans into the intentionality of the female characters’ sexuality and of their savagery, giving each character her own agency over both of these forces and, in doing so, casting their actions as morally ambiguous.
Throughout the film, Queen Anne is manipulated by Sarah and Abigail, used as a pawn in their schemes for power. The queen’s relationship with Sarah, her cutthroat personal advisor, is depicted as an intimate one from the get-go. Even though the characters aren’t depicted having sex until halfway through the film, the two go from engaging in frivolous bickering to cuddling late into the evening, leading the audience to assume that the two are lovers. Sarah uses this relationship to her advantage when the queen turns her eye and attention to Abigail, threatening to reveal the truth of their relationship, and therefore the queen’s sexuality, to the court. At the same time, however, Sarah still demonstrates her adoration for the queen by massaging cold steaks on the queen’s legs, rubbing her forehead, and telling her stories to soothe her ailing gout.
Abigail, on the other hand, spends most of the film slowly and deviously driving a wedge between Anne and Sarah, also using her sexuality to do so. Abigail arrives at the court covered in mud, hoping her cousin Sarah will help her find work. Abigail is younger, “fairer,” and, most importantly to the queen, newer than her cousin. Sarah gives her cousin a spot working with the kitchen staff. She is uninterested in Abigail’s arrival at the castle, far more occupied with fixing the queen’s gout and getting her through her daily responsibilities in court. But Abigail begins to prove her use to Anne by bringing the queen crushed herbs for her gout and showing the queen decidedly more patience and leniency than Sarah. In the process, she drives a wedge between Anne and Sarah, and becomes held in high favor within the court, becoming a threat to Sarah.
The Favourite doesn’t obviously cast moral judgment on any of the characters’ underhanded actions, however, but instead allows the three female leads to embody complexity. The women are lewd and nefarious as well as demure and reticent. For example, at one point Abigail poisons Sarah’s tea, causing her to fall off of and get dragged through the forest by a horse, and at another, Sarah fires blanks out of a pistol at Abigail. But it’s clear that each character’s nefariousness is competitively engaged with the others’; their actions are ultimately ambiguous because no single member of the trio is objectively worse than any other, and ultimately they are responses to and byproducts of the others’ actions. This ironically makes it difficult for the audience to have a clear favorite.
The film’s matter-of-fact handling of the plot’s central lesbian love triangle also serves to support the characters’ complexity rather than cast judgment on women’s sexual desires or aptitude. No time is wasted on gratuitous portrayals of sex — the male gaze is absent during depictions of these women’s sexual acts. The supposedly erotic moments in the film are, in fact, usually rigid and matter-of-fact.
The depiction of female characters that embody moral ambiguity and defy gendered stereotypes is ultimately imperative to the film industry’s efforts to embrace better female representation. Male characters have long been able to be in turns heinous and charming. Allowing women the opportunity to play equally layered characters, allowing depictions of female sexuality free from the male gaze, allowing angry women to actually be angry or a sex-positive woman be more than just aroused at all times is crucial. The Favourite’s ability to do all of this — to an enthusiastic critical reception no less — is encouraging for the probability of continued attention to detail and freedom when writing and depicting female characters.
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