I had the recent experience of viewing The Favorite and cringing in my seat at various points (and not just from the sad costumes); jarred by the experience of watching the depiction of a old sick fat lesbian (?) being played for laughs from my own perspective of being an aging (actually I am almost 20 years older than Anne in this film), fat, sometimes with mobility issues, lesbian myself.
Additionally, the experience of watching this movie awakened all my old feelings of anger at how women, and sometimes queer women, are treated by those that attempt to record or replay history.
Back in the old days (i.e. the 80’s) I was a student of women’s studies at UCLA and I had a lot of fun deconstructing movies and parsing them through a lesbian feminist lens. Certain movies seem to be perfectly suited for this type of analysis; on the other hand, if you try hard enough you can get some substance for meta messages from almost any type of media. Although I doubt very much that the “Fav” was meant as a commentary on the lesbian experience, I feel compelled to record my thoughts about it here from that perspective.
Anne as Queen
First of all, it’s fair to say that Anne has never gotten a fair representation by biographers until the present day, when there are so many more really excellent biographies of women.
But since this isn't a research paper, i will stick with good old Wikipedia:
According to Wikipedia:
In the opinion of modern historians, traditional assessments of Anne as fat, constantly pregnant, under the influence of favourites, and lacking political astuteness or interest may derive from male chauvinist prejudices against women.
Although the truth was that, having experienced at least 17 pregnancies and as many dead, short-lived, or stillborn children, Anne WAS constantly pregnant for a large part of her life, as she died at the age of 49. As to being fat, I am not even considering that aspect here as I think it is shit in terms of significance of her life story.
Or from History Extra
Until rescued by more recent historical revisions that recognize both her political and cultural legacies, Anne was a queen who was badly treated by history, subject to quick caricatures that portray her as being frail, ungainly, emotionally needy and ineffective. Her incredibly traumatic obstetric history was often rendered as a footnote, or yet another item on a long list of regal failings leveled against her. She was labelled as the ‘childless’ queen — despite her bearing and burying child after child after child after child.
I have often thought that a biography of childbirth, unmedicated, as childbirth occurred for thousands of years, would be the world’s greatest and least valued story of pain and tragedy. If you give a thought to all the women who have died in childbirth, suffered an infinite amount of misfortunes while giving birth, given birth in dangerous or filthy conditions, given birth in the throes of a war, in secret, in public, only to die, have a dead child, be terribly damaged physically or psychologically; the mind quails before the enormity of this scope of suffering.
Anne, although giving birth in a palace, was in the midst of suffering via the direct result of childbearing more than half of her life.
In one example, according to Wikipedia:
In early 1687, within a matter of days, Anne miscarried, her husband caught smallpox, and their two young daughters died of the same infection. Lady Rachel Russell wrote that George and Anne had “taken [the deaths] very heavily … Sometimes they wept, sometimes they mourned in words; then sat silent, hand in hand; he sick in bed, and she the carefullest nurse to him that can be imagined.” Later that year, she suffered another stillbirth.
Can anyone imagine a man, with these sort of health problems (an equivalent toll being taken on the male body) effectively ruling England? Yet Anne seems to have gotten off a few good ones, although of course she was a Tory like all the monarchs seemed to end up being in those days.
So put in another context, wouldn’t it be hilarious to have a movie about that amount of suffering for say, Henry VIII and his ulcerated legs? Edward the IV got really fat and died in agony of no one knows what, and who can forget Edward II and the red hot poker? Note: none of these male monarchs suffered a life of pain, and had lots of fun before dying.
Anne as Queer
In my opinion to look at this movie as a depiction of lesbianism is impossible without at least a mention of the notion that queerness has always existed in a political and sociological context, i.e. the social meaning and context of queerness shifts depending on time and society. My first introduction to the theory of homosexuality as a social construct is a result of having Dr. Lillian Faderman as one of my teachers at UCLA. The idea that lesbianism is a political and personal construct is one of the early achievements of radical feminism thought. The correlatory idea is that same sex relationships, for example the type of “loving friendships, or Boston Marriages of the 18th and 19th century. don’t really have a counterpart in what we now understand as “lesbian identity” per se.
It also pays to mention that although many male monarchs had homosexual favorites, the idea of a woman monarch doing the same was extremely taboo and far more shocking. There is a myth that Queen Victoria refused to believe in lesbianism and therefore also refused to agree sign a law against homosexuality that included women. Of much interest, I recently saw some writing on the possible queerness of the ladies of the first Elizabeth. Ripe material for some new lesbian fiction!?
From my impressions of the Fav, I would diagnose that the director has some strange ideas about women, queer women, fat women, ambitious women and an overall misanthropic view of people in general. Of course Dog Tooth could have told me that already. He is not a serious student of history, certainly not one of those very earnest talking heads that try to tell us about the monarchy on PBS. So what is his angle?
All I come up with is that it is all played for laughs. Anne’s pain and suffering. Sarah Churchill forays into politics are shown without any other sort of character development (actually the women of the Ton in those days were very often involved in politics, as class was more of an equalizer than gender). Abigail aims for the highest possible position in court, favorite of the queen, and gets it but finds no happiness. No love is lost in any of these relationships and all interactions are for personal gain, with the queen being the font of all possible rewards. There is no complexity, no compassion, everyone is on display and we see nothing but their scars, freakishness and emptiness.
Well you might say, its just a movie. But here’s the thing, as I said earlier, as a fat old sometimes disabled dyke I felt belittled by this view of Anne. She was not what we understand as a lesbian and I sincerely doubt that she was functioning sexually in the ways depicted in this movie. Maybe she got and gave love to other women, I am sure that many more women did this than anyone can ever imagine. Her suffering was long and impossible to really encompass in understanding. I just don’t think her life was all that funny and she deserved more.
Another reason I give a shit about this? A couple of reasons, we are finally beginning to live in a world where queer, transgender and non-binary folks are truly represented. Just watching Sabrina on Netflix, to give one completely frivolous example, there are queer, bi and transgender people included in the story as a matter of course. They just are that identification, it is not their whole story. Pose has (gasp!) actually queer and transgender people in it!!! not straight people pretending to be gay! Secondly there are about as many movies about lesbians as you can count on one hand, the last one I saw sucked also because it was just so depressing.
So I guess its just all that. I want to see at least one relevant, not depressing, interesting and beautiful movie about lesbians. Real lesbians too!! No fake ones! I wonder if it will ever happen….