Last night I analysed The Favourite, and I will admit I was expecting something better. It was announced that the biographical drama is a contender for the best picture award at the Oscars, which is a strike against it, but given that the trailer makes it clear that the lead roles are held by three women I was hopeful. The Favourite scores well for women’s voice but poorly for women’s presence. The main characters, Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, often speak of things besides men and it passes the Bechdel test in the first scene. The costumes and sets are beautiful. Those are the movie’s strengths. Unfortunately, it has significant drawbacks. Firstly, it revolves around the antagonistic relationship between Weisz and Stone. In fact all the women, including secondary characters, treat each other badly. Even Coleman and Weisz, who are supposed to be close friends, treat each other terribly. Secondly, the filmmakers portray powerful women—both Coleman (Anne, queen of England) and Weisz (a lady who governs England for the sickly Anne)—in an unflattering light. Indeed, none of the lead females are likable characters (e.g. Stone flattens a rabbit under her heel and is rude to the house staff) and they are often humiliated and demeaned.
The language used in reference to female characters is telling and merits examination: Nicholas Hoult calls Weisz a “c*nt; he says to Stone, “And I should have you stripped and whipped” and asks her “Do you want to get punched?”; Weisz calls Stone a c*nt and "a disloyal little b*tch” and tells Coleman that Stone is a liar, a thief and a viper; Coleman says to Stone about Weisz, “If she’s not dead I will cut her throat”; Weisz begins letters to Coleman “You c*nt” and “I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye”; and a prostitute tells Weisz, who is convalescing in a brothel, “You can suck for your supper.” When Weisz is lost in the forest and Hoult, who hates her, says of her, “I hope we find her and she’s not dead in a ditch” it is clear that that is precisely how he hopes she will be found.
The violence against women (VAW) is also telling: Hoult pushes Stone down a hill; he pushes her indoors; Weisz throws Olivia Coleman on the floor of her room, throws books at Stone and shoots her gun at her; and when Weisz falls off her horse after being poisoned by Stone she is dragged through the forest and disfigured. In addition, there is the self-inflicted harm: Stone’s hand is burned by lye when her female co-worker intentionally neglects to tell her to put on gloves before plunging her hands in a pail containing the harmful substance. Stone also smacks herself in the head with a book several times, giving herself a bloody nose.
The sexualization of women is the third element indicating that this movie has little to offer women: water is splashed unceremoniously over Stone and three other women standing naked, bathing; a man screws a prostitute against a tree; a man screws a prostitute from behind in the room Weisz is convalescing in; a man in a carriage masturbates while looking at Stone; Stone masturbates a man and in another scene, a woman; Stone sits on a man’s lap; the three lead females appear in their nightclothes; prostitutes expose their bare bottoms and breasts; and Stone casually speaks to Hoult about f*cking her. Moreover, the scenes of a sexual nature between women are filmed in a way that shows they are meant for men's viewing pleasure, not women's. The filmmakers even make light of rape (when a man enters Stone's bedroom uninvited, as she lies in bed, she asks him, “Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” before spreading her legs).
As for the filmmakers' portrayals of the lead females, they do nothing to improve its case. Anne, portrayed as dim and self-absorbed, is shown eating cake immediately after throwing up the cake she has just eaten; she has tantrums and lies on the floor crying; she falls on her face in parliament; and she falls out of bed. This is hardly a flattering portrait of a world leader. For her part Stone, portrayed as self-serving and manipulative, falls face down in the mud. Weisz, portrayed as controlling and cruel, has her face splattered with blood when Stone shoots a bird. In another scene her face is bloodied and cut after she is dragged by her horse through a forest. Anne, although very powerful, is clearly inept as the leader of a country and is easily manipulated by the ambitious women who counsel her (Weisz and Stone), as well as by some men. Stone, clever but relatively powerless, tells Hoult, “I’m on my side, always.”
Portraying a powerful woman as unsuitable for her job is practically the norm in movies, so The Favourite’s filmmakers are only contributing to the existing body of sexist portrayals conveying the message that governing should be left to men. Moreover, there have been countless examples in cinematic history of two women fighting over a man; the only novelty here is that the women fight over a woman. In short, The Favourite has a shot of winning the Oscar for best picture.
© 2019 Alline Cormier