“The Favourite” and women in power

The “Bechdel test” is a baseline of feminist media analysis: does the work contain two women talking to each other about something other than a man? The idea is to ascertain whether women are treated as actors in their own right, with agency and independent desires, rather than second-order NPCs that exist only as set design to highlight the men driving the action.

If there’s a movie that passes harder than The Favourite, I haven’t seen it. On face, it is a historical drama (sometimes billed as a “black comedy”) set during the reign of Britain’s Queen Anne and the War of the Spanish Succession. The central drama is two female courtiers competing for the affections of the elderly, sadly childless, weak, and unhealthy queen. Sarah Churchill, wife of the commander of the English forces fighting off-screen for most of the film, takes on as a maid her poor country cousin, the blond new-girl Abigail. Abigail is not content to be a scullery wench and immediately sets to improve her position by worming into the graces of the Queen.

Every single man is portrayed as a makeup-smeared and fancy-dressing fop (which is to say, a fag) or as a duck-racing gambling irrelevancy. Who run the world? Girls, in this case.

How do they run the world? The interesting thing in this film is the way the Strong Female Characters relate to power in a completely different way than men (not just men in the film, but the way they behave in any healthy culture). Men generally acquire power either by forging it ex nihilo (the first ape to pick up a thigh bone and club his rival to death), or more usually by representing some constituency to which they are ultimately responsible (the senator who brings home the bacon, the general who wins battles, etc). The two male political factions in the film are communicated simplistically – the landowners who finance the war and desire a quick peace, and the burghers who fight in it, anticipate benefiting from it, and wish it to be prosecuted to an ultimate conclusion. There are rumblings of riots and civil war should the war go on much longer.

In another film, this would be the focus of the action – political maneuvering around a weak ruler as alpha males lay their dicks on the table, a climactic battle scene, and so on. In The Favourite, it is window dressing. Sarah’s political desire is to see her husband, the famous Duke of Marlborough, come home triumphal from a victorious war, but the action is around her dealing with the New Girl, who has no inherent political ambitions whatsoever, but merely wants an arrangement (a marriage and a formal position at court) to restore her social position – and in doing so threatens to usurp Sarah’s position as the titular favorite of the Queen.

Women in this film acquire power purely by being given it, and thus by appealing to someone who has it already (which they in turn presumably acquired thru some exogenous and irrelevant arrangement, rather than demonstrable competence or as the flip side of responsibility). So instead of boring wars and politics, we get a more-than-implicitly lesbian love triangle (but only as certain women relate to love – that is, a transactional relationship of emotional rewards and material payoffs) as the blond and the brunette fight a complex psychodrama of how hard to appeal to the queen’s vanity before it’s time to neg, how to get senpai to notice one or the other, how hard to bargain for a payoff from a sexual advance, what mood represents the best time to ask for a favor, etc.

If this sounds hellish, then you might interpret it as a dark drama about what happens when women are forced by circumstances to pursue political ends. If this sounds like an entertaining Friday night at the movies, then I guess it becomes the “black comedy” it’s represented as, a 18th century Real Housewives of Kensington Palace with dramatically higher stakes and production values. Regardless, the sets and costumes are exquisite, the acting is spot on, and the technical quality of the film looks much better than its 15 million dollar budget. The dual interpretability is what makes it a great date night movie, perhaps as you netflix-and-chill your way to a minor barony.

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