The Favourite is a recent film depicting Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the competition between her two ‘favourites’ — close confidantes and lesbian lovers — played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. While the film is light-hearted and funny, it also represents something rarely seen even now in popular culture — a lesbian love story.
Lesbianism has often been left on the fringes of society and the LGBT movement. Same-sex relationships between women, despite the vitriol towards gay men in the past, have never been outlawed in the UK — not because they were seen as acceptable, but in a world dominated by men, lesbianism was never seen as a possibility.
In the nineteenth century, relationships between young women in middle and upper-class society were viewed as a preparation for marriage, and ‘passionate friendships’, which included kissing, embracing, and even love letters, were encouraged. Nevertheless, lesbianism was rarely accepted as a valid form of love, and lesbian couples existed as outliers and anomalies in society.
The sad invisibility to mainstream society that queer women faced in the past continues in modern culture. Women are still outnumbered by men in the film and television industries, so romance between women is still seen as something of a novelty that does not yet have the same widespread recognition of homosexuality as between men. In the last fifty years, many publicly gay men have emerged in popular culture, creating wider acceptance — think such national treasures as Sir Ian McKellen, Freddie Mercury, and Sir Elton John — yet few queer women have reached this level of fame. For those that have, their sexuality is all too often viewed as a hindrance or a strange quirk, but rarely as an asset. Therefore the trope of lesbianism as a preparation or replacement for a heterosexual relationship remains strong, eliminating lesbian presence and identity in popular culture.
So what makes The Favourite so special? The film manages to convey the potential danger of any same-sex relationship at the time — after all, homosexuality in men was punishable by death, and lesbianism was hardly accepted. Nevertheless, it does not imply that lesbianism is by nature dangerous or strange, a trap many writers fall into in assuming that lesbian love, because of its position in society, is somehow risky and subversive. Many films, television shows and books, in seeking to explore the still somewhat taboo position of lesbianism in society, have failed to show the love and tenderness of any relationship, and instead focussed on the tragedy of not being accepted in society. While this is no doubt important, it plays into a tired narrative that too often surrounds queer characters — referred to as the ‘bury your gays’ phenomena — where gay characters invariably meet an untimely end. This is a remnant of a homophobic past when queer identity was punished in popular culture to send a clear moral message to anyone considering it.
The Favourite does not aim to chastise its subjects, nor portray their relationship as doomed, but simply shows lesbian love as tender and genuine, just as heterosexual love is shown in popular culture. Also refreshing is the film’s depiction of male characters, who are largely side characters carrying less power than the women. This inverts the classic story of most period dramas, where a women may weakly support a man or weep as he rides away to battle, but overall is a forgettable, meek little character with no bearing in reality or control over her fate.
Aside from its positive portrayal of lesbian characters, The Favourite boldly gives historical women humour, bravery and intelligence, as well as flaws, creating realistic personas that are not simply accessories to the main action. The film asserts that a woman can be cunning, clever, funny and powerful, far removed from the simplistic definition of femininity as something weak and delicately beautiful — a definition that popular culture and historical dramas too often fall back on.
In short, The Favourite is special as it does not coyly hide from lesbian love, nor explore it as a subversive niche, but gives it a tenderness and complexity rarely seen in popular portrayals of queer women. To avoid depicting lesbianism with repetitive tropes and archaic storylines, we must learn from this film and explore same-sex relationships amongst women with the depth, individuality and complexity we give to heterosexual love to truly recognise lesbianism’s place in society.