The Representation of Onscreen Lesbians Today

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Megan Elias

This is a critique of a triptych of films that concern lesbians in the 2018 award circuit: The Favorites of Queen Anne on the 18th century regent Queen Anne of  Britain, Ireland and Scotland, Can You Ever Forgive Me? directed by Marielle Heller on the American author Lee Israel who forged the letters of famous writers, and Nobel Prize nominee, the French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Colette.

The Favourites of Queen Anne

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in The Favourite


Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has won multiple prizes at A-list film festivals with dark comedies on language and gender. His latest film The Favourite is perhaps his most conventional film using the the historical drama form. It premiered at the recent Venice Film Festival taking home the Grand Jury Prize and a Volpi Cup awarded to Elizabeth Colman. The film is based on a radio play by Deborah Davis produced by the BBC in 2008 (from a script written in 1998) and the film producers sought out Lanthimos to put it on screen. He revealed at Venice that he had to wait until Emma Stone was done with La La Land to make it. The Greek director found Davis’s play “too political” and hired Tony McNamara to give it a Lanthimos twist with focus on the female trio of lovers. In the original radio play Davis’s goal was to illustrate how these intimate relationships with the Queen affected political power during her reign.

A “favourite” was a favored person to the regent common in the 16th through 18th centuries of early modern Europe. The relationship included various levels of intimacy including same sex love or otherwise. Shakespeare wrote about them in Much Ado about Nothing in the line  “Like favourites / Made proud by Princes.” Examples of historical “favourites” include Ebba Sparre, lady in waiting to Queen Christina of Sweden, and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) and Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz)  who vie for the coveted role to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

Lanthimos’ film presents Queen Anne as an incapable political ruler and a failure in personal relationships. In real life she had 17 children who died at childbirth and in the film, contrary to history, 17 rabbits in her bedchamber represent the loss.  The characters in Lanthimos’s films are often cruel and sadistic toward each other and those in The Favourite are no exception,  extending to members of the cabinet,  ministers, and “the lady of the bedchamber.”  

The storytelling of this film is not only presented through characters and dialogue but the mise-en-scène — the spaces in which the narrative is shown  through lighting, costume, makeup, movement and setting. Some of the stylistic compositions that are backdrops to the drama represent the opulence of the regent and indeed are equal characters. Filmed with a wide-angle lens, the rooms are often concave – massive kitchens with high stone ceilings and thick walls, the low ceiling palace with herringbone creaky wood floors, and the sumptuous overstuffed royal bedchamber with rabbits.

The Favourite is a tale of royal corruption and negligence especially between the rival favorites and Queen Anne, footmen, maids, servants, and in-residence earls. While courtesans engage in historically fictitious duck races, Anne, played brilliantly by distinguished British actress Olivia Colman, has for years been attended to by her favourite —  Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) who advises her politically and personally. Her husband, the Duke of Marlborough is a military commander, and both engage in coordinating their asks to the regent for mutual benefit. In one scene, Sarah stridently mounts the bed of Anne with her boots and commands her to take better charge of the country and the military. Anne reluctantly crumbles to her wishes. The opening scene shows the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) in a crowded coach including a self-pleasuring nobleman who shoves her onto a field of grass with human excrement. After this embarrassing introduction,  Abigail installs herself in the kitchen, an opportunistic “fallen lady” who wants to rise again after being promised by her father to an elderly man to settle a gambling debt. Anne’s loyal and capable Sarah manages court affairs and truly loves her but as the film unfolds, she is incrementally passed over by her younger cousin Abigail, who is clueless to all things regal as well as the intricacies of military maneuvers, which she naively compares to “party games.” When Abigail sees Anne and Sarah in bed, her plan takes action – not because she loves Anne but because she knows bedding her is an opportunity to get a leg up in the palace. It doesn’t matter how she gains favor and is shown as ruthless in her pursuit of favor.  During this time, Abigail endears herself to Anne who marries her to a resident statesman and gifts her dowry, an expense she writes off as a gambling debt. Abigail becomes once again a commodity exchange.

A still from The Favourite


The Favourite is a tale of deception and ambition but one that is particularly cruel to women. This  historical revisionism while captivating is ultimately a tale of women conniving and scheming for power from a regent who is ridiculed by the men of the court. It is usual for filmmakers to take liberties with history and, according to several accounts, including the biography “Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion” by Anne Somerset (2014), there was a rivalry between the two favourites based on political affiliations (Sarah was a Tory and Abigail, a Whig).  However, if Deborah Davis’s aim was to show how this erotic liaison created power shifts in government, Lanthimos trivializes and ridicules the Queen during whose reign the United Kingdom was formed, like several historians did before contemporary accounts of Queen Anne were written. The three women are represented as the seat of power in the bedchamber, which is historically inaccurate. These scenes are the centerfold of the film and fit with the conventional creation of “pleasure” in film and other representational forms characterized by torture or ridicule of women.

Liaisons between women, though common in European modern history, have been belittled and are the subject of satire and Lanthimos follows suit. For example from the same time period,  representations of Queen Christina of Sweden can be found in historic erotic lampoons (such as nidskrifter)  where her relationships with women and her use of male clothing were ridiculed. The  relationships were a source of gossip and an exhumation of her body from her tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was made to test for proof of her sexuality in the 1960’s. Incredibly, the belief by some members of the Swedish medical profession was that she was a hermaphrodite, since she had an intellectual mind, was not interested in conventional women’s activities of the time, and did not want to marry.  

Queen Anne is portrayed in the film as a buffoon of  limited intelligence. Her physical ailments are given considerable attention and add to a portrait of weakness and incompetence for the monarch who died at 49.

Nevertheless, what the acting ensemble of Stone, Weisz and Colman  brings to the screen is not altogether disempowering. Abigail and Sara vie for the attention of their queen through bold and emblazoned efforts. They must be dastardly to each other to bluntly and crudely win her affection. The queen realizes this and enjoys the power play. The link to how it affects her in parliament, however, is not clear. Lanthimos did not care about the history – or politics as Davis did in her radio play, which is at present unavailable on the BBC. The Favourite was also nominated for a Queer Lion this year.  Deborah Davis realized that to depict ‘favourites’ would make the story ‘gay’ and complicate the ‘pitch’ to producers for financing.  Lanthimos’ films are widely distributed and The Favourite has won and was nominated for several awards.  The special media and public interest in the film is in fact due to a story of lesbians at court and the three top actresses who play them. Lanthimos has succeeded in creating a film where the reality of a regent as a woman with female lovers and her darlings is provided in a exciting film form. It is difficult to fault a film which is so splendidly shown in imagery and editing but looking closer at the representation of women, the film shows two women vying for the attention of a regent, involved in a cat and mouse game with each other and using the Queen for personal gain. Despite being a female regent, the desire to win is vested in a patriarchal sovereign and women have historically been shown in competition with each other for favors from institutions of power. Lanthimos did not want attention focused solely on this threesome in his discussion of the film when it debuted in Cannes, which is understandable since the film is so well-crafted, yet this was central terrain of the film. It is not a historical certainty that Anne and Sarah were lovers, but as favorites, this was common. Looking closer at these female relationships, their love for each other, if any, reveals a power play no more or less than any of the courtesans shown in the film. They are not shown in the throes of romantic passion or love,  but as women who use each other for personal gain.

Marginalizing the Feminist Literary Icon Colette in New Biopic

Denise Gough and Keira Knightly in Colette


French novelist, actress, and mime artist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873- 1954) played by Keira Knightly is featured in a new English-speaking biopic set in France directed by Wash Westmoreland. Colette is portrayed as a woman who did not willingly go along with the society she became a part of by marrying Henry Gauthier-Villars, or Willy (Dominic West). It is evident that were it not for the times she would have struck out on her own and not allow her novels to be published under her husband’s name. This is one of many injustices she endures that are shown in the film.  Early on she realizes that Will is a womanizer who tries to normalize his affairs. He even introduces her to other women to seduce her so that she can spark up her novels. Though Collette is more than casually interested in these relationships, this is often marginalized by the dominant text of the film foremost establishing her marriage and the feelings of her husband when she stands up to him, which follow narrative conventions in film that prevent such an explicit reading. It is indeed a mystery how such a brilliant woman spends so much time going along with Willy’s unscrupulous character as he loses furniture, the country home, and even the rights to the novels she writes, the popular Claudine series about a seductive school teacher.   

This film is important for showing Collette’s evolution from a married woman whose husband gives her freedom, as she explains it, to a woman who stands up for herself. Eventually she chooses to be with her long-term lover Missy (Denise Gough), also referred to as “Uncle Max,” an heiress who dresses in tailored suits. This relationship has been underrepresented in history and in this film, considering that Colette spent more time with Missy than Willy. When the two of them perform Rêve d’Égypte (‘Dream of Egypt’) at the Moulin Rouge, Missy’s ex-husband comes with his friends to heckle the performance and Willy loses his investment in the revue. It is one more an endeavor of using Colette’s talents to be controlled by Willy. The homophobia and misogyny of the time is foregrounded rather than the intellectual and artistic free-spirit of relationships between women. The latter would have been an entirely different and much better film and has not been made yet.

In contrasting Colette with the  lesbian author Sarah Water’s novel made into a TV series by the BBC Tipping the Velvet (1998), Wash Westmoreland’s film tones down  the relationship of Missy and Colette. Though it  is set in the same time period in France as the late 1890’s Victorian Era,  female to male cross-dressers in Tipping the Velvet Nancy Astley (Rachel Sterling) and Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes) are a part of the artistic scene. Not  only are they accepted in this seies by the audience but their circle of friends, and it includes a vibrant lesbian underground culture. Conversely, the liaisons with Colette and her circle of female friends is not included in Colette, but the misogyny and homophobia of Willy’s world play a big role.

“Can You Ever Forgive”  – Melissa McCarthy dresses down in Marielle Stiles Heller’s biopic on New York Writer Lee Israel

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me


Melissa McCarthy is nearly unrecognizable as New York author Lee Israel in Marielle Stiles Heller’s  “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” She wears glasses, dresses in drab plus size jacket and jeans, combs her straight hair to the side and gets around in comfortable shoes. This is often a stereotypical dress code for lesbians in film that shun the traps of glamour (as in casting a spell) and provocative clothing. Not only is Lee’s dress code revealing of her character in the film, but the story is a no-frill portrait of a New York writer who was once on the New York Times’ best seller list for her biography about actress Dorothy Kilgallen and later  known for her appearances as a panelist on the popular 1950’s TV show What’s My Line. Israel also wrote biographies of the American actress Tallulah Bankhead and cosmetic tycoon Estée Lauder. Lauder disapproved of her portrait and wrote her own story, which knocked Lee out of the publishing fast lane.

Failing to write successful books and on the verge of being evicted,  Lee resorts to forging letters written by celebrities. She does excellent research on them and her ability to articulate their writing persuades bookshops that they are authentic.  The film is open-ended enough to decipher reasons behind the obscurity of this infamous writer. Even with a best seller, she was not taken seriously as a woman. According to Lee, bad male writers with boring subjects were successful. According to her literary agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) they show up for the book signings and are pleasant.

The more she is isolated from her work, the more she relies on alcohol to keep her walled off from other people and avoid rejection. Her support system includes her beloved cat.

Alcohol  also makes her unpleasant. At the time when she decides to forge letters, she meets a 50-ish gay man, Jack (Richard E Grant), who eventually winds up living with her after he gets into a bar room brawl and claims he is locked out of his apartment. This is one of his many lies and he habitually uses her and leaves her apartment in disarray. Jack also joins her in forging letters but eventually winds up betraying her. On a positive note, she is befriended by Anna, a book shop owner (Dolly Wells), who is clearly interested in her.

When Lee’s high price letters start to become suspicious to the FBI, she decides to go to archives of special collections and libraries – under the pretext of studying the writing of the people housed in these collections. What is remarkable about this film is that it is a portrait of a woman who became notable by impersonating others. It is also important for focusing on the life of a lesbian writer who has been deserted by everyone around her, not just because she is an alcoholic but because of the way she looks. Her friendship with a gay man appeases her loneliness to a certain extent.

Can You Ever Forgive Me involves the forced confession of a woman who would rather do community service at cat shelters than do five years in prison.  As Lee remarks, “who says that crime doesn’t pay?” The film is foremost the story of a talented 50-plus woman who experiences incredible loneliness as her career comes to an end. She is presented as a closeted lesbian, and a lonely, desperate alcoholic.


Keira Knightly in Colette


These three films represent different time periods in history but were all made in 2018. The analysis of these films is intended to demonstrate that although same sex relationships are represented there is no focus on same sex love — genuine caring between women. In film language, they are illustrations that two women in love are a threat to patriarchal order.  While they may seem to update the messages of the films of the 1960s where lesbians are murdered, humiliated, or one of them runs off with a man, there is still a resistance to showing women in love on screen. Women who choose to love women operate outside of the “Law of the Father,” the patriarchal order in feminist film analysis (See Claire Johnston and Pam Cook: The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh he Place of Women in “The Cinema of Raoul Walsh” by Pam Cook/Claire Johnston in Raoul Walsh, E.F.F. 1974 in E Ann Kaplan’s “Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” 2013.)

The  BBC TV miniseries Tipping the Velvet (2002), previously mentioned, is a much better example of same sex love between women than any of the narrative features in this analysis, primarily because it was based on a novel written by a lesbian and television is not bound by the same market mechanisms as the film industry.

Colette, the author, does write about her love of women but this is not the basis of Colette where Missy is a minor character in Wash Westmoreland’s biopic.  In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, Anne’s sexual partners are presented as opportunistic rather than women in love, and in Marielle Stiles Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee Israel’s life as a lesbian is nearly nonexistent. Film is still dictated by market conditions, by corporate decisions made with box office concerns. There is no easy answer to why films about lesbian relationships are often flawed other than the subject is not mainstream enough to call for writers and filmmakers to create authentic characters rather than screen characters. It is not so much the fact that Queen Anne may have had lovers, or Colette, or Lee Israel, but that they were played by marketable box office stars. A genuine address to “The Law of the Father” for lesbian characters will be made when profit is not a factor that prevents their creation.

Learn more about Moira by visiting her profile.