Narratives of (literally) sovereign women have fertile soil in which to grow. Across the Western world, the British monarchy is an object of fascination. Royal weddings bring Americans out of bed to watch live at ungodly hours of the morning. Millions crowd around their screens to watch The Crown, a saga balanced on the shoulders of a female monarch mired in a world of political giants and male egos. Recently, Hollywood delivered two disparate movies about unusually powerful women who led England in troubled times. Though the pair of films are cut from different period-drama cloth, they both serve as a refreshing reversal of traditional gender roles in historical political dramas.
Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, tells the story of Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie) following the tenuous relationship between the two—their rivalry paired with a mutual understanding based on their unique positions. The film begins with Mary’s return to Scotland as a young woman after being raised in France and ends with Mary’s execution on Elizabeth’s orders, and moves back and forth between the two women’s courts through the political games they play. Even with two Oscar nominees at the forefront, the film was unexpectedly emotional and outperformed its expectations as simply another costume drama.
The Favourite, helmed by director Yorgos Lanthimos, takes place further down England’s royal line. It follows the ailing, temperamental Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as her friend and lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) vie for her affections. In the midst of a war with France, the men in Anne’s court try to sway her one way or another, but it is ultimately Sarah and Abigail who have the ability to steer Anne—and, subsequently, English history. The film is as humorous as it is bizarre and delightful from start to finish, just as the buzz would have you believe.
Though Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite don’t quite match up in terms of tone, plot, scope, or scale, the movies both speak to the fraught topic of women’s power, specifically as it stands up to the manipulations and misogynistic attitudes of less powerful men. Throughout each movie, Queens Elizabeth, Mary, and Anne are consistently politically pressured by the men who surround them. Notably, though, in no instance is their regard for the men in their court a primary reason for their decisions. Rather, these powerful women are led by other powerful women (Anne by her concern with either Sarah’s or Abigail’s approval, and Elizabeth and Mary by their mutual fixations on each other). The royal women’s power is clarified and focused: the presence of other women becomes a motivating force that drives their decision-making.
This consciously female-driven choice renders the male characters frivolous and tertiary. Their wants and whims become subject to the approval of women who don’t particularly want or need anything from them in return—a stark and obvious reversal of over-played gendered roles in political historical dramas. Shows like Medici or The Tudors and other movies like the recent King Arthur (2017) tend to feature a collection of men or one man as the narrative mover-and-shaker. Women’s power is reduced to their ability to convince or manipulate a man, but ultimately, they don’t get to make the final decisions. Even previous female-focused historical dramas—like the 2006 film Marie Antoinette or the 2008 adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl—don’t give their leads the same level of agency or power. Instead, these narratives discuss how women operate in a system that grants power based only on their proximity to powerful men, which, while effective in its own right, isn’t the same as giving women power in the first place. However, when we tell stories about women who are given power over men, it takes very little exertion of that power to make men resentful.
If men’s behavior in these films seems familiar—the condescension, the manipulation, the outbursts of misogynistic rage and valuation of women based on beauty, sex, or age—perhaps it’s because it’s reflective of the current cultural climate. In 2018, we elected more women to congress than any time before in US history. Men’s anxieties around women with significant political power seem to be, unfortunately, evergreen. Women cannot be both shrewd and likeable in public opinion, but lacking either quality seems, to some people, to mean they should be disqualified from leadership. Nancy Pelosi is “too old” for her job, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “too young” and “too idealistic,” Elizabeth Warren is “unlikeable” or “shrill.”
In Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart makes a lifelong enemy of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) by standing up for her freedom-of-religion policy, and he continues to viciously criticize her as a “whore” whenever she makes any decisions—big or small—for the rest of her reign. In The Favourite, Abigail is consistently bullied, hounded, and disrespected by one specific member of the court because of her proximity to the Queen. That member is—ironically—a highly feminized fop (Nick Holt) whose character is a curious blend of misogyny and masculinity: he appears ridiculous in his heavy cosmetics and lace, he also assumes a level of domineering masculine power that’s ultimately hollow in the face of Queen Anne’s favoritism.
The choices of powerful men are, of course, always subject to scrutiny, but power made feminine is subject to an inescapable sexist microscope. Mary and The Favourite aren’t the only two films to depict adversarial men—and far from the only two women-led period dramas. But there seems to be a new consciousness to the way such stories are being told. Perhaps it’s to do with the cultural context in which these films have been released, a context that makes clearer exactly what they’re saying about women in power and how men respond. Perhaps it’s to do with a shift in the film industry itself—in the aftermath of #MeToo, meta-commentary on the kind of power women are “allowed” rings a markedly sharper alarm than it did five years ago. In any case, these films make a conscious choice to focus on the foolishness and harmfulness of criticism rooted in misogyny.
Despite the differences between Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, it’s difficult to ignore the thing that these films share. In an age where women are demanding and taking on increasingly central, complicated roles—both on screen and in real life—it seems Hollywood is finally giving us a kind of role men have had for ages: ones with ultimate power. Still, it’s worth noting that these movies center around white women in power, and there’s still work to be done in getting women of color into equivalent roles in equivalent films.