In her 1929 feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf laments that the dominance of male writing deprives literature of the wealth of stories that involve women. Not, as she emphasises, women who decorate men’s stories, loitering on the margins as romantic interests or doting mothers presented only in their relation to the male characters. She meant stories that explore the possibility that female experience might just be more complex than the relationship a woman has to a man. Imagine, she tells us, what the world of fiction would look like if men were represented only as the lovers of women; if all the stories which featured men’s relationships with other men were to disappear. Racing through Shakespeare's plays, she rules out Caesar, Hamlet and Lear, emphasising the importance of these male-dominated stories to the canon of English literature. Since 1929, that list has grown rapidly, broadening out to film and television and encompassing everything from the James Bond films to most of the Marvel franchise. As Woolf proves, the world of fiction is 'impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women'. Woolf's ideas have since inspired the Bechdel Test, devised by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel to measure female representation in fiction. Famously, it asks whether the work includes a minimum of two female characters who have a conversation about something other than men.
The recent release of Lorgas Yanthanimos' Oscar-tipped comedy, The Favourite, marks an exciting chapter in the continuing struggle for accurate female representation in fiction. It has been praised not only for its polished execution, impressive performances and comedic distinctiveness, but for its presentation of three 'strong female leads' as the central characters. What makes this film significant is that it doesn't just pass the Bechdel Test: It is a perfect study in the Woolf-inspired principles that underlie it.
One of the most enjoyable things about watching Lanthanimos' film (aside from its remarkably high rabbit to person ratio and Olivia Colman’s inherent lovability, even when playing the sour and short-tempered Queen Anne) is how refreshing it is. In the early scenes of the film, we hear Emma Stone’s character, Sarah Churchill, casually relate to Rachel Weisz's character her (really quite harrowing) tale of female subjugation, of being married off to a man to settle her father’s debts and raped by him repeatedly.
But, as we soon see, this is not a film about female struggle in a patriarchal society. This is a story about two clever, ruthlessly ambitious women competing for the power available from securing the approval, not of a man, but of another woman. Stone and Weisz’s characters, single-minded and make-up free, stride purposefully through the centre of an absorbing plot. In this film, it is the male characters who provide the decoration, donned in frivolous wigs and coated in pasty make-up as they sit around racing ducks or throwing fruit at each other from the sidelines. Occasionally they are able to serve some function as a political pawn to the protagonists, but mostly they are nothing but an inconvenience. The last thing they supply is any romantic appeal.
This is one of many ways that Lanthimos deliberately puts women at the centre of the film, describing his desire, influenced by the MeToo movement, to portray female characters not as two-dimensional ‘housewives or girlfriends’ as cinema so often portrays women, but ‘as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings’. If we briefly ignore the fact that it is considered a departure from the norm to depict women as ‘like other human beings’, we can celebrate the step taken here for feminism. And it is clearly a big step. The film’s writer, Deborah Davis, wrote the first draft of the script in 1998, but failed to secure funding due to the reservations of financers about how film-goers would respond not only to the film's lesbian content, but also to its lack of male representation given the 'strong female leads'.
The objection to 'strong female leads' is a confusing one, given that films dominated by women are hardly a novelty in cinema. Chick flicks with female casts like Bridesmaids or Mean Girls have enjoyed immense
popularity over the last twenty years. These films, intended for primarily female audiences, are crammed so full of gender stereotypes you could make a drinking game out of spotting them. What this tells us is that 'strong female lead' is essentially the codeword for a realistic, stereotype-free woman, one that might actually muscle her way out of a film about weddings and girlish cliques and into a film considered worthy of male viewership.
Female leads also govern in a more sophisticated branch of cinema: the trend of the consciously feminist film which emphasises female achievement and representation. Think Hidden Figures, Suffragette, Battle of the Sexes. These women are 'strong' in an obvious, girl-power sense, signposting the feminism of the film's message through their courage, competency and refusal to conform to female stereotypes. While these films must aim for more male viewership than Mean Girls does, the so-called 'feminist agenda' is apparently considered off-putting for many viewers.
What is so refreshing about the Favourite is that despite being dominated by female characters and completely free of irritating gender stereotypes, the film itself doesn't make a fuss about its feminism. While that comment may sound like a criticism of the feminist film genre, it isn't. In fact, the rise of the unself-conscious feminist film reveals how much important work the self-conscious ones have done in paving the way for them.
But Lanthanimos' film shows us that at last, the realistic portrayal of femininity - the presentation of women that are 'complex and wonderful and horrific' - is able to rest as a casual feature, not a weighty focus, of film. A film can be about women without being anchored by an emphasis on its feminism. The result is that unlike twenty years ago, when Davis was told that nobody (meaning no men) wanted to watch a film with three 'strong female leads', people (meaning men) have discovered that stories about women can actually be highly entertaining.
The Favourite shines as a perfect example of an unselfconsciously feminist film, but several releases of 2018 have accomplished a similar feat. Ari Aster's supernatural horror film, Hereditary, which graced our cinemas in the summer and was penned as this generation's The Exorcist, tells the story of a family haunted in the wake of their grandmother's death. While the main character, played by Toni Collette, is female, and most of the film's central relationships are centred on the tensions between grandmother and mother, mother and daughter, gender is by no means a preoccupation of the film. Likewise, Luca Guardanimo's 2018 horror remake, Suspiria, about a German dance academy run by witches, has an entirely female cast (in fact, the single male character is actually played by an impressively made-up Tilda Swinton). In true horror fashion, Guardanimo's film is luxuriously grotesque in its exploration of ambition and rebellion, good and evil. While the film's central characters are women, and the world of competitive dance they inhabit is a stereotypically female one, the actual femininity of the characters is a backdrop to the story, not a focus.
Cowering behind a cushion as the gory violence of these films unfold, the fact that the principal characters might be - oh no - strong female leads, is the last thing on your mind. The 2016 Ghostbusters film, with its all-female cast, was famously greeted with a momentous backlash on social media, with many arguing it was 'shoehorning PC ideology' at the cost of 'just telling a good story'. The implication is that, as the film financers presumably told Deborah Davis in 1998, a strong female presence in film is utterly incompatible with the telling of a 'good story'. Evidently, it is a belief that has gone unchallenged for far too long.
However, perhaps these films of 2018, horror and comedy alike, have tricked the people who object so strongly to female leads, who dismiss Bridesmaids as girly and Suffragette as 'feminist propaganda', into enjoying stories which happen to fundamentally be about women. And of course these stories are good: the women in these films are actually portrayed as real women.
There will always be a need for stories which emphasise the injustice of female subjugation, and others which recount the strength of women's resistance to it (and others, like Mean Girls, which are just a bit silly), but there is good reason to celebrate the increasing emergence of films about realistic, non-stereotypical women which don’t have to make feminism a serious preoccupation: Films about a range of interesting things - from familial haunting to political rivalry - which happen to be dominated by women in the way that Marvel films happen to be dominated by men.
The increasing prevalence of such films shows that perhaps, almost century after Woolf’s tract, the range of women's stories might finally be flowing freely, no longer held back by the myth that a story about women can't by definition be a 'good story'.
On the other hand, the fact that everyone needs to keep mentioning how incredible it is to see a film with ‘three prominent female leads’ shows us how far we still have to come before such a standard can become the norm. Equally, the fact that most of the people behind these films are men is a different, but similarly important problem, and further highlights how far the film industry has to come before it can boast of its gender equality. Let us hope that, on both counts, 2019 will get us that little bit further.