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Rachel Weisz On The Boundaries Of Motherhood And A Life Free From Men

Entertainment
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

'The Favourite' star talks about playing a truly powerful woman

"I mean, I couldn't be less like her," Rachel Weisz said recently, speaking of her character in the darkly raucous farce The Favourite (which, I've never felt compelled to call a film a romp, and I still don't feel like using that word, but if someone else wanted to call The Favourite a romp, well, I get it).

Weisz plays Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a woman who wields a great deal of power within the early 18th-century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), and who is cunning, controlling, alternately acid- and sweet-tongued, and one hell of a dancer. She is, in short, as Weisz said to me, "a human... she's many, many things. She's tough and manipulative and vulnerable and needy and in love and bossy... She is, to me, quite human."

She's also a woman—one who's both powerful and power-hungry, surrounded by other powerful and power-hungry women. We are, by now, used to seeing powerful women in period pieces, but, almost always, their power is notable in how it relates to the men—or the lack of men—around them. Women gain power through marriage or, rarely, through its absence; they maintain their power by the heirs they produce; they lose it when they lose their fertility. A woman's power, then, is always inextricably tied up with her biological womanhood, whereas a man's power is predicated on the social construct that equates masculinity with power.

In The Favourite, though, director Yorgos Lanthimos has subverted this well-worn paradigm, and centers three women—Sarah; the queen; and Abigail (Emma Stone), a usurper to Sarah's power—all of whom have different levels of power, all of whom wield it differently, and all of whom make it clear that, though their biological attributes inform who they are, biology isn't destiny, it's merely another weapon in a woman's arsenal.

One way in which this is done is by removing children from the narrative, all the better to demonstrate the innate powers these women possess, even absent one of the most-recognized markers of female status. In the case of Queen Anne, the lack of children is an important part of her actual history; she notably had 17 pregnancies, but only one child who lived past infancy—and he died when he was barely 11 years old.

Sarah, though, had many children, and, in fact, spent much of her energies working to get those children married to the highest ranking people possible (she probably would have been quite pleased to know that, centuries later, her descendants included a prime minister, Winston Churchill, as well as a future king, through her direct descendant Princess Diana). But The Favourite excises her children from the story, which, in some ways is probably for the best; as Weisz pointed out when we spoke of them, they "hated her by the end of her life, right?"

More than that, though, by liberating Sarah from her role as a mother, as someone whose duty it was to procreate, The Favourite offers a subversive alternate narrative for women, in which their only imperative is to consider their own needs—something women are very rarely allowed to do.

Weisz said, "Particularly at the time that it was set, but even playing a woman opposite a woman right now, I think there's an immense sense of freedom, which is enhanced if you're not actually playing a mother. [And then there's] the freedom of playing a woman opposite a woman. I think a woman playing opposite a man, particularly in 1708, you're caught up in the dynamics of ownership. I think when you're a woman playing opposite a woman, you're totally free."

That kind of freedom is, as Weisz said, rare even for today; she said, "I did another film this year [Disobedience], which was two women right now playing opposite each other, and we were free of the history of ownership. It's just not there. It's like, 'Whoo!' You know what I mean? It's an extraordinary thing, having, personally, only played opposite men thus far, to be opposite a woman."

And I did know what she meant—anyone seeing The Favourite will. Because perhaps what is most interesting about the possibilities that are open to women once the boundaries imposed by things like motherhood and marriage are erased, is that this type of liberation can lead to things both extraordinary and ordinary, sublime and perverse, but most of all, and most simply, human—quite human.

The Favourite is in theaters November 23.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.