Sharper than the Sword: Weaponising the Mind and Femininity in ‘The Great’

The Great (2020). Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) is a young white woman in her 20s, with pale blonde hair done up in neat curls at the back of her head. She wears a pale grey-blue dress of the 18th century with elaborate sleeves, a deep neck-line, and large skirt. She is standing behind a large wooden table strewn with papers and framed by two large candelabras. Catherine is leant forwards with her palms planted on the table, assertive.
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Following the success of The Favourite, Emmy-nominated screenwriter Tony McNamara embarked on another period comedy about a sparky female monarch: this time, Catherine the Great. This self-proclaimed “occasionally true story” (that diverges indulgently from history) of the young Empress of 18th Century Russia (Elle Fanning) is a worthy addition to the growing sub-genre of vivid historical reimaginings. Though she arrives high-spirited and romantic, Catherine’s initial list of goals to find love and culture quickly shifts to darker ends upon being half drowned in a chest as her new husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult) watches. To free herself and Russia from her powerful yet childish spouse, she must find her power in a court as patriarchal as they come and stage a coup against one of the most powerful men in history.

Catherine is, of course, a privileged hero from the offset. While a woman, she is a young, wealthy and literate one, married to the Emperor of a mighty nation. She’s already in a position many of the other women in the show couldn’t dream of. McNamara knowingly highlights this throughout; as Catherine complains that she is married to an idiot and must live at his whim, her smart-mouthed servant Marial (Phoebe Fox) responds, “God forbid, Empress,” (we’ll revisit the significance of Marial’s recent demotion from a lady of the court later). It’s also Marial who brings Catherine’s privilege, and thus potential power, to the Empress’ own attention by implying that she must learn to use the tools of her education and to empower herself, rather than just bearing them as status symbols.

However, the path to learning to use those tools available is never easy. What Catherine possess in buckets when she first arrives is intelligence, curiosity and a ticked-off reading list of the most influential philosophers of the time. She expects to bond with the other women at court over her sparkling ideas but finds to her dismay that none of the other women at court are even able to read. For entertainment they merely roll balls on the lawn and gossip about each other (something that Catherine mocks them for to begin with). In response, her first request of Peter is permission to start a school. He agrees, hoping it’ll keep her from boring him – that is, until he finds out the school will be for girls and orders it burnt to the ground.

The Great (2020). Catherine, this time in a shiny yellow-gold dress with long sleeves, addresses Peter (Nicholas Hoult) with an angry expression. Peter is a young white man with short brown hair, wearing a khaki coloured shirt with billowing sleeves and a bronze waistcoat. They are in an elaborate palace room with large oil painting portraits and gilded mirrors adorning the walls. A young footman with a white wig and black and gold uniform kneels on the ground beside Peter, subservient.
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Literacy – the ability to access information and ideas outside your immediate environment – is one of the most vital tools of education, and therefore progress. Limiting it has a knock-on effect on speech, self-expression, the ability to assert oneself and thus access to power. The Great uses humour, profuse swearing and sexual innuendo to play with this: ordinarily being able to make and land a joke requires wit but Peter’s status means that his weak japes leave his companions roaring (no one dares not laugh at the Emperor’s joke). But Catherine, on the other hand, is complimented several times for playing around with the words and ironies used around her – something that she can construct because of her literacy. The language at court already casually attacks women (much cussing is derogatory reference to female anatomy or sexuality), but Catherine weaponises it for her own means with intelligence instead of shaming others.

When we talk about women twisting weaknesses into assets, the discussion usually veers towards sexual desirability. In this particular court, with various explicit endeavors mentioned at least every five minutes, sexuality is among the most powerful tools available; if a woman’s job is deemed to be producing pleasure and/or heirs for men, it’s understandable that weaponising it can be the surest form of security (Catherine herself will use her unborn son as defense against Peter’s wrath). Manipulating sexuality is not exclusive to women, but there is a tendency to oversimplify and lower them specifically when only their allure is noticed. In Catherine’s third attempt to convince General Velementov (Douglas Hodge) that he should support her as a capable leader, all he praises is her looks, leading to one of many brilliant lines: “I’m not a pretty jasmine flower with swimming pools for eyes, you fat fuck.”

Just because Catherine doesn’t want to weaponise her sexuality doesn’t make it any less a part of her femininity and character. Catherine does indeed have a romance with Leo (Sebastian De Souza), a professional ‘lover’ gifted to her by Peter himself in the hopes that some good sex will put her in better spirits (i.e. make her ‘less annoying’ since she has not been the idyllic girl expected). The one rule is that she must not fall in love with him; Peter, despite his generosity, still wants monopoly over the better part of Catherine’s sexuality. Typically, these kinds of rebellious romances take place in secret and thus weaponise the sexuality of the women merely by existing. But because Peter gives him freely, the boundaries that Catherine crosses by in fact falling in love with Leo have more to do with how she chooses to use her sexuality, rather than purely possessing it in the first place.

The Great (2020). Catherine lies on a gold-quilted bed with tassled sheets, her head handing off the edge of the mattress and gazing at the camera upside-down, wearing a yellow period dress. Beside her is Leo (Sebastian de Souza), a young white man with curly brown hair, wearing a dark green shirt with loose sleeves. Leo is lying on his front propped up on his elbows, looking into the camera.
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Historically, when romantic/sexual duties were the only things expected of women, those who pursued anything else were often labeled as mad, ‘incapable’ of love, and therefore monstrous (think vengeful bitch or spinsterly crone). The Great isn’t neatly in this canon; Catherine herself pokes the eyes out of a Swedish soldier’s skull after their decapitated heads are served with dessert – definitely not the demure maiden. But the madness remains: Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) lives by her own rules but admits “it helps they think I’m mad,” and Catherine’s intellectual brilliance is repeatedly alluded to instability. By following their passions they become somewhat alien figures because they function as more than their ‘duty’ to a man. The consequence when you oversimplify a woman into a child-bearing object is that, when they strive for more, men think they are being usurped – or are not ‘enough’ of a man.

Peter craves and demands affection from all; perhaps a side-effect of being raised by a mother he both adored and feared. Some of his animosity towards women may well come from his feeling of being unloved by his mother (he indeed compares Catherine to her when she disobeys him). But the late Empress was likely a victim of Peter’s own father and, in predicting what kind of ruler her son would become, shielded herself but ultimately contributed to the self-fulfilling prophecy that often is a patriarchal society. Misogyny and toxic masculinity are symbiotic; women change their survival tactics to reflect the injustice they’re stranded in, hoping it will give them agency, and the men feel challenged from the lofty pedestal they are told they deserve. “I never imagined myself as the guy who punched his wife,” Peter ponders at one point. Catherine smiles sweetly back, “yet you are.”

Interestingly, Catherine’s stubborn, hot-blooded and outspoken partner-in-crime Marial is maybe more recognisable as a post-feminist heroine than the Empress herself. She is, in fact, the person who repeatedly pushes Catherine into action, even if it’s with tough-love taunts and questionable schemes. But being self-righteous and rebellious as a woman in the 18th Century isn’t as much of a shield as fiction sometimes romanticises. Marial used to be a lady of the court herself, before her father’s mistake demoted them to servants. Now, her cynicism and sharp tongue gets her beaten rather than merely laughed at. While I’m not here to criticise this kind of heroine (I’ve long-since been a fan of the defiant woman wanting a knife in her hand), it’s significant that McNamara acknowledges reality’s limitations, and shows that it’s Catherine and her calculated methods that can go a step further.

The Great (2020). Catherine has her long blonde hair loose, wearing a white night dress and a pale green robe. She has her arms folded, looking skeptical. Beside her is servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), a shorter white woman with light brown hair tied in a low bun. She wears a cream blouse with a beige floral corset over the top, her hands clasped in front of her. Marial gazes in the same director as Catherine, seemingly more curious than suspicious.
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Initially, Catherine is encouraged by Marial to seduce co-conspirator Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) to gain his support (and later again with Velementov). This backfires and ends up with Catherine blurting out about her coup while it’s still a pipe dream. Later, she tries to win over the women in court by overthrowing the head of their clique. Again, it goes wrong and spirals until Catherine ends up black and blue from an unruly tea dance. And throughout the show Catherine tries to ‘fix’ Peter, whispering culture and philosophy in his ear and cleaning up his political mess with Sweden. As she cheerily narrates, “you can cut a man’s head off, or you can change what’s in a man’s head. Do the latter and you have a warrior for your cause. Do the former and you have a head with a lot of blood coming out.” Only, Peter head seems to be full of blood either way. Despite her attempts to craft him into a better ruler, his need for superiority lingers.

These are all familiar ‘solutions’, but Catherine does not succeed with them. Each modifies femininity, making it acceptable for whoever poses resistance, but still puts the woman in a lower position of power because her status relies on others: being desired sexually, being idolised, being intellectually useful (but not cleverer than the man in charge). They’re ‘solutions’ that women can never truly win with. The only way for a woman to be strong is to let her be strong: Catherine firmly decides she will “not fuck [her] way to support”; she listens when Aunt Elizabeth tells her that she must speak for the women at court; and, after going back and forth, she decides that killing her idiot of a husband really is the only way much-needed change will come for the people of Russia.

That being said, Catherine’s eventual assassination attempt doesn’t go exactly as planned considering she ends up screaming through a locked door while Peter doesn’t even realise she’s part of the coup until he’s directly told. So how does Catherine ‘win’ in the finale, despite her misstep? Well, in Episode Eight Orlo calls her a leader but he says something else significant too: “We may all die but apparently feeling good about ourselves is more important than mitigating risk,” he sarcastically mutters after Catherine declares she is telling Leo about the coup. The Empress says she’s glad he agrees. Because Catherine’s battle is half about allowing her own intelligence, emotions and self-expression to be weapons in a society that denies them, uniting the part of her that might be seen as ‘romantic’ with the part that might be ‘monstrous’ is accepting herself as a complex individual, and therefore powerful enough to be a leader.

The Great (2020). Catherine is sitting alone on a set of grey stone steps, seemingly outside. She is wearing a fuchsia coloured dress, the skirt bunched up with her knees drawn up to her chest. She hair is in an elaborate curly updo with matching pink flowers affixed to one side above her ear. Catherine looks very disgruntled, gazing off to one side.
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In a final stalemate, Peter offers Catherine a choice: give up the coup or he’ll kill Leo. Conflicted, her curls a mess from her assassination attempt, her bright pink dress ripped at the stomach in an attempt to use Peter’s soft spot for their unborn child to save her life, she sits on the steps of the palace, defeated. Almost. The celebrated writer Voltaire (yes, you read that right) happens upon her and while Catherine tries to rationalise her predicament with him, he instead presents her another impasse. “I thought it was my destiny,” she tells him of her taking Russia, being free of Peter, and happy with Leo forever. “If it was,” Voltaire counters, “it would have been. Isn’t that the point of destiny?” 

Catherine says earlier that she despairs of inaction; it is all Peter and the court really want of her, and it is what destiny by its very nature demands too. But Catherine has learnt that, sometimes, good things come to those who don’t wait. Her following choice to sacrifice Leo isn’t really about condemning a man so she can succeed (though it will undoubtedly haunt her), it’s about destroying the centuries-old ideal that women will or should put pre-determined fates above all else, and thus be passive at its whim. In choosing to give up Leo in favour of saving Russia and taking her own power, McNamara allows his heroine a dimensionality that has, until shockingly recently, been almost exclusive to male characters.

History has become such a liberating source material for these empowering stories because the resistance and stakes the heroines face in 18th Century Russia (or most other points in history) are more obvious and seem to beckon greater calamity than our own time. Conquering the highest odds make obstacles for the average contemporary viewer feel more achievable – and it’s damn satisfying watching someone defy expectations. Remember when I said I’ve long since been a fan of the woman wanting a knife in her hand? Well there’s no more rewarding moment than Catherine in her hot pink birthday gown being handed a knife by her partner-in-crime-serving-lady and saying “pretty.” McNamara weaponises Catherine’s femininity and intellect instead of than modifying and lowering them to the men’s expectations in The Great, crafting them into the tools of her success: the ultimate “coup of ideas.”

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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