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Spencer Is a Coming Out Film
Queerness works better as a metaphor when you cast queer actors.
With the coronation, it seemed like a good time to revisit this.
Spencer is a coming out film.
That isn’t exactly how the movie has been characterized by critics or viewers. Pablo Larrain’s fictionalized biography of Princess Diana (Kristin Stewart) is set in December 1991, shortly before Diana decided to separate from her husband Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). In the film, she feels constricted by the artificiality and tradition of royal life, and especially by the many rituals around food. Diana was bulimic, and she’s shown as being particularly uncomfortable with a weighing in ceremony; everyone is supposed to weigh more when they come out to show how much they’ve enjoyed themselves.
The film takes extensive liberties with history; many of the characters and most of the dialogue and action are at most loosely based on real events. Among the made up incidents is the film’s emotional climax in which a major character reveals that she’s lesbian. More, that revelation structures the rest of the film, in part by analogy with Diana’s life, and in part by analogy with the life of Kristin Stewart.
The character who comes out is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the royal dresser. Maggie is presented as Diana’s closest friend among the servants and as her most intimate relationship outside of her young sons. Diana is hugely relieved when she discovers Maggie will be her dresser for the holidays, and then devastated when Maggie is sent away. Another servant, the quietly tyrannical Major Gregory Alistair (Timothy Spall) tells Diana that Maggie was exiled in part because she had said that Diana was going insane.
Diana manages to get Maggie back, but she’s still worried that the other woman was gossiping about her. While the two are at the beach, Maggie reassures her by saying, “I've never told you this. And it probably means you'll have to fire me. But actually I'm in love with you. For years, I mean in that way.” She adds “Just think of all the times I've seen you naked!” Diana is shocked, then delighted, and the two giggle and then play in the water. Diana then dramatically collects her sons from a pheasant shoot and drives them to London, fleeing from her royal constrictions.
Maggie reveals her true self and that gives Diana the courage to embrace hers. The princess isn’t gay, but she’s in a kind of closet—Major Gregory even has the drapes in her room sewn shut ostensibly because he’s afraid photographers will see her naked. Her bulimia functions as a kind of semi-sexual oral shame; she’s constantly sneaking around trying to find food she can consume in private or rushing to the bathroom to vomit. She also struggles for control of her wardrobe. She wants to dress herself in the flamboyant bright colored outfits of her choice, rather than in those selected for her—a familiar battle for queer kids with unsupportive parents.
Charles tells Diana, “There's two of me, there's two of Father, two of everyone. There's the real one, and the one they take pictures of.” Diana finds this twoness unbearable, and rebels, at one point, by telling the servant to leave her alone because she is going to masturbate. Her refusal to perform as a princess becomes a refusal to perform sexual modesty. Queerness is a metaphor for Diana’s disability, which she has to hide, and for her misery, which she also has to hide. And queer coming out is a metaphor for the relief of escape, as she motors away from the palace blasting Mike + the Mechanics “All I Need Is a Miracle.”
Many theorists have argued that queerness, as experience or identity, isn’t limited to LGBT people. David Halperin, for example, wrote that “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.” Diana’s scandalous exit from a royal marriage which was not supposed to have an exit certainly put her at odds with all of those things. That’s part of why she’s been seen as a queer icon.
Spencer is about generalizing queerness and about showing how LGBT people are not the only ones in closets. But it’s also careful not to push actual LGBT people back into that windowless room while appropriating their experiences. It does that in part by including Maggie. But even more it does it by including Kristin Stewart.
Stewart started her career as the star of one of the Twilight films, perhaps the most famous heterosexual romance narrative of the last 20 years. In 2017, though, she came out as bisexual. Her last film before Spencer was 2020’s Happiest Season, a rom-com in which she played a gay woman who has to pretend to be just a friend when she visits her conservative girlfriend’s family for Christmas.
It’s impossible to watch Stewart in this role and not see a continuity with that one. Once again she’s angularly maneuvering around antipathetic interiors, hiding in her room, acting as herself acting as someone else.
Similarly, when Maggie, comes out, you just about have to think about Stewart’s public coming out. Sally Hawkins, who is het, is playing a gay woman; Stewart, who is queer, is playing a straight one. It’s a scene about the closet where everyone is supposedly becoming who they are, and actually (openly) pretending to be someone else. It’s about the misery of acting as someone you’re not, and the joy of acting as someone you’re not, for both gay women and straight women. It doesn’t exclude either because they’re both right there, being each other together.
Spencer is a queer story because people who aren’t queer can find themselves in queer narratives. And it’s a queer story because it’s about queer people. Diana can come out because there are LGBT people in her life. If the movie has a moral, it’s that Hollywood can tell more stories better when it includes queer characters, and queer actors as well.
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