This exquisitely produced historical drama about the British Royals is really a story of unearned wealth and power. So why do feminists love it so much?
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We are all hostages to beauty. This, anyway, is what I tell myself, because, after a lifetime of arguing loudly that entertainment has a political impact, I cannot stop watching The Crown.
The Crown is a historical drama—sort of—but it is about history that happened very recently to people who are mostly still alive. It covers the exploits of the British Royal Family in the mid-20th century, starting at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (she is the titular Crown) and continuing, probably, up to the present day. The current season spans from 1964 through 1977. We get to see how the royals react to the moon landing, and to Prince Charles’s theater-kid phase, which is framed as roughly equivalent in terms of impact. The emotional through-line, though, is the same as it has been in every other season: overprivileged, mediocre white people coming to terms with how irrelevant they are in a rapidly changing world.
That this is dazzlingly well-executed goes without saying. In this season alone, you’ve got Olivia Colman as the Queen, Helena Bonham Carter as her wastrel of a sister, and Tobias Menzies, playing Prince Phillip as an arrogant, swaggering asswipe who can only be described as “Tobias Menzies–esque.” Previous seasons have featured Matt Smith as a slightly younger version of said asswipe, and John Lithgow with his scenery-chomping Winston Churchill impression. Next year, we’ll get Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, presumably ushering in an era of detailed and morally compromising sex dreams about Margaret Thatcher.
Money went into this thing—the casting, the cinematography, the CGI coal-mine disasters and the weird pearl-lined football helmet Queen Elizabeth wears to Prince Charles’s investiture. Yet The Crown is also a show that will unrepentantly spring Sexy Thatcher on us, which is to say: It is conservative propaganda. The Royal Family it portrays are not good people in real life; this season premiered right as Prince Andrew spectacularly failed to answer allegations that he had raped and sexually assaulted minors, along with his friend Jeffrey Epstein. In fact, they are probably not even interesting people. (The show itself acknowledges this by covering the fallout from a 1967 TV documentary about the Royal Family; they weren’t offensive, just so incredibly dull that people hated them for taking up air time.) That they have been carefully re-shaped into sympathetic characters by some of the greatest talents of their age is a demonstration of stratospheric privilege.
I know this, and yet I don’t plan to stop watching the show. Nor am I alone in this. The show has a fairly huge fan base among left-leaning women, particularly millennial white women: Nicole Cliffe is doing the recaps for Decider. Women’s sites aggregate lists like “11 Feminist Moments From ‘The Crown.’” As for myself, I suspect my Crown fandom is far from feminist. Partly, it’s about genre; like many women, I find costume dramas soothing. The vast passion these people pour into intricate rule systems that ultimately mean nothing is satisfying in the same way sports might be to a different person. (My husband opted out in the first episode because he couldn’t understand the urgency around making sure the correct person informed Elizabeth of her father’s death—I repeated the phrase “that’s not how it’s done” around five times before I saw his eyes glaze over.) Yet I also persist in finding something oddly moving, even politically relevant, about the characters’ predicament.
This was probably the last generation of the British Royal Family to hold superhuman significance; the weight of history and tradition actually did endow Queen Elizabeth and her husband Phillip with near-mystical importance to their people. Decades of tabloid scandals and evolving public attitudes toward the monarchy have eroded that grandeur, turning the Royal Family into ordinary celebrities. Elizabeth herself notes that she has done nothing great as a monarch: “All that’s happened on my watch is that [Britain] has fallen apart.” Yet this puts the Royals in much the same position as many other overprivileged white people in 2019: realizing that we were raised to believe we mattered much, much more than we actually do, and that the privileges we’re losing were never truly deserved.
Queen Elizabeth is the center of The Crown, not just because of her title, but because she, of all her family, is the most unexceptional. Phillip has the distinction of being a douchebag; Princess Margaret, her younger sister, is the sort of sexy, drunk, tormented, effortlessly glamorous heroine other dramas would build the whole show around. Elizabeth could be any middle-aged woman in England—she has no special intelligence, or imagination, or wit, or charm—except that she is, through no effort of her own, one of the most powerful women in the world. In a typical Crown plot, one of Elizabeth’s vastly more interesting relatives plots an armed coup to rid England of its new socialist Prime Minister, and Elizabeth goes out to a race track and talks about how much she likes horses.
Elizabeth, in other words, seems just about as unsuited for the pomp and glamour of queendom as we would be in her place. Advisers instruct her to be more personable, to shed the mystique of the monarchy for something more modern; she protests, not inaccurately, that her mystique is the only thing keeping the British people from realizing how undeserving she is, and thereby losing respect for the institution. Her ordinariness—the fact that she is more Bilbo Baggins than Galadriel—gives pathos to her growing realization that the British Royal Family is becoming irrelevant. She will spend her entire life trying to live up to her title, only to find, at the end of her life, that she could have just gone and raised horses.
The Crown, however, is not just about watching Elizabeth learn to be Queen. It’s about watching her give up her idea of what queendom means; she is continually struggling to be a good person despite her own unearned importance. Elizabeth’s privilege sometimes crosses the line from mere out-of-touchness to flat-out cruelty. In the season’s most emotional episode, “Aberfan,” a coal mine collapses onto a school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Elizabeth initially refuses to visit the town, not only because it’s outside the scope of her duties, but because—she confesses later—she has trouble crying or looking sad when the situation calls for it. She herself calls it a lack of “empathy”; the show tries to reframe it as simply an inability to connect, a deep emotional repression and remove from ordinary people that has come after a lifetime as a remote, untouchable figurehead. The episode ends with Elizabeth locked in her office, literally learning how to cry for other people’s pain. As a rich-white-people apologia goes, this is not subtle.
Yet we know how other rich white people have reacted to having their privilege challenged: with rage, violence, an increasingly and overtly fascist attempt to set back the clock. (Something we’ve also see playing out on The Crown: After Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate the throne, he became a Nazi sympathizer.) Elizabeth is engaged in an honest, if bizarre, attempt to learn how to care about people less powerful than herself. She can kick and scream in the face of change (particularly wherever her son Charles is involved) but repeatedly—in the wake of the Aberfan disaster, or when accepting the socialist Prime Minister as an ally rather than accusing him of being a Communist spy—she tries to understand her own privilege, and what it looks like to people who are not her. Sometimes, she even tries to take up less space. This is hardly heroic, but it’s not something Donald Trump would ever do.
“More empathetic than Donald Trump” is, admittedly, a very low bar. Nor do I believe the series is trustworthy in its depiction of Elizabeth, who, like the rest of the characters, is probably a much worse person when she’s not being scripted by writers intent on humanizing her. The Queen Elizabeth of The Crown is a fictional character, and the fondness viewers feel for her shouldn’t translate to an increased tolerance for the real historical figure. Yet we do need stories about people working to take up less space, to accede gracefully to change, to understand that the world has handed them things they shouldn’t keep. Hopefully, not all of those stories will be conservative propaganda—which, yes, The Crown is and always will be—but the core questions matter. Stories tell us what to expect from the world, and as the world changes, stories that tell privileged people to let go of the past will be needed more than ever.
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