Let’s be real: America is absolutely obsessed with the royal family. Upon news of the death of Princess Diana, Americans flooded churches to mourn and express their sorrow. When America’s very own actress Meghan Markle was “chosen” by Prince Harry to be his royal wife, U.S. magazines and tabloids raced to cover the story, declaring it a true fairy-tale romance straight out of Hollywood films. You can’t walk through a grocery store checkout aisle without glancing at a copy of People or USA Today featuring a news story about Kate and William, now-deceased Queen Elizabeth or some other branch of Britain’s most famous family. So in 2016, when Netflix, an American-owned streaming service and the most popular in the US, decided to produce a heavily fictionalized drama about the beloved British monarchs, it’s no surprise that streaming numbers went absolutely through the roof. But no matter how much you, or your mom, might love the late Princess Diana, or how cute you think Kate and William’s kids are (isn’t it amazing how Princess Charlotte can already speak two languages!?) or how sweet Meghan and Harry’s love story might be, it is impossible to deny that the real-world implications of “The Crown” are heavy and dangerous.
As you probably well know, “The Crown” is a Netflix original drama that follows the life and history of the British monarchy and the royal family during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Beginning with the very start of her stint as a British monarch and continuing all the way to Princess Diana’s entry into the royal family in the ’80s, “The Crown” covers a lot of ground, with very little of what it portrays stemming from anything resembling verified information or fact. With the plot of the show outlined by actual events, such as royal tours, coronations, marriages and meetings with everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Winston Churchill, the show seeks to fill in the blanks of those parts of royal life that the public doesn’t get to witness taking place within the walls of Buckingham Palace. The show’s drama-filled episodes, shamelessly fueled by American’s parasocial attachments to the royal family members, establish a new legacy for the monarchy — one of melodrama, forbidden romance, secrets and scandals. Yet it fails to consider the British monarchy’s true legacy — that of colonialism, oppression and undying loyal support for the wickedness of the British Empire.
The terms “parasocial” and “parasocial relationship” refer to “a relationship that a person imagines having with another who they do not actually know, such as a celebrity or fictional character,” according to Dictionary.com. Deep parasocial connections to individuals whom in reality we are very distanced from due to an unbreachable ocean of fame or social popularity cause us to feel as though we are more connected to these people than we actually are, and that we know more about their actual lives and personalities than they have ever truly revealed. This is, without question, the case with the relationship between Americans and the royal family — and it’s shows like “The Crown” that feed into these distorted attachments to the rich and famous, reeling us in with overplayed lines about secret affairs and outlandish scandals, obscuring the true significance and implications of the existence of the royal family and the British Monarchy in the modern day world.
In season two of “The Crown,” a major part of the storyline is dedicated to the supposed infidelities of Prince Philip, who was rumored to have been involved in the Profumo affair of the 1960s, an enormous political sex scandal. Viewers feel for the Queen (Claire Foy, “A Very British Scandal”) who has so much responsibility on her shoulders as a young monarch, and with a philandering husband to boot. The characterization of Philip (Matt Smith, “Doctor Who”) in this season of “The Crown” is an unflattering one, portraying him as petty and emasculated, resentful of his marriage to a woman who is much more important and respected than he is. The moments where Elizabeth II discovers her husband’s affair and the identity of his lover, a young but successful dancer, are poignant and powerful, representing the strength and dedication of women as Elizabeth ignores her husband’s infidelities in favor of her royal responsibilities. What the events of this season of “The Crown” really represent is just how many liberties the show takes to distort reality to more attractively package it for the public, using the public’s perverse obsession with the royal family and their scandals to drive viewing numbers all the way through the very tall roof of Buckingham Palace.
Now, it’s not my stance that “The Crown” is overly-invasive and cruel in its airing out of private familial dramas. I don’t believe that the show takes advantage of the family, or that its faults lie in its overexposure of the royal family members and the intimate details of their lives. The nature of their position in society invites curiosity and interest, and their roles as monarchs inherently create spectacle — if they want to be ridiculously wealthy and live in a palace, they have to accept the public gawking that comes with it. However, I do believe that the stories in “The Crown” attach virtues to the caricatures of actual people that have no basis in reality, and these false virtues and personality traits cloud our judgment, obscuring the dark nature and history of the British monarchy as an institution.
In the same season that depicts Philip’s cheating ways, and in one of Claire Foy’s best moments in “The Crown”’s early episodes, Elizabeth arrives in Ghana on behalf of the British Commonwealth with hopes of drawing the country away from the nefarious influences of the Soviet Union and back into Britain’s warm embrace. After long failed attempts at political discussions and negotiations, the Queen makes a bold and charming gesture by dancing the foxtrot with Ghana’s President Nkrumah (Danny Sapani, “Penny Dreadful”) while photographers watch in delight and her advisors stare in horror — “She’s dancing with an African,” one exclaims in terror and disbelief. From the audience’s perspective, this is a beautiful moment for the Queen as she proves her prowess in negotiations and her importance to the Commonwealth, despite being a woman. In all actuality, and for Ghana as a country, the moment is far from beautiful, and has implications that are quite different from how they are painted with broad strokes in “The Crown.” Ghana was a territory of the colonial British Empire for more than 50 years, not gaining independence for its own people and territory until 1957. Britain annexed Ghana, known then as the Ashanti Empire, in order to plunder the country’s natural resources, mainly gold. The Ashanti Empire was absorbed into the British Empire after a series of wars spanning throughout the 1800s that cost the Ashanti Empire over 2,000 lives. What this dance between two leaders really represents is Britain’s unending desire to meddle in other states’ affairs and its use of the monarchy as a tool and an extension of the British Empire. But, because of the inherent fictional aspects of “The Crown” made to please viewers, that reality — and its reflection on the morality of the monarchy — are not what they see.
This is not to say that Queen Elizabeth II or the TV show “The Crown” are solely to blame for Britain’s lengthy history of colonization. However, in her role as a monarch and as the long-standing head of the British royal family, she represents the legacy of the British monarchy, for better or worse. Unfortunately, it’s hard to examine the implications of the monarchy as an institution when fictional sources like “The Crown” are hellbent on shifting our bias and focus toward those “better” aspects. When Elizabeth II was crowned Queen, more than a quarter of the world’s population was under the rule of the British Empire. Those numbers have since decreased dramatically when what was known as the British Empire dissolved and reformed into the British Commonwealth, all during the Queen’s 70-year reign. Queen Elizabeth represented not only the powerful imperialism of Britain but also their gradual steps away from colonial rule. But, because “The Crown” focuses on the latter, they erase all possibility of objective criticism of a long-standing institution that fully endorsed colonial rule. With a ridiculously dedicated focus on humanizing and empathizing with the royal family to the point of absurdity, “The Crown” tossed away any and all potential of serving as both an objectively critical and enjoyable piece of media, sending all social awareness completely out the window. With the recent passing of the late Queen Elizabeth II and an end to her monumental reign — which “The Crown” has focused so intently on — there is no better time than now to re-examine our biases towards and perceptions of the royal family and the monarchy, and draw into question whether our deep love for them is rooted in fantasy or reality.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at email@example.com.