Did “The Crown” Shortchange Its Heroine?


Oookay, let’s get into this. We’ve spent the last month recapping the first 10 episodes of The Crown, but there’s one issue I’ve been saving up for a separate post because, well, I think it warranted more than a tacked on graf somewhere else. Since the show premiered last November it has prompted considerable criticism for how much attention it pays to its male characters at the expense of its supposed central figure: the Queen herself. Following an interview the creator, Peter Morgan, gave, in which he said the second installment would delve more heavily into the psyche of Prince Philip, the (fabulous!) FUG girls went so far as to write up a post denouncing the decision as sexist and tone deaf to its core demographic.

They’re not the only ones and, indeed, as early as its premier it attracted criticism from publications like New York Magazine for the same issue. I had a visceral response to this argument when I was first watching, but after deciding to recap the first season a year later, I decided to hold on delving into it to see if my opinion changed. My friends, it has not, and thus I’m overjoyed to offer this up as an endorsement for making snap judgments whenever you can. As quickly as possible, really.

I…don’t think this a fair criticism of the show. My first reason for this is arguably a technicality. The series is not an extended biopic of Elizabeth II; it’s a biographical depiction of her reign. That’s a key difference. A reign is molded by the impressions of countless figures from the political and domestic spheres. Take Henry VIII, for example, and try to find a way to talk about him that doesn’t also include Katherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn. Or Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. A better parallel would perhaps be Queen Victoria, for how can you evaluate her rule without Prince Albert? Or Gladstone? Or Melbourne? Or her eldest son? All men, all crucial to telling the holistic story of Victoria’s reign.

A woman is central to the story of Queen Elizabeth’s reign and, yes, that woman is Elizabeth. But if you consider the woman herself and the many subtle and unsubtle cues she has indicated over the course of her 65-year reign, it is incredibly clear that the defining relationship in her life has been her husband of 70 years, Prince Philip. And that’s not just a personal relationship, but a driver for how she has presented herself, defined herself and seen herself through. There’s a wonderfully infuriating anecdote of the Queen taking umbrage at comparisons between her and the first Queen Elizabeth (you know, the Tudor one) because she considered herself a happily married woman with children, while Elizabeth I was single and mercurial. The first Elizabeth, thus, was not an idol.

In fact, there’s a highly relevant comparison to be made between both women, as maddening as it is. Both women are held up as icons for female leadership and neither one of them is a feminist.

Now, I am not positing that the current Queen is against women’s equality or civil rights. Of course not. But she does need to be evaluated as woman born in 1926, just as the character of Philip needs to be judged as a man of his own time. When he “whines” and acts out over the course of the first season, is he driven, in part, by a mentality that feels outdated? Sure. Yes. But not for nothing, his pain points are not wholly dissimilar from those of Margaret or the Queen Mother. All of these figures are those closest to the monarch in question and all of them feel sidelined, trapped and invisible. That right there is a compelling point to make about the reality of living as a queen regnant.

Now moving to the other side of it, I do see the logic in the argument that the series should have spent more time focusing on how these issues affected Elizabeth. Instead of her husband, mother, sister and Prime Minister, it should have given more time to Elizabeth as a wife, daughter, sister and monarch. My response to that, though, is two-fold: 1) I think the first episodes did portray her fairly in-depth and 2) how they did that is both historically and personally accurate.

The Queen is famously non-confrontational. Thus, the performance of her is going to be quiet, which Claire Foy delivers masterfully. In reality, the Queen has been surrounded by louder, brasher more forceful personalities. So, too, is the fictional woman portrayed on her screens, a point made time and again in the series. We see her agonizing over her sister, her growing resentment within her marriage, her struggle to assert herself as an occasional adversary to her ministers and her driving sense of duty, inspired in large part by her relationship with her father. All of that is there; all of that, frankly, is a more well-rounded depiction than any other character received.

And let us not forget accuracy, or at least an attempt at it. If you allow for a depiction of a reign to zoom in on the sensitivities and nuance of those who live and work closest to the monarch, as both a person and a concept, then can we also acknowledge that between the years 1947 and 1955 the majority of those figures were men? Yes, Prime Ministers were men. So, too, were  other ministers. So, too, were the private secretaries who drove her household.

Why was there so much attention paid to Winston Churchill and not, say, the Queen Mother? Because he’s Churchill! If I was Peter Morgan I would take a look at the cast of characters on hand and evaluate that against the number of seasons I know I am creating and see how much time I’m working with. You have three years to work with the figure of Churchill, while the Queen Mother lived until 2002. Of course you’re going to zoom in on the Queen’s first PM. Of course you’re going to flesh out Churchill. Again, HE’S CHURCHILL.

George VI? Edward VIII? You mean, the two most recent monarchs against whom Elizabeth is being compared and comparing herself? One of whom is her father? The other of whom is the person who put her on the throne and, to-date, is the only monarch in the history of Britain to abdicate by choice? Yeah, they’re worth covering. In detail. They defined Elizabeth, in reality and in fiction.

But no one really has an issue with them, so much as Philip. Philip is the younger, flippant man who seems to shirk his duty, fail to support his wife and spend a lot of time drinking and complaining. His arguments are about wanting to pass his name along to his children and living in the house he prefers. I get how that rubs people the wrong way. But this is the first of six chapters and there are many grains of truth in this depiction. The reality is that the 1950s were a rockier time in the Windsor-Mountbatten marriage. The reality is also that Elizabeth would not be the monarch she has become without Philip – them sorting these dynamics out, for better or for worse, is Elizabeth’s story, too.

And finally, consider the woman we are shown in the season’s first episode and consider the one we are left in the tenth. That is absolutely some first-rate character development.

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