Can I call myself progressive and still enjoy The Crown?

Following the recent deaths of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, viewings of Netflix’s already successful TV show The Crown have skyrocketed, increasing more than 800% the weekend after the Queen passed away. For the few who are yet to watch, the show provides a richly detailed, emotionally provocative look behind Buckingham Palace’s front door (or doors), following Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy/Olivia Coleman) coronation and subsequent reign, spanning over 40 years in the 4 seasons so far – including a smooth change of cast between Season 2 and 3 as the characters mature.

One of the show’s many strengths is satisfyingly close attention to detail, from a plot based on true events, to a set and costume design that reportedly cost the first season over $13 million per episode. But it is precisely the shock of figures like this – small change when compared to the income of the royal family – that brings to mind the irony of a modern-day ruling class and the political reservations that many of us may hold accordingly. How have shows like The Crown and Downton Abbey become such family favourites, despite depicting social inequalities that directly dispute our ethical standpoints? Is it a problem for us to hold these beliefs and still enjoy TV that promotes their opposite?

Problems arise when such shows create a glamourised revision of history – Downton Abbey, for example, layers historical discrepancies until we are left with a web of romanticised relationships between those of different social classes. Set on the fictional estate of Downton in the early half of the 20th century, it follows the friendships, romances and scandals shared between the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ – the nobility and their servants. It isn’t difficult to immediately recognise historical liberties in this storyline; staff even speaking to the employers would have been enough to lose them their position, let alone offering advice or forming close friendships, a plot device around which Downton pivots. The global success of the show suggests that people are hungry for such unapologetic sentimentalisation, but this borders on problematic as we edge towards romanticising a history of appalling inequality and suffering.

Similarly, the Crown sometimes slips into presenting idealised portrayals of class and status. While it is more nuanced than Downton, carefully researched with a higher quality of script and casting, it still desensitises us to the unscrupulous wealth of royalty and normalises the narrow attitudes of those around the Queen. The Queen Mother’s character (Victoria Hamilton/Marion Bailey) is utilised as an extreme voice of tradition, repeatedly drawing an audible wince from outdated, snobbish comments. While older characters like hers are undoubtedly used to emphasise the evolving opinions of the 20th century, it is important not to trivialise such upper class opinions upon which the entire concept of the monarchy was founded and still survives. There is a convincing argument to be made that such a complex, multifaceted work of fiction is all the more dangerous for still resting on an essentially romanticised view of royalty and nobility.

So is it wrong that the issue of our classist and divisive social system, deeply affecting millions throughout history, has been trivialised to such feel-good entertainment? Without individual recognition of fictional aspects, and personal responsibility when it comes to wider research, it becomes backward-looking and harmful for us to gleefully consume such media that supports such an outdated worldview of power and privilege. It is still crucial to educate ourselves as to the less glamourous sides of our history, but surely we can enjoy a high-quality drama without agreeing with all of its political implications.

The Crown in particular raises concerns that reflect changing attitudes of the last 50 years in Britain, and does so as an objectively well-made and skilfully crafted show. Downton Abbey provides us with a fictional narrative, but arguably one of its strongest links to historical fact is its focus on modernity and the need for change within the class system. What makes successful media is the ability to portray such attitudes – regardless of their moral ambiguity – and create a discourse around them. We can’t progress from them without first raising them and addressing why they might make us feel uncomfortable as a modern audience. Specific episodes in The Crown (Marionettes, S2E5, and Fagan, S4E5) are entirely dedicated to the issue of class divide in Britain, specifically surrounding the royal family. While at times directly criticising some of their upper-class ideals and mistakes made – both politically and emotionally – the show consistently reminds us of the royal journey of modernisation and progression that the family has been on for the last century. This journey of accessibility is a central theme to all 4 seasons so far and is expected to continue as the next 2 seasons take us into the early 21st century.


Image by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

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