So today is the big day. Meghan Markle, one time actor on this show I never watched, is getting married to Prince Harry, who exists. (I guess he sometimes patronizes sporting events or embarrasses himself, but mostly what he does is exist.) And the one good thing I can see coming from this is that, maybe tomorrow people will finally stop talking about it. God, I hope so. Because I cannot express to you how deeply I do not care. I do not care what her dress looks like. I do not give one tiny shit if her father participates in the patriarchal ritual walking her down the aisle and handing her over to her new owner. Sure, I hope the two kids are happy or whatever, but the ubiquity of this event in all media, even the media that is usually above “celebrity gossip” is a tad exhausting for me.
But here’s the thing. I’m a giant snob. I’m trash. Because I think following the daily lives of alive Royals is a little, well, unclassy, but I’m not willing to admit how many biographies of Queen Victoria I own. I once wrote a top ten list for this very website that discusses my favourite dramatizations of their lives.
Apart from my hopeless snobbiness, which probably accounts for about 73% of my feelings, there is at least one thing I can say in my defense. Monarchy, as an institution in general but specifically in the United Kingdom, has been waning in power and relevance for about, like 400 years. There was a civil war and a revolution that was apparently glorious, and the king/queen just eventually became the person who sat there and looked pretty. But, there was a time when these people’s lives were very directly connected to the life and the fortunes of the nation. That elevated discussion of their personal lives above mere gossip, even if on some level, it continues to feel voyeuristic. Questions that we would never ask about “normal” people who lived hundreds of years ago who have no personal connection to us—who was her boyfriend and what what exactly did they get up to, what did he think of the precise details of the relationship between the Son and the Father within the Trinity, did the bad weather make him really grumpy that night he had an argument with his mother at dinner—become questions of monumental importance. As that became less true, there was still a lot of leftover reverence and loyalty to the Royal Family. And that has certainly waned too. So much so that these days, they occupy this rather bizarre between public figure and tabloid celebrity.
That’s also the reason why we classy types don’t sully ourselves with those shiny magazines at the grocery store detailing this or that HRH’s romantic tribulations, even though we know, deep down, that our counterparts in future generations will venerate them as wonderful contemporaneous sources and keep them sealed in rare books libraries as they discuss the changing role of the monarchy and cultural change, or whatever. Now, though, the feeling of voyeurism, combined with my feeling of being better than the hoi-poloi, keeps me from caring.
But this same squeamishness is why I was a little guilty and hypocritical about my love for The Crown. Surely it treads into the territory of gossip. It certainly makes me a little uncomfortable to think of the nonagenarian Elizabeth watching this show going into the dark details of her marriage, her relationship with her family, and her deep insecurities (because we all know she watches it,) and saying, a little miffed:
The sense of discomfort is not unjustified, and it hasn’t ever really gone away for me. But there’s another consequence to the fact that the life of the queen was the life of the nation: at some level, their lives belonged to the nation. The story of their lives was never really their own. So they became two people, and who knows how distinct. There’s the person that they really were, as they lived their life. This person was as complex and internally contradictory as every other person who’s ever lived. She had feelings and things. And then there’s the character who is in our history books. The fool or the great leader, who had no feelings because their decisions were a matter of the state and no one cared about their dumb feelings. All anyone cared about was what they saw, and the consequences. This public, historical character might be an honest attempt to approximate the real person as best we can, but then again, maybe it’s not.
Maybe it’s a caricature, or a deeply unjust slander. But that character can be just as “real”. At least in the sense that it can have value as common literary possession and cultural icon. Few people would say the Shakespeare’s Richard III is worthless, just because the guy whose body they found in the car park was a little nicer than that. They’re not the same person, but that doesn’t really matter. The fact that the “real” Richard was maybe a better human than eloquent-but-sociopathic villain protagonist isn’t nearly as important as the story we tell. The one that shapes the story of a whole nation.
Maybe you can see it as the price paid for all the privilege that the royals still enjoy. Their story enters the public domain. It’s legitimate source material for our literature the same way that mythology or fairy stories are. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t attempting to write a historically accurate account of Richard’s reign, he was attempting to make a point about fate and freewill. Likewise, the people behind The Crown aren’t so much interested in a dramatic reenactment of actual events. The fact that they don’t depict things that are known untruths doesn’t change the fact that their main goal is to tell a story. A story that is not in the control of these real people who it’s about. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s just another way in which this show is brilliant, but the attempt (and inevitable failure) to control the narrative about yourself is a major theme throughout the 2 seasons released so far.
The characters, from Elizabeth herself to the members of her staff and the politicians who serve her are all very conscious of the fact that they’re playing a role. It’s filling the role that is expected of them, even when it’s contrary to their own true personalities and desires, is seen as the ultimate possible achievement. After all, “The Crown must always win,” the needs of the monarchy come before everything.
The narrative doesn’t endorse this, of course, it spends most of its time showing us what this determination costs the characters, as well as asking the very good question of why they even bother. But on the other hand, the characters who do try to be themselves and buck the constraints of their roles can’t escape being characterized as selfish, shallow, and more than a little maladjusted. Margret isn’t just unhappy in her role, she wants all the perks of being a princess without any of the responsibility. The Duke of Windsor might be a little witty, but he’s also cruel, spendthrift, and a goddamn Nazi.
Not only are the characters aware that they’re playing a role, they’re aware of how fake and often unnatural that role is. They embrace that fakeness as an essential part of their role. What they’re supposed to do is tell a story, a story that they seek the power to determine; the story of Monarchy. And ironically (if that is the right word) this fictionalized portrayal of them on Netflix, dealing with the fictionalization of their lives, is no more likely to get at the truth of them.
Margret is told their own version of why they bother with this emotionally exhausting charade:
Queen Mother: No one wants complexity and reality from us. […]
People have enough of that in their own lives. They want us to help them escape.
Beaton: […] Imagine this, if you will a young woman, a commonplace creature. She sits in her drab little scullery. So much work to do. So much washing-up. How she longs for comfort, for hope. […] She wants to believe her life has some meaning beyond chores. She opens a magazine and she sees Her Royal Highness’s photograph. For one glorious, transforming moment, she becomes a princess, too. She is lifted out of her miserable, pitiful reality into a fantasy. Later, she will step out of her house in a new neckerchief, perhaps, for which she has saved.
Oh, she will hold her head up high. She is renewed. And all thanks to you, Your Royal Highness and to the ideal which you represent.
Firstly, I suddenly feel a little better about my own level of snobbery. Secondly, this sounds nice, but it’s really a kind way of saying, “be quiet, you’re here for people’s entertainment.” But the rub of it is, the inescapable thing that The Crown is able to portray to well, is that despite what they do to shape these essentially fictional characters that are their public personas, it really is out of their control. Maybe because they don’t want to be entertained by the perfect and glamorous Princess Margaret, but by the Hot Mess Margret they’re trying so desperately to hide.
Was Margaret such a hot mess? Maybe. I don’t really know. And the gods only know what people would think of me if all they saw was me leaving parties and the highlight reel of my romantic life. But billions of people do feel like they know Meghan and Harry, just as they once felt they knew Margret. And they feel deeply invested in their private lives.
The story that were supposed to be seeing today is meant to be inspiring. A heart-warming tale of the prince who fell in love with an ordinary girl from LA and made her a princess. You see, little girls of the world, all your dreams can come true! There are several reasons why I find that more regressive than heartwarming, but there are also a few things about Ms. Markle that are a good sign for the viability of the Monarchy and the progress of society as a whole. She’s a woman of colour, she’s over thirty, older than Prince Harry even, she’s *gasp* an actor… And while there has been some gross discourse, especially about that first part, the giant circus that Windsor is today proves that, if anything, all those things, which no too long ago would have been deal breakers, just makes the people love her more.
Poor Meghan. She’s already a piece of media that we’re analysing for meaning and implication. Maybe she’s all over it. Maybe she loves how symbolic she is. Or maybe she just wants to marry her boyfriend and has no idea what she’s getting into. How should I know.