The Crown and How TV Changed Our View of Leadership

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The Crown Season 1 Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

I started to write this piece on November 7, and it began as a relatively calm consideration of how TV coverage of national leaders has become a fundamental part of political life. I’ve been writing about The Crown, Netflix’s new series on the early days of Elizabeth II, and I wanted to discuss the way that series depicts the rise and power of TV in the modern world. Because as much as that show is about grandiose, lush sequences of Buckingham interiors and fraught family dynamics, The Crown is also about the first moments in a country when television begins to shape how a nation considers its leaders. 

After November 9, an essay about The Crown does not feel especially urgent. In the face of the biggest political upset in American history, in the prospect of a president whose image was built entirely by television, a Netflix show about a young queen’s image in the 1950s feels quaint at best.

The parallels are still here, though, for all their seeming costume-drama irrelevance. At its best and most interesting, The Crown is a show about how an institution that’s existed for many centuries grapples with the arrival of mass visual media. This is introduced in episode five, when Philip suggests bringing TV cameras into Westminster Abbey to document the coronation ceremony for the first time ever in a live TV broadcast. He does it because he wants the crown to be a more modern, egalitarian institution. He sees the possibilities of TV as a way to level the playing field, to make royalty a more democratic phenomenon, and, of course, to create public affection for their new, young queen. Elizabeth is doubtful. She senses that easy access to the monarchy will strip the institution of its mystery and sense of idealism. And her inherent classist tendencies are not hard to find within her anxiety. She frets about people watching her most holy, sacred ceremony while they sit at home “with their dinners on their laps.”

On the show and probably in historical fact, Philip and Elizabeth and the views they each represent, are both right. Indeed, TV does succeed in making the royal family more relatable, and in helping the people feel closer and more connected to their sovereign. For a time, Elizabeth’s popularity is massive, and the institution of the monarchy is buoyed by the rapturous coverage of her. The Crown is not shy about underlining this: There are frequent cuts of actual newsreel footage interspersed with its lovingly detailed historical recreations; there are many shots of the royal family themselves watching and scrutinizing the TV coverage. They tilt their heads at the ancient, massive TV sets, squinting to make out fuzzy expressions and listening carefully to the way the press frames the narrative.

And just as Elizabeth fears, TV also punctures the country’s sacred reverence for the institution. Suddenly, the appetite for TV (or frequently in this case, newsreel) footage of the royal family becomes a bottomless hunger, something the family has to figure out how to feed without destroying themselves. Most tellingly, The Crown pitches the real threat to the monarchy as one between complete self-abnegation, as represented by Elizabeth, and individuality, as represented by Margaret. By coincidence of history, the period of Elizabeth II’s earliest reign is also the period of the rise of TV, and The Crown illustrates that by giving us a portrait of two women. As the selfless, silent ruler, Elizabeth gives the press coverage and the TV footage little to grasp. It makes her aloof, distant from the everyday commoner, and much harder to love. On the other side, The Crown gives us Margaret, over-brimming with “character,” who talks about her boyfriend when visiting a new coal mine, who expresses her opinions freely, and who becomes a media darling.

Of course she does. She feeds it, in exactly the way Elizabeth tries desperately not to do. The result is that while Elizabeth works endlessly, tirelessly, to represent her country and put forward a flawless, respectful, unmarred face for the cameras, Margaret is the one the press loves. And the further result is that even though Margaret openly insults a group of people she’s supposed to meet with, and teases the camera about how little she misses Elizabeth in her absence abroad, her mistakes are not mistakes. They’re lovable, camera-ready moments. They make better TV.

You see where I’m going with this. One of them works her hardest, is burdened by the weight of her responsibilities, and seeks to bury herself beneath the larger ideal of the leadership role she must represent. On TV, this looks like elitism and a lack of transparency. Margaret wants to “inhabit” her royal duties, allowing herself to shine through the layers of fusty tradition and ancient privilege. On TV, her disregard for tradition — and in some cases, respect and propriety — makes for a much better, more human, more interesting story. In the process, the monarchy becomes entangled in scandal.

The Crown is not a perfect series, and this analogy is not perfect. It’s a show about the monarchy, which is the definition of an elitist, anti-democratic institution. More to the point, it’s a fictionalization. Even though Margaret would without fail be the winner of this series if it were a “choose the best monarch” reality show, The Crown can pitch itself around Elizabeth as the protagonist. She can “win” the narrative, because The Crown can force us to see her selflessness and her struggle to subdue her individual needs as, if not a good thing, at least a tragically well-intentioned thing.

But the analogy — the implication — is striking nevertheless. Two decades earlier, the monarchy was able to survive a scandal when Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, one of the biggest challenges to tradition the royal family had ever encountered. The mass medium at the time of the abdication crisis was radio. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, TV was just beginning to take hold of the national imagination. And suddenly, the strategy that worked in the era of radio, the strategy of calm, firm distance, begins to break down. The monarchy does tamp down the Margaret scandal eventually, but the lasting, popular understanding of Elizabeth is no longer as the head of a loving, idealized British family — they are now chilly, and out of touch, and cruel. 

The Crown shows us television footage of Elizabeth and Philip from far away, with their tiny hands and arms waving indistinctly among a cloud of confetti. During the broadcast of her coronation, Philip assures the worried establishment that there will be no zoom lenses. No one will actually be able to see Elizabeth closely enough to catch any human foibles. In the short TV clip The Crown shows us of Margaret, meanwhile, she’s seen close up. You can catch her expressions and read her wry humor. The story about her relationship with Peter Townsend breaks because a newspaper reporter watches her pick a piece of fluff from Townsend’s jacket. Her gestures and her mannerisms are more easily visible, and are therefore more fun to watch. Whether or not she is good is beside the point. On TV, she is likable. 

There aren’t yet any reality shows for Margaret to win, or cable news cycles for her to dominate. Elizabeth’s less-than-telegenic rule can still be considered heroic because the TV news narrative machine is not yet at its full power. It’s not yet able to crush anyone who doesn’t know how to feed its unending craving for personality and access.

But we can look at this quaint costume drama about two feuding royal sisters and also see a parable about what works on TV and what doesn’t, and what that says about how we view our leaders in the age of television. If you squint, you can draw a line from the diminishing power of a capable and thoughtful monarch from the 1950s who reads as distant and inhuman on TV, to the 2016 election of a reality-TV star. Whatever other lessons we want to take away from this campaign, it’s clear that his is a model of leadership built for consumption on television, where a loud, fast-moving, bombastic presence can take over the screen in exactly the way a smaller, quieter, more reserved personality cannot. The Crown, a story about the middle of the 20th century, is a story that champions leaders who look like Elizabeth. In a democracy, in 2016, clearly we don’t pick the Elizabeths of the world. Thanks to TV, we pick the Margarets.