Why I’ll Probably Never Watch ‘The Crown’
The show perpetuates a dominant narrative about whose stories are worthy of our attention.
The Crown is a show I should like. One of my favorite movies in high school was Sense and Sensibility. Downton Abbey? Yes, please — although my interest waned after the third season. Victoria — I’ve watched that, too. For most of my life, I’ve had a soft spot for English period dramas.
Yet, I can’t muster up the interest to watch The Crown. Netflix’s drama follows Queen Elizabeth II from her 1947 wedding to the present. It has all the trappings that would usually pull me in. Critical acclaim. A knockout cast. Beautiful cinematography and exquisite costumes. Maybe, as an American, I’m suspicious of kowtowing to our former colonial overlords.
It’s not that the British royal family isn’t interesting. It’s that their stories have been told and retold for hundreds of years. Their history has been the focus of tabloids, textbooks, and canonical literature for so long that I think I’ve reached my limit. I’m tired of hearing the same kinds of stories about the same kinds of people — rich, powerful, white. I’m getting too old and embracing my brown identity too much to care about these stories anymore.
I’m tired of hearing the same kinds of stories about the same kinds of people — rich, powerful, white.
Film and television have the power to stretch our imaginations. They can take us soaring high between the Twin Towers in the documentary Man on Wire, into the streets of 1970’s Rio de Janeiro in the crime drama City of God, or into the life of a smart and spunky Indian American teen in Never Have I Ever. They can transport us to different times and cultures and encourage us to relate to people far different from ourselves. They can change, shape, and reflect our collective imaginations. If media have the power to world-build, what are the consequences if we watch options that reinforce a narrow view of it?
Why it’s important to see characters like yourself
Looking back, I understand my love of English period dramas. I’m a romantic, I enjoy history, and a good comedy of manners amuses me. As a teenager in the 1990s, I didn’t think twice about their all-white casts. I was so inured to the Western worldview, and so used to seeing films and television shows filled with white actors, that the lily-whiteness of these dramas didn’t even register. I just accepted that the world was mostly white with flecks of black and sometimes brown sprinkled in. Like many people of color, I became used to identifying with white characters at the center of Hollywood narratives and making the emotional leap to bridge the racial empathy gap (more on this later).
As a brown person seeing an all-white spectacle, I realized I could never really be part of the story. For me, watching an English period drama is akin to watching a sci-fi movie — both are realities where I could never have existed. As much as I dreamed of being Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, I knew I could never be her. My race would have made it impossible. That’s obvious. What’s harder is that my mixed Indo-Mauritian and white identity is wholly negated in that world.
At best, English period dramas offered me escapism. At worst, they affirmed the idea that I didn’t belong in the past and barely belong in the present.
Whether we like it or not, media helps affirm our place in the world, particularly for teenagers. Research suggests that we look to film and television to reinforce our social identities. Seeing versions of ourselves on-screen helps us embrace our ethnic identity or gender identity. This acceptance is associated with a higher sense of self-worth, which can improve overall well-being and help protect against the psychological impacts of discrimination.
Why it’s important to see characters different from ourselves
This is not to say that every character has to represent me. We need to see different representations on-screen as well. It increases what psychologists call perspective-taking. It’s how we’re able to relate to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the characters we see on-screen; we imagine what it’s like to be them. Perspective-taking has the potential to increase our understanding and empathy and reduce prejudice.
“It is good to watch…things that make you uncomfortable, that challenge how you see the world,” says writer John DeVore. He identifies as white and reflects on his experience watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix film celebrating Black jazz artists. “[A]rt…[can be] a reminder that men like me…are born with our little white hands reaching for one of the levers of a great and terrible machine as if it were a rattle.” As a white man watching a Black film, his experience reminded him of the systemic inequality he often has the privilege of forgetting.
Watching stories about people different from ourselves also helps us bridge the empathy gap. The empathy gap is a phenomenon where we are less likely to empathize with people who are different from ourselves. For example, a 2011 study found that white people are less likely to react to a Black person’s pain than another white person’s. We also see a gap between classes as rich people appear less understanding of people from lower socioeconomic classes.
Media can play an important role in overcoming the empathy gap. Dr. Kimberly Chabot Davis studies cross-racial empathy and has found that consuming media cross-racially can be vital to supporting anti-racist efforts. Watching stories from people of other races and cultures can humanize them and dismantle dangerous stereotypes (e.g., Muslims as terrorists, Blacks and Latinos as criminals, etc.). However, it depends on what we watch.
Dr. Tara Ross, who studies mass media, explains how it reproduces stereotypes.
Mass media have [a] huge reach in society…yet countless studies demonstrate that these media continue to reproduce…stereotypes, with often harmful effects…. [For example,] there is evidence to suggest these skewed media representations can not only promote public hostility toward other ethnic groups but also lower ethnic minority individuals’ self-esteem.
If we watch shows that perpetuate stereotypes, turning people into caricatures or reinforcing hegemonic classes, we’re not improving our understanding of other people in any way.
Diversity in front of the camera is only half the problem. Although representation for women and people of color in acting roles is improving, it’s not enough. As the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report highlights, “The underrepresentation of people of color in the executive suite, and as creators, writers and directors is problematic, even if there are more people of color in acting roles. When people of color do not control their own narrative, their characters’ storylines may lack authenticity, may be written stereotypically, or their characters may even be depicted as ‘raceless.’” It’s giving underrepresented people of all kinds the power to develop their own stories that makes the real difference.
There are alternatives to all-white period dramas
It’s not the lack of diversity in The Crown itself that bothers me. A show covering modern British royalty is going to have a lot of white people. I understand the desire for historical verisimilitude. It’s that we continue to focus on their stories at the cost of highlighting other voices from the past and present.
At $13 million an episode, The Crown is one of the most expensive-to-produce shows on Netflix. Imagine what other stories that money could help bring to light. It’s not entirely Netflix’s fault. They produce shows they believe we want to watch and will generate subscription revenue, and The Crown has proven to be wildly popular. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of supply and demand.
People have tackled the limitations of shows like The Crown from different angles. Beyond race, author Harry Leslie Smith criticizes its failure to portray how the royals and politicians' decisions affected the lives of everyday Britons. It centers on the powerful when it would benefit from including average citizens.
Hamilton suggests another approach. The acclaimed Broadway show focuses on American royalty — the founding fathers — but forgoes historical accuracy by using a completely non-white cast, save for King George. Plugging actors of color into a white narrative without addressing the impact of the change is irresponsible, emphasizes arts critic Maya Phillips. She points out how slavery is hardly addressed in Hamilton as it would “be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders.” This type of color-blind casting, while admirable in its intent to offer roles to more actors of color, still uses a non-white cast to tell a white story.
Netflix’s new Regency-era period drama Bridgerton also shirks historical accuracy but does so in another way. To allow for non-white characters at court, it creates an alternate universe. It’s explained in episode four that society used to be divided by color until the king married Queen Charlotte, a Black woman. Culture critics Ineye Komonibo and Kathleen Newman-Bremang call the move an attempt at “surface-level diversity” that “sprinkles in light-skinned Blackness [that’s not nearly] enough.” They criticize the fact that the central character, Daphne, is a white woman and the Black characters exist in relation to her. Namely, the show fails to depict a romance between two Black people, independent of the show’s white characters.
For me, the shortcoming of Bridgerton’s strategy is more glaring — namely, that an alternate universe had to be created in the first place to make space for characters of color. It brings into relief the white people who typically populate English dramas. I get excited by seeing Black characters on-screen because their presence seems illicit. Even if the rules of this alternate reality are different, my brain is unfortunately too steeped in the narratives of our current time to accept them fully as real characters.
Others suggest that film and television should focus on actual people of color through history. For example, Mary Fillis was a powerful, independent Black dressmaker in Tudor England. What perspective might Ms. Fillis have had on English society at the time? Dr. Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story, suggests that we needn’t dismiss English period dramas altogether but instead would benefit from including historically accurate characters of color. She says, “We need to get away from our obsession with Austen, Dickens, and white period narratives to allow new talent to write fresh stories set in the past, putting these fascinating historical characters of color center stage.”
While I’m human and will indulge in my fair share of cooking challenge shows this winter, I’ve realized that I’m also more interested in learning about new stories and lesser-known histories. I want to know about and be connected to underrepresented populations and cultures I’m unfamiliar with. Media scholar Shani Orgad mentions that media “contribute to fostering more…complexity in how we think and feel about the world, our place in it and our relation to far-away others.” I agree.
I want my perspective to be broadened and challenged. I won’t be bingeing The Crown — a well-worn tale about the upper class, white, Western, cisgender, able-bodied — that reinforces a dominant narrative about the world. In my media landscape, I’m relegating the royals to the background and making an effort to bring underrepresented stories to the foreground. As actress Viola Davis said in her 2015 Emmy award acceptance speech, “If they exist in life, then we should see it on TV. We should see it on stage or on the screen. As many people are out there are as many stories that should be being told.” I’m looking forward to watching new stories in 2021.