The Tricky Business Of Humanizing The Monarchy

Both The Crown on Netflix and the real-life Duchess of Sussex have given the British royal family a badly needed PR boost, though in unorthodox ways.

The Meghan Markle news cycle is ever-spinning, but last month, two clips from an interview with the Duchess of Sussex drew even more attention than usual. In the clips, her doe eyes visibly pained and glazed over with near-tears, Meghan admits to ITV journalist Tom Bradby that she’s been struggling to be a newlywed and new mom while facing a ceaseless torrent of (often racist) scrutiny and intrusion from the media.

“It’s not enough to just survive something, right?” Meghan said she tells her husband, Prince Harry, when they’re discussing the tabloids’ negative effects on their day-to-day. “That’s not the point of life. You’ve gotta thrive — you’ve gotta feel happy.” After the clips went viral, the hashtag #WeLoveYouMeghan began trending on Twitter alongside words of support, commiseration, and rescue-mission propositions (writer Samantha Irby tweeted, “so can we just, like, go get meghan or what?”). “It’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes,” Meghan admitted.

Meanwhile, last weekend, the third season of The Crown — the historical drama that aims to take us behind those very scenes — popped up on Netflix users' screens worldwide. Armed with a new cast to cover the years between 1964 and 1977, the series has had fans devouring each episode, eager to learn more about these global figures we’ve grown up with but know so little about.

Despite its archaic nature, the British monarchy has been enjoying — or perhaps for certain members, enduring — a renewed surge of interest over the past few years, largely thanks to both the Sussexes and The Crown. What’s more: The media milestones of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have coincided, almost peculiarly, with every season of The Crown so far. Four days after the first season debuted in November 2016, Buckingham Palace confirmed Prince Harry and Meghan were dating. Just a week and a half after their 2017 engagement announcement, the show premiered its second season. And a few days after teaser clips from the documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey were released, The Crown debuted its own trailer, scored by an eerie cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

Both The Crown and the Sussexes’ efforts to mitigate the damaging effects of their tabloid coverage have succeeded in boosting the monarchy’s profile and PR, though in an unorthodox way: by actively spotlighting the royals’ humanity — something that, for centuries, the institution has often either failed to accomplish or avoided addressing entirely.

This season on The Crown, Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) simplifies the public’s wishy-washy demands from the royals: “The truth is, we don’t know what we want. Other than we want you to be ideal. An ideal.”

On one hand, the royal family’s standard restrained, British stoicism serves a purpose beyond cultural custom: Their job is largely ornamental, to serve as neutral, ceremonial figureheads. But the longer the monarchy persists, the less likely it seems such an outdated emblem of unmerited privilege and inequality can last. Anti-monarchists and other critics consider them a family of freeloaders, not to mention a lingering reminder of the horrors of colonialism. And so, while the Queen is required to remain politically impartial, the royals’ reticence in showing emotion or subjectivity also allows them to draw as little attention (or ire) as possible.

Though its members typically prefer to keep their stoic distance, the real British monarchy has also made a few calculated goodwill-generating PR efforts through various documentaries (Our Queen at 90, Prince Charles: Inside the Duchy of Cornwall, and Prince Harry in Africa) as well as through its steady social media presence. After all, the royals must renegotiate their relationship with the public constantly in order to survive, particularly since the immensely popular 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth won’t be around to bring them goodwill forever.

But sometimes these efforts backfire. This season in The Crown, the House of Windsor agrees to appear in a fly-on-the-palace-walls documentary in hopes it will endear the family to the public. During the real event in 1969, millions tuned in — it was said London had a water shortage due to toilets flushing during intermission — but while many were intrigued by this insider look, some critics argued the family came across as stuffy and were destroying the monarchy’s mystique.

More recent moments have done damage too. After a 1994 documentary airing the same night Diana donned her infamous revenge dress, Prince Charles — who often failed to meet stereotypical ideas of masculinity — was criticized not as much for cheating on his wife, but rather for admitting to it. The Daily Mirror reportedly ran an editorial at the time, arguing that Charles “is not the first royal to be unfaithful. Far from it. But he is the first to appear before 25 million of his subjects to confess.”

In the royals’ most recent epic PR fail, Prince Andrew gave a damning BBC interview last week addressing both his link to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein as well as allegations that he had sex with one of Epstein's trafficking victims, providing clumsy alibis of pizza parties and malfunctioning sweat glands. While he’s no stranger to bad press, the interview was such a disaster that Prince Andrew soon released a statement announcing his stepping back (or effectively being fired) from royal duties. The Telegraph announced the Duke of York had “authored his own downfall by deciding to go public.”

Whether attempting to lightheartedly demystify themselves for the public or address serious and consequential scandals, the royals’ failed attempts have only buttressed their time-tested approach to dealing with the media and public: staying hidden while in plain view. “The smoke and the mirrors, the mystery and the protocol — it’s not there to keep us apart,” the Queen (Olivia Colman) tells Prime Minister Wilson in The Crown. “It’s there to keep us alive.”

The third season of The Crown offers much of what makes its previous seasons so appealing: unabashed opulence, staid pacing, meticulous acting, vintage couture, lavish décor, and corgi cameos. The cinematography is stunningly composed, each frame fit for a painting, and the writing — though sometimes heavy-handed and expositional by necessity — remains elegant and affecting.

It’s been rumored the real Prince of Wales is paranoid about this new era of The Crown, which will focus more on him and his love life, thereby resurfacing old scandals as his eventual kingship draws nearer. But upon watching the recent season, it becomes clear the heir apparent can breathe easy; actor Josh O’Connor depicts him as a sensitive, shy, and stifled young man. Even within The Crown universe, Welsh nationalists predisposed to dislike Charles come around after meeting the person behind the “prince” title.

This is how The Crown has always worked: by providing PR facelifts for the Windsors in revealing the people behind the titles, even if the show is ultimately fictional. 

This is how The Crown has always worked: by providing PR facelifts for the Windsors in revealing the people behind the titles, even if the show is ultimately fictional. No longer just printed faces on commemorative plates, they become complex, flawed, ultimately likable humans, struggling to reconcile their place in the world and often forfeiting their dreams because of it. Like O’Connor, Tobias Menzies’ note-perfect portrayal of the Duke of Edinburgh provides a master class in image rehab; Prince Philip, known today for his offensive and often racist gaffes, is humanized as we see him endure a moon landing–inspired midlife crisis and reestablish a relationship with his mother. Last season, too, we learned about Philip’s traumatic childhood, which doesn’t clear him of his later insensitivities, but certainly provides perspective.

The more intimately we think we know the Windsors’ stories, the more likeable they seem. Even The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, who has compared the monarchy to a mutating virus, changed his opinion on the institution after working on the show for two seasons: “I came at it as completely anti-monarchist and I’ve turned around utterly,” he admitted. “I’m a royalist now.”

Of all the royals depicted on The Crown, there’s no one more storied and studied than the Queen herself. When Claire Foy plays the young monarch in the first season, we watch her learn how her wants must forever take a backseat to the Crown. Through Olivia Colman, who plays the older, “settled sovereign,” we see she’s become rather accustomed to the dehumanizing dirty work of her duties, appearing much more detached and cold than Foy had been. And while we won’t see The Crown’s senior version of Elizabeth for a while, Morgan’s 2006 film The Queen might give us an idea of what to expect.

Graced by an Oscar-winning Helen Mirren, her crimson lips in resting queen face, the film explores how the monarch came under fire upon Diana’s death. Instead of grieving privately as tradition would dictate, the public demanded the Queen mourn more openly. They didn’t want a pillar of strength or stoicism; they wanted to see that she too felt what they were feeling. What was once a necessary condition of the job had suddenly become an occupational hazard.

As she is one of the longest-reigning monarchs of all time, it’s worth considering how the Queen’s own reluctance to express her emotions publicly may have encouraged the monarchy’s continued reliance on distance. (It might’ve gone up in flames, but a Princess Margaret monarchy would never have been quite this muted.) To be sure, the Queen has had to fortify a steely exterior in order to navigate a male-dominated world. But considering the immense societal changes she’s lived through — her reign has seen 14 prime ministers so far — perhaps the public’s desired “ideal” from the monarchy has changed too.

“I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a stiff upper lip,” Meghan said in her ITV interview. “I’ve tried; I’ve really tried. But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.”

The English ideal of keeping a “stiff upper lip” is a recurring theme throughout The Crown. (In an episode on the Aberfan disaster, the impassive Queen is encouraged to turn on the waterworks for once because “this is Wales, not England.”) Especially before Diana’s death — an event that’s said to have ended “Britain’s stiff upper lip brigade” — emotions for the royals were deemed a liability. Detachment, meanwhile, upheld ideas of propriety, elegance, dignity, and discipline. It was seen as a strength.

This recent documentary about Harry and Meghan therefore feels like another significant shift in royal PR. It would be naive to assume this wasn’t a tactical move on the Sussexes’ part; the interviews were conducted on the couple’s recent South Africa tour, during which they filed a lawsuit against Associated Newspapers (now called DMG Media), the publisher of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. But Meghan’s interviews in particular have offered us a much more raw and revealing look at a member of the Monarchy than has typically been permitted in the past.

The last time a royal family member interview this personal and publicized occurred was Princess Diana’s infamous 1995 tell-all with Martin Bashir. In the top-secret interview (Bashir and his camera operator came to Kensington Palace disguised as hi-fi salespeople), the princess spoke about infidelity in her marriage and also revealed her struggles with bulimia, postpartum depression, the palace, and relentless media attention. (A month after the bombshell interview, the Queen wrote to the Prince and Princess of Wales, urging them to divorce.)

It’s often said that the paparazzi ended Diana’s life, and it’s her son’s belief as well. (“I will not be bullied into playing a game that killed my mum,” the Duke of Sussex told ITV.) But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just a car chase and out-of-control paparazzi that wreaked havoc on Diana’s inner world; she also struggled mentally and emotionally with the isolation imposed by the monarchy itself. And at least according to The Crown, we are led to believe this is a symptom that affects most, if not all, of the royals.

“You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it’s the wrong help you’re asking for,” the princess told Bashir, confirming rumors she had self-harmed. “People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you’re in the media all the time, you’ve got enough attention. But I was actually crying out because I wanted to get better in order to go forward and continue my duty and my role as wife, mother, Princess of Wales.”

“You see yourself as a good product that sits on a shelf and sells well,” Diana added. “And people make a lot of money out of you.”

There are noteworthy differences between Diana’s experiences and what the Duchess of Sussex is currently going through. Diana was alone while at odds with both the palace and the press, whereas Meghan seems to have the support of her husband in her fight against the tabloids. And while Diana endured intrusive and aggressive media (and sometimes used the press as a tool herself), Meghan bears the brunt of much more antagonistic coverage, often veiled by dog whistles and coded, racist language.

When the Sussexes first began dating, the Daily Mail noted Meghan’s “rich and exotic DNA,” describing her mother as a “dreadlocked African-American lady from the wrong side of the tracks.” When Meghan was pregnant, she was bump-shamed, as well as criticized for showing off and touching her belly too much. Upon her son Archie’s birth, a BBC host tweeted a photo of a dolled-up monkey with the caption, “Royal baby leaves hospital.” The pile-on of undeserved bad press for Meghan has become so ridiculous, it’s the subject of satire: “British Media Harshly Condemns Meghan Markle For Prince Andrew’s Defence Of Jeffrey Epstein,” read a recent headline from the Onion.

Meghan has received flack for her vulnerability in response to this kind of coverage (Piers Morgan, a frequent critic of the duchess, recently accused her of playing the victim card), but also an outpouring of support. Dame Julie Andrews, as well as 72 British women MPs, have indicated they support Meghan’s decision to sue the tabloids. Meanwhile, across the pond, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quote-tweeted the duchess’s ITV interview, echoing how dehumanizing a rise to sudden prominence can be. “The people who treat you like a human make all the difference,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez, earning over 187,000 likes.

“I see the harm that is caused when distorted narratives take hold in order to dehumanize another human being. I refuse to be silent.”

And it wasn’t just major public figures chiming in. As #WeLoveYouMeghan circulated, women offered support and their own stories. “I just want to thank Meghan Markle for saying she's not OK instead of some fluffy PR response,” tweeted writer Ashley Simpo. “The idea that women can do it all, mothers are superheroes and parenthood is obvious are hurtful, ignorant and damaging to women.” Stephanie Guerilus tweeted about the racial dynamics at play: “For many of us, including myself, it's about more than tiaras. As a Black woman and journalist, I see the harm that is caused when distorted narratives take hold in order to dehumanize another human being. I refuse to be silent.”

When Meghan first joined the royal ranks, it was clear her identity — a biracial American divorcé — made the union unprecedented. The last time a royal wished to marry a divorced American woman, the throne was abdicated and the line of succession altered forever. Moreover, given the British monarchy’s synonymy with white imperialism and (false) notions of bloodline purity, Meghan’s induction into the antiquated institution was seen as a sign of progress — and it was one, though superficially so. Now, however, it appears Meghan is managing to publicly shift from simple figurehead back into a human with visible fragility — a move with the potential to modernize the monarchy even more drastically than her inherent symbolism.

This emphasis on voluntary vulnerability isn’t entirely new for the royals: The Cambridges and Prince Harry have been advocates of mental health initiatives, including their own. But Meghan’s interview also provides grounds to reconfigure our ideas of strength, or at least broaden them. There is indeed an admirable mental toughness in “keeping calm and carrying on,” but admitting you’re struggling or hurting shows strength and bravery too. And this deeper understanding on behalf of the royals may breed, for better or worse, more monarchists.

In fact, Meghan is much more popular with young people (i.e., the generations who will help dictate the Crown’s future if a referendum were to occur). In a recent poll, 71% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 felt sorry for the Duchess of Sussex versus 26% of 55- to 64-year-olds, and her overall approval ratings showed a similar gap. Racism certainly factors into these numbers to a certain extent, but the results also carry a suggestion: The elderly may prefer the mystique and ceremonial protocol of the monarchy, but when it comes to the royals, younger generations prefer the people to the brand and openness over insincere optics.

Likewise, while its opulence is appealing, The Crown’s popularity is also rooted in its depth and vulnerability. Yes, we admire the fortitude of the show’s characters. But the moments that most endear us to them are the ones where they’re laid bare emotionally (e.g., Charles posted overseas and crying over a lost love; the Queen breaking down after Margaret’s overdose). The show doesn’t incite a collective amnesia of the actual royals, but we are seeing them in a different, overall more relatable and likable light. And so The Crown becomes a useful PR tool for the Windsors — even if they’re seemingly wary of its existence and the deeply personal perspectives it brings to life.

“We have all made sacrifices and suppressed who we are,” says The Crown’s Queen in Season 3 after Charles goes rogue in Wales. “It is not a choice. It is a duty.”

“Mummy, I have a voice,” insists Charles, pleadingly.

“Let me let you into a secret,” she says, her expression cold. “No one wants to hear it.”

Watching this scene, I was reminded of the most quietly affecting moment in Meghan’s interview: when the Duchess, caught off-guard, acknowledges Bradby for checking in with her, saying, “Thank you for asking. Because not many people have asked if I’m OK.”

It’s an offhand remark, sandwiched between her actual response to Bradby’s inquiry, but one that conveys a larger message. The notion that the palace is a prison, that the Crown is more a burden than a joy, isn’t new. But what The Crown and Meghan’s recent interview emphasize is that it’s not just the royal duties that take their toll — it’s the denial of one’s own humanity, all for the sake of preserving a symbol. With great visibility comes an erasure of interiority; it’s both a privilege and a poison. Considering the extent of their popularity, together the Sussexes and The Crown now offer a possible solution and PR tactic for the monarchy moving forward: to value people over protocol, empathy over empires. ●

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