I recall sitting with my mother in my childhood living room and watching Diana Spencer—about to be Princess Diana—walk slowly down the aisle toward the altar and her prince. The year was 1981, and despite my tender age, the princess fantasy did not take hold. Nor did I become a “royals watcher”… at least not until Netflix released its Queen Elizabeth II bio series, The Crown, earlier this month.
Why the change of heart? Maybe it was the promise of seeing Elizabeth, now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as a young woman. Maybe it was the heady feminist air as the series debuted, just days before the US—it seemed—might elect its first female president. For others, maybe a love for British period dramas is enough to pull them in.
Since I’ve been aware of the royal family, of course, but not particularly interested before, the effect of the series has been something like moving a piece of furniture in your grandparents’ house only to find that behind that bookcase, the wallpaper you’d taken for granted your whole upbringing had at one time been far more bold and colorful than you’d ever realized. It’s enough to make you question the assumptions you’ve made about what sort of stories the walls would tell if they could talk.
The Crown attempts to tell those almost forgotten bits of the queen’s life that transpired before she ascended the throne and took on a relentlessly public life for the next 64 years. It begins with her marriage to Prince Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 and is chiefly concerned with Elizabeth’s life during her 20s, including her coronation at a mere 25 years old and finding her footing with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The Crown brings into focus how much the story of Elizabeth’s transition into leadership is also the story of refining her marriage. Much like the images of gold being poured out and cast into a new shape that accompany the opening credits, the union of Elizabeth and Philip is remade in dramatic fashion.
Unlike most digital series that drop all their episodes at once, The Crown does not drive fans to binge viewing. Its pace (that some critics have lamented as too slow) feels more deliberate than desperate. Its surefooted storytelling resists the soap opera intrigues or cliffhangers common to Netflix fare in a way that suits its rather uncommon subject. Each installment works as a portrait of the queen in a moment of her life, synched to the slow progress of the affairs of a nation and punctuated by moments of great human feeling among (royal) family.
Elizabeth herself is portrayed as someone who keeps her cards close. It is either a brilliant choice or a terrible weakness of the series to leave so much of her inner life unverbalized. The brilliant option? Elizabeth, especially early, is more of a mysterious blank slate onto which others in her family and the government project their own expectations, a woman whose mettle is yet to be revealed. Possibly terrible? Except for actress Claire Foy’s formidable ability to communicate with her eyes, Elizabeth can seem more of a cipher than a main character, a passive young thing carried forward by the tides of family obligation and political counsel.
The important exception to all of this is Elizabeth Windsor in relationship to her father and her beloved Prince Philip. When Philip (played with satisfying charisma and an almost mischievous masculinity by Matt Smith) is around, a more at ease Elizabeth, a more transparent and troubled or joyful or wistful Elizabeth, comes into view. Philip teases “Lilibet,” surprises her, and almost transfixes her with his capacity to remain so close to his authentic self no matter the stodgy circumstances or persons in the room.
Elizabeth clearly loves him for it. The couple’s chemistry and the queen’s changed physical demeanor in moments alone with her husband convey a wonder-filled relief. Perhaps by accident The Crown almost suggests that the married Elizabeth, Elizabeth Mountbatten the wife, it the truest part of her identity.
The most involving narrative feat pulled off by The Crown, however, is its taking one of the most peculiar circumstances for marriage in the world and transforming it into an investigation of balancing calling and marriage. It insists the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are also “Lilibet” and Philip—a marriage not quite ordinary but altogether human.
It’s arguable that the series tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II as a kind of working woman forced to “lean-in” all the way to a career so big that any time the priorities of the job conflict with her personal desires, the job must win. Being a good mom to young children and a loyal, trusting wife is hard when Churchill is in your drawing room. Breakfast chitchat becomes difficult when you can’t tell your husband about the contents of the state papers that you must read each day.
Within her family, ascending the throne is often referred to as a death—both for Elizabeth and her father before her. Behind the palace walls, we survey both the opportunities and costs of her job, the mixed emotions she experiences, and the particular challenges it puts to her husband.
When Elizabeth goes from “heir presumptive” to queen, the costs to Philip are high. A World War II veteran and naval officer, he is forced to give up his career for ceremonial posts. The cabinet advises that his children will henceforth bear her surname, Windsor, not his.
Having grown up the son of a deposed royal house, Philip is also keen to keep their private residence rather than move to the Palace—a hope to hold on to his only home that is also denied. In a moving confrontation in the third episode, Philip says to Elizabeth, “You’ve taken my career from me. You’ve taken my home. You’ve taken my name,” then looking down, “I thought we were in this together.”
We get the impression that Philip would happily take care of the particular woman he married for the rest of his life, though he struggles with the expectation that he publically bow down to her as queen. But bow down, he must. And the best way he can take care of his wife, at the mercy of national obligations, is to set aside his own goals and gifts in order to anchor their children’s lives and to cushion her life by being at her side.
Philip’s lament makes us feel the weight of those sacrifices, the service to Elizabeth in them, and the vulnerable position left to him. Yet when I watched this scene, I was immediately struck that his list of losses heavily overlaps with what much of what our Christian culture takes for granted that women will give up when they marry.
Rather than simply feel Philip has been unmanned by these parallels, Christian viewers can seize this portrait of the royal relationship as an opportunity to think about how we can better acknowledge the costliness of forgone sources of identity and passed by outlets for gifts, hopes, and ambitions for male and female partners in marriages.
The two people at the center of The Crown are grappling with the odd dilemma of how a queen can both rule over and honor her husband. Yet they are also wrestling through the more general call to be married in the world after the Fall, wherein “[her] desire will be for [her] husband, and he will rule over [her]” (Gen. 3: 16).
While the direction of woman’s desire (toward or contrary to) her husband has been debated, the “the ruling over” of the husband is clear. In other words, a power dynamic, a sense of self-assertiveness, enters into marriage after the Fall one way or another. For all of us, not only nor least of all the Windsors, the sacred intimacy of marriage is compromised by a human struggle for power over or against one another.
Like so many women called to use their gifting outside as well as within the home, Elizabeth II is torn between devotion to her husband and family and her conviction that God has created her for more, in her case far more. Her grandmother, Queen Mary, counsels her to fully embrace her personally demanding destiny, saying, “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth.”
While I can’t say I’m on board with Queen Mary’s politics, she is certainly onto something with her conviction that the work of dominion is sacred indeed. In her recent book, A Woman’s Place, Katelyn Beaty argues that women, like men, are called to participate in God’s call to exercise authority over the earth. Just as it takes both sexes to populate this world, both sexes are also called to bring the kingdom in the world through the transforming impact of men and women’s creativity and dominion.
This is a tangled charge, to be sure and far from an easy one. Neither I nor Beaty nor Netflix is interested in making a case that women can “have it all.” Here TheCrown’s emphasis on self-sacrifice—by the queen and her prince—is again a welcome representation of marriage at the intersection of two sets of giftings.
From the looks of it, balancing vocational calling and family life is not easy no matter how many servants you can summon. Something, or someone, has to give. Someone has to give of themselves … for the good of society, the family, the marriage. So what do the Windsors do? They stay together. They accommodate one another. She fights for him to have outlets to express his gifts and for her to express her pride and trust in him.
They challenge “the way things are done” at many turns and, though they are usually rebuffed by family, the prime minister, or the cabinet, they consider breaking with tradition if doing things a different way can help them honor one another. The Windsors show compassion and admiration for one another when they can, even if they are personally disappointed that their spouse or their circumstance isn’t living up to their hopes.
In the end, The Crown’s gender politics are muted as befits Elizabeth II herself. As monarch she cannot take explicit political positions and like her, the series is far from leveling anything like a feminist critique of gender roles. Still, also like Elizabeth II, The Crown is complicated, juggling the many obligations that come with the queen’s many loves—for country, for family, and for Philip.
In addition to the more obvious benefit of The Crown’s lush tour through mid-century British history, this considered ambivalence about calling and family is the series’ great gift to the viewer. It reminds us that no amount of worldly privilege undoes the struggle to live fully into our call to demostrate selfless intimacy in marriage, nor reflect the image of God by impacting the world for his glory.
Laura Kenna has a PhD in American Studies and teaches on cultural criticism, film, and writing at Trinity Fellows Academy. She also blogs about popular culture at remotepossibilitiesblog.com where’s she’s just begun a series on HBO’s Westworld.