Shafiqah Hudson 14th December 2017
“Should you Thursday Club members ever grow tired of your colourless and empty lives in London, I suggest immediate relocation to the discrete island nations nestled around Tonga, surely the closest one can come to heaven on Earth. Never have I experienced such a willingness to set oneself free and enjoy. And nowhere on Earth have we encountered such beautiful women.” – Travel letter from Lt. Com. Michael Parker, personal secretary to HRH Prince Philip, from “A Company Of Men” episode of The Crown
Histories are rarely objective, completely factual, or removed from the underlying motives and agendas of the parties presenting them. It is for these reasons that the bodies of knowledge we refer to as “history” are best processed both critically and carefully.
The biases of these stories – fiction and nonfiction alike – are painfully apparent to me. As a black woman, writer and passionate lifelong consumer of media, I occasionally experience something that I call a “double consciousness hiccup” – my fancy way of saying that sometimes, while in the middle of enjoying something I’m reading or watching, I am reminded – often rather abrasively – that I am not the creator’s imagined audience. It is a fairly common occurrence. I’ve been reading since I was three-years-old, and watching television and movies for at least as long. A huge part of the drive of so many black artists and creators is the absence of protagonists who even halfway resemble us. In so many ways, our social system teaches anybody who is not a straight white guy that we are marginal, that our experiences are inconsequential, and that our stories and perspectives don’t matter. I’m hardly the first or the best black writer to have this problem. The familiar wave of dismay and weariness I feel each time is almost as cliched as the horrible stereotype that typically elicits it.
And there are some pretty awful racist stereotypes and themes in The Crown, a show that brings us the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, with all the pomp, gravity, and starched-upper-lipitude that one would expect. The first season opens with Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage to Prince Philip, and (re)introduces the cast of characters, royal and common, in the Queen’s orbit. And this is where the show excels: giving the viewing audience a fly-on-the-wall intimacy with the once-remote Royal Family. (The only people The Crown dares to show nude and/or having sex are all now dead; even then, their bodies are damn near marble perfect, and their sex is straight out of a coffee table book.)
With an exception appreciation of and sensitivity to its central subject, her family and the times and events that have shaped her, the second season of The Crown offers up a three-dimensional and sympathetically human Queen. She is compelled by the restrictions of her office to be an unassailable bulwark in the maelstrom of scandal, deception, betrayal, global flux and the general high emotion that swirled around her for the first crucial decades of her reign.
Nations stirring and pushing quite understandably towards independence were a nuisance, a persistent irritation
Chief among Her Majesty’s recurrent and public woes: the pesky agitations for freedom and independence from the outer, browner nations of the British Empire, and her proud husband’s bold opinions and spirited carousing. It is here – right where all the documentaries stop and the speculation starts – that the show takes a series of sharp, wrong turns. The Crown weaves a pro-Elizabeth narrative that turns everyone and everything that is not committed to the preservation of the Commonwealth and declining Empire into a villain. Nations stirring and pushing quite understandably towards independence after literally centuries of European colonisation and imperialism – particularly African countries, like Egypt and Ghana – were a nuisance, a persistent irritation. This was white imperialist racism at its very finest. No one who wasn’t a white man was to be regarded or genuinely treated as an equal. Of all the historical figures who would go on to lead their countries to independence, none receives harsher presentation than Gamal Abdel Nasser, a brilliant strategist and impassioned leader whom the show caricatures as an overly-passionate, anti-European zealot. The leaders, almost all men of colour, who would emerge from the inevitable march towards independence were misguided and inept usurpers; pretenders incapable and undeserving of self-rule, pompous charlatans with ambitions far above their “natural” stations – which were, of course, underneath the white heel of the Empire.
The Crown’s commitment to its racist narrative outweighs the importance of things that history usually relies upon, like…well, facts. In “Mrs Kennedy”, we find the Queen – spurred by the dazzling, elegant Jacqueline Kennedy’s rumoured disdain of Buckingham Palace and herself – dancing the foxtrot in the arms of Kwame Nkrumah, all amidst the murmurs of onlookers, and the flashes of a dozen camera bulbs. This wildly controversial act, which did really happen, that The Crown suggests was how Her Majesty one-upped Mrs Kennedy is not how it happened. While Her Majesty did indeed dance with Nkrumah, it was on a different occasion. Which prompts us to wonder what the point of putting it in the Jackie Kennedy scene exactly was. Beyond the trite usage of a black man as a prop for a stuffy white woman’s “wildness”, and – oh, wait, there’s the point.
The men have sportingly “ranked” the women from country to country, by their ‘sweetness’
Women of colour are by no means exempt from hyper-sexualization on The Crown. Prince Philip’s naval adventures are filled with (thankfully only implied) sex with nameless, faceless brown and black women, whose sole distinguishing attributes appear to be their beauty and sexual availability and willingness. We are informed, via narrator Mike Parker’s voice-over, that the men have sportingly “ranked” the women from country to country, by their “sweetness”. It’s a 1959 topless tiki postcard come to life, made worse because, like the dance with Nkrumah, it is merely speculation on the part of the show’s producers. This is pure fantasy, and its sexiness comes at the expense of people of colour; servile, marginal and forgotten. While I appreciate the need to make a drama series a spicier draw than a documentary, using people of colour as tools and backdrops for shit that didn’t even happen is unacceptable, and shameful in a world where we are all supposed to have evolved beyond this. Instead, the paternalistic and sexualised racism in The Crown is blatant and unapologetic. “It is not WE who are racist for telling and consuming this story,” the show’s invisible subtext purringly reassures us. “How could that be so? After all, this is Simply How Things Were Back Then.”
And so Simply How Things Were Back Then is an expedient and handy way to dismiss our contemporary concerns about “political correctness” and all that other nonsense. SHTWBT covers a multitude of sins. Find it difficult to watch a Black Kenyan official prostrate himself and kiss the feet of the Queen? Fast-forward. Rolling your eyes at the literal pearl-clutching horror they display upon being informed that South Africa’s apartheid regime forbids an African chief from presenting a medal to the visiting Royals? You’ll manage. Horrified by the way sexual exploitation of women and girls in the Pacific Islands by the Royal Navy on “official business” authorised and led by Prince Philip is portrayed as offensive – but only because the officers involved are married? Welp, you… might just wanna catch the recap. In the longing backward gaze that is The Crown, there may be a Queen, but it is white men who are always kings.
This article was updated to clarify that the Queen’s dance with Nkrumah was a real historical event, as the original wording suggested it was fiction.
Shafiqah Hudson 14th December 2017