Heavy is the Head That Lies THE CROWN: British Women Ascending To Power in the 20th Century

December 22nd, 2020

Women come into power and prominence in a myriad of ways. The three historically significant women profiled in season four of the Netflix series THE CROWN achieved greatness through a combination of the accident of birth, a doomed marriage and a conquering of the political arena. Their impressive reign of influence had an impact on Great Britain that was felt throughout the world. THE CROWN is unsparing in its controversial depiction of the legacies of Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana, and the intersection of their respective lives.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is featured prominently in episodes one, two, four, five and eight of the season. Thatcher is the first female prime minister in British history and remains a divisive figure there as she changed the trajectory of the country with endless rounds of austerity measures that made life immeasurably more difficult for the working class and poor. She ascended to power during a period of social and economic upheaval in Great Britain, with record unemployment, out of control inflation, rioting in the streets, and a general malaise that gripped the country.

THE CROWN portrays Thatcher contending with a series of crises while also struggling to forge a close relationship with Queen Elizabeth, that other powerful woman and cultural force in British life. It’s understandable to assume that these two women must have had an immediate rapport, born of the knowledge that they were members of that most rarefied club-women who wield great power. But it was an awkward relationship based on suspicion and mutual disdain that would eventually lead to a constitutional crisis. On a social level the two women shared little in common. In episode 2, “The Balmoral Test,” Thatcher visits Queen Elizabeth at Balmoral Castle for what can best be described as an initiation into the ways of the royal family. The prime minister is clearly out of her element, unaccustomed to the arcane traditions of the royals. In a humorous scene, Thatcher attempts to be a good guest and participate in a silly drinking game, but struggles to keep up as the annoyed royals look on. Poor Thatcher can’t even participate in the family’s cherished ritual of hunting as she failed to bring proper shoe attire and isn’t familiar with this bloodsport of the rich. It’s tempting to feel sorry for Thatcher at the sight of her wandering around the countryside in heels before she gives up and returns to the castle to put in some actual work. Thatcher doesn’t pass the initiation and if it were an O level exam she would have received an “F.”

But class isn’t the greatest divide between these two female powerhouses. THE CROWN exposes another dynamic that contributed to the strained relationship that existed between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher: Thatcher internalized the sexist attitudes that were so prevalent during that time and as a result possessed a derogatory attitude towards other women. She lacked the capacity to establish anything approaching an affinity or bond with other women. In her first audience with Queen Elizabeth, she is depicted as dutiful, almost reverential to the monarch. But when the monarch questions her about appointments to her cabinet, she insists there will be no women in her cabinet, “I have found women in general tend not to be suited for high office.” And why would that be? “Well, they become too emotional,” or so she declares to Queen Elizabeth, employing an old, tired charge made against women to keep us in our place. And it’s not just other powerful women with whom she struggles. THE CROWN portrays the former prime minister as emotionally remote in her familial-relationships. Her grown daughter, Carol, complains to her that “you disregard me” Thatcher doesn’t deny it, openly favoring her son Mark simply because he’s male. She defends this favoritism on the grounds that “he’s stronger like my father was stronger.”

Why did Thatcher have such little use for other women? What could possibly have been the source of this mistrust? THE CROWN suggests the origins of this sexism lay in her childhood. Growing up in a working class family, the daughter of a shopkeeper, she idolized her father for his ambition and professional success. She disparaged her mother for not possessing more ambition and being content at being a mother and homemaker. It never seems to have occurred to Thatcher that perhaps the reason her mother was content in being a homemaker is because her options as a woman during that time were so limited.

Thatcher embodied a type of brutal social Darwinism that unfairly blames people for not succeeding in a capitalistic system while never questioning the inherent unfairness of the system. And it’s not just with women’s issues that Thatcher showed a stunning lack of sensitivity. It’s tempting to assume that Thatcher would have displayed a measure of concern and compassion for the working class of Great Britain given her own much heralded middle class background and status as a “commoner.” But that is giving her undeserved credit. As shown in THE CROWN, she likewise showed no empathy or concern the plight of the unemployed who found themselves in the humiliating position of being forced to live off the dole. Despite her life of great wealth and privilege, it is Queen Elizabeth who displays compassion and concern for the working poor and matters of racial justice. There is an episode where an unemployed man breaks into Buckingham Palace and sneaks into the monarch’s bedroom. Despite the queen’s shock at the presence of an intruder, she listens to his grievances with empathy and respect. He tells her that in Thatcher’s England “the right to be human-gone.” Upon learning of the incident, Thatcher can only register anger and disgust at this man’s hardships and those of other similarly situated citizens. When Queen Elizabeth questions Thatcher about the consequences of the high unemployment rate she asks her, “What of our moral economy?” Thatcher, that high priestess of right-wing, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, dog-eat-dog-capitalism, offers no satisfactory answer, demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of any political belief system that doesn’t take seriously the pain of those in no position to pick themselves up with their fraying bootstraps.

Next up from me: The Queen and Thatcher bring Great Britain to a constitutional crisis over their differences regarding the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa.





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