Call for Comments: Of Castles and Queens

From Hannah: A few weeks ago on our “cheesy” Christmas movie episode, we briefly discussed the subsection of the Lifetime/Hallmark/Netflix rom-com that is focused around royalty. I asked what is it about these types of films that attract audiences — particularly American audiences — and my sister Mary pointed out that these films capture a fantasy of romance that needs wealth and power to pull it off. Movies like A Christmas Prince follow a formula of commoner melting a royal’s heart and then marrying into a royal family. Better (and better loved) movies like the Anne Hathaway/Julie Andrews Princess Diaries show a different kind of fairy-tale: a young girl discovers she is secretly a princess. Disney’s official “Disney Princess” line is a multibillion dollar revenue stream for the company. Even the edgier (and recently cancelled) E! drama The Royals hooks into these narratives. This is all to say that we spend a lot of time romanticizing the life of royals in general — even as adults watching crap Netflix movies we know are crap. And being a princess/marrying a prince still remains a fantasy, even though even these fluffy movies reveal how being a ruler of a country or marrying into an aristocratic family has a dark side.

So why do we keep investing in this fantasy? Do castles and the ability to jet around the globe or mattress surf or have a dress more expensive than your actual paycheck negate all the cracks in the fantasy world? And if we’re so obsessed with preserving an image of royalty that has little to do with realities of actually being a member of the royal family, why do we we also have a love for depictions of historical and contemporary royal figures?

Which brings me to what I want to think about for the majority of this episode: what’s the deal with all of these books/television series/films about the English monarchy, particularly its queens, princesses, and members of their court(s)? For example, right now both Yorgos Lanthimos’s Queen Anne court-drama The Favourite (which is one of the best, if not the best, films of 2018) and Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots are in theaters. Victoria, which is produced by ITV, has been commissioned for a third season. Netflix’s The Crown is also going into its third season and has plans to last around six seasons. It’s fairly easy to think of similar projects. Philipa Gregory’s historical novels, such as The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, have been adapted to film and television, respectively. Cate Blanchett has portrayed Elizabeth I in several linked biopics; films such as The Young Victoria and Victoria and Abduhave covered different parts for Queen Victoria’s lifetime; Mary, Queen of Scots received her own television show on the CW (Reign); and The Tudors dedicated a large amount of screentime to the women of King Henry VIII’s court.

In one way or another, all of these texts show just how precarious life as a royal (or being royal-adjacent) truly is. Perhaps part of the reason many of these works focus on powerful women is because the gender dynamic drives this point of precarity home in a particular way. Some of these texts do so better (The Favourite) than others (Reign), but there is no prescribed “happily ever after” viewers would demand from Disney. So if part of the reason we’re fascinated with royals is because of their lavish lifestyle, why do we continue to go see films that deconstruct that narrative? And if many of these historical dramas are dark, or at least serious, is there something positive in them that isn’t there in the fluffier fantasies?

From Mav: I don’t know as much about this as Hannah, but I find myself super-interested by it. I think a large part of the fascination for us (particularly in the United States) might be an American fascination with exceptionalism. This country doesn’t have a true analogue of royalty in the manner that Britain does. Even if you strip away the supernatural element that accompanies many Disney-style princess narratives, there’s still something magical about birthright exceptionalism. It’s why we love stories about heroes like Galahad, Hercules, Luke Skywalker and Neo. Over two hundred years of independence and this country is still fascinated with royal weddings in the UK. In fact, I think Americans care about the royals even more than the Brits do. We love the idea of being born special so much, that since we don’t have royalty here, we do everything we can to invent our own with families like the Karadashians, the Kennedys and the BeyonceZ (yeah, I know it’s actually the Carters… and as much as I would have liked the alliteration, no one would have known who I was talking about).

But the thing with being born special is that we can never do anything about it after the fact. You get one shot, and most of us already missed it. That means the rest of us are painfully boring by definition. I think this leads to our fascination with movies like The Christmas Prince and The Princess Diaries. Maybe, they imply that if we’re lucky, maybe we can just meet someone who will fall in love with us and bring us into that world. Isn’t that the fascination with Meghan Markle and Grace Kelly? A Cinderella story! They’re just regular girls that the royalty saw on TV and took a liking to and decided to primae noctis into specialness… the specialness of giving up your career to become a professional babymaker to extend the royal family line… isn’t that every woman’s dream? I mean, it probably shouldn’t be… it’s kind of creepy when you think about it. And of course, neither Markle or Kelly were really “regular girls” in the first place. They weren’t cleaning cinders out of the fireplace while wearing rags. On top of just hitting the genetic lottery, they were already famous enough to be on TV and in the movies, which is how they got their princes’ attention in the first place. They were already exceptional. And maybe that’s the secret. The Princess Diaries don’t require anyone to fall in love to become exceptional; Mia was always a princess. She just didn’t know. Is the hope that we are all special and just waiting for that phone call to tell us?

And until that phone call comes, we will delight in watching the long list of examples that Hannah mentioned. They give us a taste of the life that we know we will probably never experience. But what strikes me about many of the examples that Hannah listed is that they life isn’t always happy. I totally get the focus on sexual intrigue that a lot of these films and TV shows have. My primae noctis joke aside, people like sex. And, as we talked about back on the sex and the Disney Princess episode, that’s always going to be part of the appeal of the fantasy narrative, even if only in subtext. And maybe a lot of the fascination with being royal is living a decadent life essentially free of consequence. But, as Hannah said, many of the films focus on that NOT being the case. Many of the serious examples focus on the darkness, the back stabbing, the loneliness, the danger. Even A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding for all the fun we made of it, has a serious thematic message that “this royal life ain’t actually that great.” So I’m wondering if there’s also something of a rebellion AGAINST the idea of exceptionalism? Not so much because we don’t want it, but perhaps we want to watch it suffer because it’s something we can never have? But this is so not my wheel house, so I’m really curious as to what people think on this one.

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