With ‘The Crown’ we have a story about a young woman battling depraved aristocrats — and a chance to investigate our relation to power in the Trump era. There’s a scene, early in The Crown’s wildly popular fourth season, where Princess Diana meets her royal in-laws.
She’s barely out of her teens, and suffers from profound insecurity and anxiety; until she met Prince Charles, she was working as a part-time kindergarten teacher. Now, she stands face-to-face with the most powerful people in the country, and they hate her. They stand around her in a circle, like wolves closing in on a wounded deer. They talk over her every time she speaks. She’s supposed to have memorized a complicated hierarchy of titles and greetings, and they mock her every time she gets something wrong, which is often. The camera whirls around Diana, watching the panic attack brewing on her face, until we’re as dizzy and overwhelmed as she is.
Diana’s tormentors are normally the show’s protagonists — the royal family we’ve come to know and root for over the past three seasons — and in this instant, all of the characters we like become terrifying strangers. Our only concern is for the helpless young woman who finds herself trapped with these inbred, old-money monsters.
This is not an uncommon place to find yourself in 2020. Watching The Crown, I realized that it essentially shares a plot with two other recent movies: Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and Ready or Not by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Like The Crown, these are essentially Cinderella stories with body counts, where pure, innocent young women are suddenly elevated into families of depraved aristocrats. It’s through those women’s battle to survive that we navigate the bloody class subtext of our princess fantasies.
In the case of Ready or Not, the heroine is a bride named Grace who’s forced to play her in-laws’ preferred “game” on her wedding night — this game being of the “most dangerous” survivalist variety — and in the case of Knives Out, she’s a nurse, Marta, who is framed for murder after her wealthy employer dies, presumably at the hands of his awful family. Both women, like Diana, are wide-eyed and exaggeratedly pure of heart (Marta, in Knives Out, is so relentlessly sweet and innocently imperiled that the audience of a 19th-century melodrama would probably find her a tad unrealistic), which contrasts the grotesque decadence of the families they’re dealing with.
The coked-up sister-in-law and shambling drunk brother in Ready or Not who hunt Grace with Great-Grandpa’s heirloom murder weapons; the narcissistic influencer and blustering douchebag who won’t stop mentioning that he “saw Hamilton at the Public” in Knives Out; or, in The Crown, the pathetic man-child Charles and the human icebox that is Queen Elizabeth II. These people are deformed by wealth, made inhuman by it, and can only sustain themselves through the suffering of people like our heroines.
As a political statement, it’s not subtle: machinery of capitalism oiled by the blood of the workers, etc. It is (probably) not true that all wealthy families are comprised entirely of depraved soulless drug-addicted homicidal maniacs, no more than it is true that every working-class person exists in a state of moral perfection, observing the cruelty of the world through giant Keane eyes. Yet you can see why it feels true, here at the end of 2020, when the Oval Office has been occupied for four years by one of the most depraved and freakish families in existence.
These heroines are worse off than you, which makes you sympathize with them, but also better off than you, which makes you want to be them.
Whatever bad ideas you have about the rich, the Trumps confirm them: Donald an incoherent whirlwind of racism and cruelty and sexual violence, his wife an empty-eyed shell whose only clearly expressed opinions involve hating children and Christmas, his sons a heady mixture of stupid and mean, Ivanka selling airbrushed Glossier-pink fascism and Jared somehow the only man on earth paler and more incompetent than Prince Charles.
We understand the ugliness of power now — whether through the Trumps, or the revelations about Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein — and how money can both morally deform the rich and empower them to commit acts of violence. In the face of this power, most of us feel small and vulnerable, and in Hollywood, “vulnerable” somehow always equates to “young white woman.” (Marta, the only princess of color, almost has to be the most two-dimensional character; if she weren’t literally perfect, the white audience might refuse to sympathize.) In our minds, we are all princesses, even if we are men.
Yet there’s an ambivalence hidden inside these stories. Cinderellas are tricky — privileged by birth and oppressed by circumstance, poverty-stricken drudge and bootstrapping success story, worker and queen. These heroines are worse off than you, which makes you sympathize with them, but also better off than you, which makes you want to be them.
The hunted bride in Ready or Not or the terrorized nurse in Knives Out are subjected to their families’ cruelty, but they also — spoiler — end up inheriting that family’s fortune, even as nameless working-class characters are killed off all around them, which is to say that these are not stories about universal freedom or justice, but rather stories in which one woman just so happens to be sweet and nice and hardworking enough to seize wealth from the less deserving. It is a deeply American habit to deplore “the rich” as a concept while simultaneously assuming that wealth is a reward for good behavior and being famous makes you inherently more important than anyone else. Diana Windsor had the same struggles as millions of other women (an eating disorder, a cheating husband, an ugly divorce) but the world rarely paid attention to their suffering. We paid attention to Diana, because she suffered in castles and couture.
It’s easy to say that powerful people are monsters. It’s much, much harder to identify the power you already have, or to acknowledge its dependence on other people’s suffering. Those of us who hated Trump — specifically, white liberals like myself, who know all the right things to say and have replaced our boasts about seeing Hamilton with gushing love for Knives Out — are about to lose him as an enemy. Will we still interrogate power when we’re the ones who have it? Will we still hate the people in charge, when that list of people includes ourselves? Do we want to tear down the house, or do we want to own it? Much depends on what we decide. Just watch The Crown: The heroes of your story can become the villains in an instant. It all depends on how they treat the most powerless person in the room.