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What Princeton students can learn from selective storytelling in ‘The Crown’

<h5>Inci Karaaslan / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Inci Karaaslan / The Daily Princetonian

In recent days, I must admit that I have fallen prey to the binge-worthiness of many of Netflix’s top shows. Alongside reading “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” by James Baldwin and “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde,” compiled by Roxane Gay, “The Crown” has become a steady fixture of my post-semester life. I watch it while I’m eating my meals, when I feel no concern for life beyond my room, and in the frequent moments when I have been bored out of my mind, drowning in feelings of directionlessness. 

Despite how often I’ve used “The Crown” as a source of respite, I always feel somewhat uncomfortable while watching. On its face, “The Crown” tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the entire British royal family, revealing stories and conflicts they have dedicated decades to protecting. In doing so, the show humanizes these historical figures.

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Viewers are presented with intimate details regarding the Queen’s relationship with her husband and the struggles they suffered in the early years of their marriage, as well as Prince Charles’ position as an innately shy child who grew up to replace Margaret’s role as the “radical” in the family. It isn’t hard to escape the fact that these are real people, and often viewers may find themselves pitying the characters, identifying with them, and even adoring them.

But then, at that very moment where I find myself becoming somewhat sentimental towards the royal family, I begin feeling conflicted instead. I question whether these people should be humanized. Because, bluntly put, they represent a violent, murderous kingdom that is founded on steadfastness to a racist patriarchy.

In the moments where the show’s creators appear most dedicated to illustrating their humanity, the royal family is often seen parading around in their colonies, such as my homeland of Jamaica and the homes of many of my close friends, such as Ghana and Nigeria. These countries were their playgrounds. They sent a king accused of sympathizing with the Nazis and who eventually abdicated the throne to the Bahamas, appointing him as governor, to prevent the British from discovering his betrayal, and it was in Jamaica that the Queen and her husband attempted to patch up their relationship. 

Yet the people of these countries are merely backdrops to the main story. There is an obvious desire on Netflix’s part to depict the racist colonialist mindset of the royal family, but it is hidden beneath a larger narrative concerning the intricacies of royal life. When I first heard the Queen refer to the people of Kenya as “savages” whose land was “uncivilized,” I briefly wondered why there was no trigger warning for racism prior to the episode. Of course, this was in the first three episodes of the show. While watching episode seven of season four, in which Netflix producers provided trigger warnings relating to eating disorders, I realized that if they were to provide warnings for the potential trauma that could be inflicted on someone as a result of the depiction of racism and colonialism, it would require one for every episode. 

Hence, I cannot help but wonder if this is the story Netflix should be telling. Why seek to humanize the leaders of a violent, oppressive empire, while the lives of the Black and brown people they harmed are depicted as mere backdrops? I understand that this is perhaps the way those people existed within the lives of royals, but why are we giving these royals the privilege of remaining relevant in our lives? 

I also worry about the implications of portraying such a story on a platform such as Netflix. I could not help but think about my 12-year-old cousin, who, despite growing up in Jamaica, a majority Black country, is constantly in contact with white media and shows the telltale signs of anti-Blackness, which can fester in Black children — at least, it did in me — until they are able to re-educate themselves. Will she be able to identify that she is not a “savage”? That her country is worthy of more than being a mere playground for the spoiled and immoral? When she sees Black children running after the white Queen in Ghana, a country with which Jamaica shares much of its culture, will she be able to understand that she is more valuable than being at the beck and call of white folks? 

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These are the questions racing through my mind while watching “The Crown,” because I know I cannot teach her everything. Even if I tried, I am not sure she would be able to comprehend it, much like I was unable to, until she experiences countless incidents of racism and injustice in Jamaica and abroad. 

Even larger than the question regarding the integrity of “The Crown” is one relating to the responsibility of institutions, whether it be Netflix or Princeton, in the stories they choose to illuminate. As Princetonians, we need to pay keen attention to this. 

As a 284-year-old institution with a $26 billion endowment, we must be cognizant of the stories we are telling. Yet we are failing. In the same way I worry for my younger cousin due to the true endearment and love I hold for her, I worry for Princeton.

We exist in an institution that, like The Crown, continues to center oppressive values. This can be seen through the University’s continued investment in fossil fuels, despite the disproportionate impact that climate change has on Black and brown people globally. Additionally, it took an alumni donation for Indigenous studies to receive a meaningful place in the curriculum. Finally, and most obviously, the University centers oppressive values when defending racist speech in the name of free speech.  

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If Princeton is to ever move forward, the voices of those who have been historically oppressed need to be centered. The same holds true for society at large. Institutions like Princeton and Netflix need to be intentional in the stories they tell. They must be aware of the harm caused by ignoring and erasing marginalized voices for the sake of protecting the status quo. The continued failure of these institutions to do so should be alarming for anyone who wants to see a more equitable future. Because, as Baldwin so eloquently put it, “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” 

Kristal Grant is a first-year from Kingston, Jamaica. She can be reached at khgrant@princeton.edu.

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