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Historical Dramas: The Queen v. The Crown

smccormack
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As a historian I know almost nothing about the British monarchy except what I need to get me through teaching the first weeks of colonial America. I haven’t taught Western Civ in many, many years and somehow I completely avoided British history throughout my own undergraduate education. My increased interest in the monarchy in recent years, admittedly, is founded entirely on the hours I have invested in the Netflix series “The Crown.” When the Queen passed away in September, it took me a moment to remind myself that the deceased was not Olivia Coleman, the brilliant actor upon whom my sympathetic view of Queen Elizabeth II’s life has been built, but instead a woman I knew very little about – a figurehead whose life has been serialized.

 

Historically based (largely fictitious) dramas have an enormous influence over the television-watching and movie-going population and how they view historical events. When “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” came out in 2019 I remember my students being stunned during our casual conversation that Quentin Tarantino had ended the movie with a fictionalized version of a real-life murder. Some felt betrayed by the way history was “changed” for the movie. I reminded them that movies are meant for entertainment and that history as narrative – when it tells the truth – often offers no comfort or enjoyment.   

 

Somber images of the Queen’s funeral broadcast world-wide depicted family members in mourning and residents of the far-reaching British Empire offering public condolences. World leaders expressed gratitude for her lifetime of service. In those moments – seemingly made for television – we forget that the Queen as a symbol represents years of British colonial and imperial policies that have been damaging to the societies and economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. And for that, I feel a bit guilty over the hours I’ve invested in the entertainment value of the fictional version of Queen Elizabeth II versus time spent studying the true history of her reign. If I knew more about British policies in India, for example, would the serialization of the Queen’s life – with all the dramatic flair of a soap opera – truly be so entertaining?  Probably not.

 

As much as I love both movies and television, I wonder if the creative minds behind such entertainment need for us as society to remain somewhat ignorant of history so that we will “enjoy” the stories. Don’t get me wrong: I do not believe that there is a giant conspiracy to keep us in the dark about history to sell movie tickets. I do, however, think there is a balance that must be struck between entertainment and the sharing of factual knowledge. Maybe the responsibility for that balance rests solely on me as historian and consumer. Thoughts? 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.