In recent months, young British queens have ascended to the throne of prestige TV. In November, Netflix debuted its series The Crown, which follows the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who came to the throne in 1952. And in January, PBS launched the new drama Victoria, which traces the rise of Queen Victoria in the 19th century.
Any historical TV show is bound to make choices about which events and themes are most important. But the shows’ approaches are particularly noteworthy because they reflect 21st-century expectations about women in leadership positions. Contemporary audiences assume that a young woman in power—regardless of the era in which she rules—would necessarily be filled with self-doubt, and be forced to spend much of her time winning over skeptical men. The Crown and Victoria follow these tropes accordingly. But in truth, Elizabeth II and Victoria were confident young queens, raised with a keen awareness of their future responsibilities.
Both queens came to the throne amid waves of popular goodwill. Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth for 65 years, came to the throne at age 25. Britain was slowly emerging from the austerity of World War II, and the young queen’s accession seemed to promise the ushering in of a new Elizabethan age.
Similarly, when Victoria became queen at age 18 in 1837, her accession was perceived as an opportunity to make the monarchy respectable again, following the disreputable reigns of her uncles, George IV and William IV. (Both men were better known for their mistresses, gambling, and extravagance than their statesmanship.)
To be sure, each queen encountered political difficulties during the early years of her reign. Victoria was criticized for her close friendship with Lord Melbourne and her treatment of Lady Flora Hastings in 1839. A constitutional monarch is supposed to be above party politics, and Victoria’s clear partiality for Melbourne and the Whig party conflicted with her role as queen. When Victoria insisted that her mother’s unmarried lady-in-waiting, Flora Hastings, be examined by doctors to determine if her swollen stomach was caused by a pregnancy, and it then became clear that Hastings was instead dying of cancer, the Queen appeared insensitive and uncaring.
Elizabeth faced the Suez crisis in 1956 as Britain attempted to maintain European control over Suez Canal in Egypt. American intervention in the crisis, which forced Britain to withdraw, seemed to symbolize the final decline of the British Empire, which had reached its zenith in Victoria’s reign.
These challenges aside, the optimism that greeted the queens’ accessions is almost entirely missing from the hit TV shows depicting their lives.
Instead, the shows depict Elizabeth and Victoria facing crises from almost the moment they each succeed to the throne. The 1952 great smog of London, recognized as a major air pollution disaster in retrospect, is reimagined in The Crown as a constitutional crisis that tests Elizabeth’s ability to navigate her duties as queen. Meanwhile, Victoria scrambles the timeline to put its heroine in maximum distress, depicting her as caught up in the 1839 Flora Hastings affair at the same time as her 1838 coronation, all within the first months of her reign.
The crises provide dramatic moments that work well on television. But these interpretations also reflect 21st-century attitudes toward women in power. Although first elected female head of state, Sri Lanka’s Sirima Bandaranaike, assumed office in 1960, women remain underrepresented in politics around the world. And in 2016, the world watched as a highly qualified female candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost the US presidency to the politically inexperienced Donald Trump. In this context, it’s only natural that modern audiences expect young female rulers surrounded by a male political establishment to face skepticism and self-doubt in any era. A confident young queen embraced by her subjects is difficult for us to imagine.
Our contemporary expectation that young female leaders will have a hard time being seen as competent and capable is also evident in the series. A consistent theme in The Crown and Victoria is male advisors stepping in to mentor the young queens or express doubts about their abilities—in either case, underscoring the idea that she is not fit to navigate her responsibilities on her own.
In Victoria, the young queen is undermined by her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, and her mother’s financial advisor, John Conroy. In fact, both of these figures were politically marginalized in England as soon as she became queen. Another uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium steps in to advise Victoria to marry as soon as possible. Only the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne appears to have confidence in the young queen’s abilities.
In The Crown, meanwhile, the Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip and rapport with her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, take center stage. Marital tension is an almost constant theme, as Elizabeth is depicted struggling to balance 1950s expectations of wives and mothers with her role as queen.
There were certainly moments of conflict in the royal marriage during Elizabeth’s early years as queen, including her choice to make Windsor, instead of Mountbatten, the reigning house. But The Crown adds fictionalized battles along gender lines. Philip warns Elizabeth of past monarchs who lost the confidence of their people and then their thrones during the World War I, and objects to swearing allegiance to his wife as sovereign, which publicly affirms his subordinate position in his marriage. Churchill acts as a key mentor to the young Elizabeth—but she still has to insist that the prime minister treat her according to her position as monarch, rather than according to her age and gender. Even Elizabeth’s disgraced uncle, the former King Edward VIII, steps in to provide advice in The Crown through a series of conversations that are unlikely to have actually taken place. Both The Crown and Victoria assume that a young woman in power would spend most her time proving her abilities and asserting her position to skeptical men.
Another theme that permeates both shows is each queen’s self-doubt. Victoria laments her sheltered childhood, which she feels has failed to prepare her for her role as monarch. Elizabeth hires a tutor to fill the gaps in her education. In fact, both Elizabeth and Victoria were aware from childhood that they were next in line to the throne, and had time to grow into the role.
Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, strictly limited her young daughter’s time at the court of William IV. But she did arrange for Victoria to tour England and Wales, giving her a familiarity with the rapidly changing social conditions created by the industrial revolution. The young Princess Victoria recorded in her diary in 1832, “We have just changed horses at Birmingham where I was two years ago, and we visited the manufactories which are very curious…. The country continues black, engines flaming, coals in abundance, everywhere, smoking and burning coal heaps, intermingled with wretched huts and carts and little ragged children…” This range of experience is missing from the Victoria series, which depicts the young queen as completely insulated from the outside world.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, became heiress presumptive at the age of 10, when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. The future Queen Elizabeth II began undertaking royal duties during World War II, becoming honorary colonel-in-chief of the Grenadier Guards on her 16th birthday. When Elizabeth said in a radio broadcast on her 21st birthday that her whole life “whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” she was well aware of the nature of the commitment that she was making to her future subjects. As her father, George VI’s health worsened after the war, Princess Elizabeth began representing him on Commonwealth tours, undertaking a successful tour of Canada in 1951 with Prince Philip, which included a visit to the United States to meet with president Harry Truman. As in Victoria, however, The Crown emphasizes a young queen’s inexperience rather than her careful training for her future role.
Like all historical dramas, The Crown and Victoria are shaped by the circumstances of the era they were made as well as the time periods portrayed on screen. Both shows naturally reflect the present-day challenges faced by women in political life. With any luck, as more women achieve political office over the course of the 21st century, their counterparts in historical dramas will be depicted with greater confidence in their abilities as leaders.
Carolyn Harris is the author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, which will be published by Dundurn Press in May 2017. She blogs about royalty and history at royalhistorian.com.