Photographing the empire in Netflix’s The Crown

Katie Goh /
Dec 21, 2017 / Opinion

Queen Elizabeth II and Kim Kardashian have a lot in common.

Both are at the centre of large, complicated, and vaguely incestuous family dynasties, both come from money, and both have been involved with the construction of empires, although perhaps one is less problematic – and more successful – than the other. Both are also obsessed with painstakingly curating imagery of themselves for public consumption.

Netflix’s The Crown is a dramatisation of the life of Queen Elizabeth II. While season one dealt with Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne, season two, released earlier this month, is about how royalty situates itself in a world that no longer needs or desires a monarchy.

The Crown’s second season is preoccupied with visual representations of the royals. Plotlines range from Princess Margaret’s scandalous photo-shoot and her later marriage to photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones, to Elizabeth’s PR anxieties over her public image, to a media and political storm over a photograph of the back of a head that looks suspiciously like Philip. Set in the middle of the twentieth century, when celebrity culture was accelerating towards our current hysteria, the camera is a recurring motif in the series.

Season two of The Crown opens in 1956. Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, has chosen to nationalise the Suez Canal, an assertion of independence from the British. “Freedom from colonial thieves,” he shouts as the camera lingers on a photographic portrait of the Queen.

The British Empire and the increasing availability of the mass-produced camera were simultaneous events in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Appropriated as a colonial weapon, photography mapped countries and was used to document and categorise people, races, and ethnicities, sent home to British academics and politicians. The circulation of photography within the British Empire was therefore a circulation of one-sided power and knowledge.

Photographing the empire in Netflix’s The Crown

In The Crown’s second episode, Philip goes on a five-month royal tour of the commonwealth, across Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and New Guinea, before reaching Australia, and then venturing on across the Pacific. Before the Duke leaves he is given a camera by the Queen to record his journey. We see the British men engage in sports competitions with the native peoples while Philip’s private secretary, Michael, composes a letter to the gentleman at home, read out in voiceover. “We’ve pipped the locals pretty much everywhere we’ve been,” he lies, while the viewer sees the British men beaten again and again.

Filmed in montage, we are supposed to find the tour humorous and good-natured, an exchange of cultures, sports, and food. In reality, The Crown whitewashes the relationship between coloniser and colonised. The native people are all smiles, nothing other than welcoming to the British men, despite many of these countries being on the verge of independence (Malaysia gained its independence from the British in 1957, a year after this scene is set). The most uncomfortable moment takes place when a fisherman is rescued by the Royal Britannia, and Philip takes on the trope of the White Saviour by heroically bringing the man home. “We went out of our way to return him to his home, his family, and his people,” says Michael in voiceover, emphatic of the British men’s heroism.

The Crown’s scenes of the royal tour function like Philip’s camera: to present a comfortable and contained image of colonialism, palatable to a British audience. Rolls of film are sent home to the royal family, who gather around a projector to watch the men’s adventures with delight. Kept within the confines of a screen, the images of faraway lands embody the distancing effect created by exoticism. In his famous work of post-colonialism, Orientalism, Edward Said argues that images of the East created by the West positions the West as the “self” and the East as the “other”, as a means of justifying colonialism. “There is no doubt,” he writes, “that imaginative geography and history help the mind to intensify the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away.” Philip’s photography distances the coloniser doing the filming and the colonised, being filmed. He is the self while the colonial subject is represented as the other.

The Crown is doing the exact same thing as Philip. By showing idealised images of exotic faraway lands, the television show is contributing to the self/other and West/East binary that colonialism established. The British Empire might have ended but its attitudes certainly haven’t. We see the colonial gaze everywhere: in television and film, in travel and tourist photography, and in museums and galleries. In a television show that seeks to humanise and add complexity to our relationship to the monarchy, The Crown’s visual depictions of the British Empire are disturbingly glossy.

Photographing the empire in Netflix’s The Crown

The Crown

Words by Katie Goh

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