During the pandemic I’ve been trying to focus on watching comedy or science fiction, things that will either make me laugh or help me escape. But after seeing many references to The Crown on Netflix, I decided to check it out.
Woof. I made it two episodes, both of which I was cringing through extensively.
Now, to be clear, I don’t judge what other people like to consume, and if you found The Crown to be enjoyable for you, that’s awesome.
But for me, it exemplified the utter inanity of what monarchy represents. Some may argue that was intentional, but the way the show was structured, the way scenes were shot, and above all, the epic-style music they used to back the most normal of actions, came across as though the viewer was expected to be swept up in the innate majesty of this institution.
She’s gone into her father’s office! She’s sitting at his desk! This will be her desk someday! More epic music, more!!!!
And I really don’t even want to touch on the portrayal of her visit to Kenya, because that could be a whole other essay, but I will argue that if they wanted to deconstruct and critique the monarchy, perhaps a little less abject adoration from the Africans and more criticism would have been helpful.
I’m already on a tangent here, but the point is that I had already been thinking some about the monarchy when Harry and Meghan did their recent interview.
I have been extremely anti-monarchist for a long time. Essentially since I was a) old enough to read history, and b) had the wherewithal to realize how utterly arbitrary and ridiculous it is to assign superiority due to an accident of birth. The news about Harry and Meghan’s departure from the British Royal Family has been fascinating to me, not due to any particular interest in them as celebrities, but rather as a hope that maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to dispel the antiquated idea that a woman in a big house is automatically entitled to adulation and worship because of her family’s historical ability to seize power.
It’s also been a chance to read some amazing pieces including this one dissecting the current path of Britain and the dangers of a colonialist society refusing to set aside their belief in superiority or even better, this one from the Irish Times which is delightfully snarky and contains one of my favorite metaphors of all time.
CNN held a poll the week after Oprah’s interview with Harry & Meghan aired, and as might be expected, the percentage of Britons who viewed the interview as inappropriate was close to fifty percent. Those roots run deep, and cultural bias is hard to overcome. It’s also sad to see how many people are still unquestioning of their country’s colonizing past, or unwilling to acknowledge any current racial issues.
By contrast, in this poll, Americans were much more likely to support Harry and Meghan. It’s not surprising, considering America’s history with Britain, and our pride in our independence from that particular “empire”. People still get really excited about July 4th, even if a good portion of it stems from the desire to eat barbecue and explode things. Yet, before we all start patting ourselves on the back too hard, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in many respects, we still fall into the same traps of confusing position with entitlement, mixing luck and skill, and using the most superficial of qualities to both uplift and demean.
Because it’s easy to point fingers at “those people over there”, but to pretend that we aren’t just as superficial, as well as just as vulnerable to adulation of those in power, is dangerous. And if we want to progress and grow, we have to learn the difference between leaders who are considered right for all the wrong reasons, and those who genuinely deserve to be there.
Messaging about superiority in our culture can be insidious, and difficult to parse. People who have attained their positions through nepotism and luck are often in the best position, and have strong incentive, to cultivate a particular narrative. Acknowledging that you have privilege that you didn’t earn, and that may have come at the expense of others, takes a vulnerability that few seem capable of showing. Look at our recent ex-president, who is still insisting that something he feels entitled to was “stolen” from him. As someone who has never earned anything, he believes he is entitled to everything. And millions of people, many of whom ironically have almost nothing, believe him.
This is the insidious thing of living in a white supremacist culture, that originated due to colonization. The myth of being born special and important is deeply entwined with the desperate desire to acquire and maintain power. And the best way to maintain power is to work hard to convince all of those without power that this is simply an immutable fact of biology that must be accepted, like gravity or tides.
We may not have a monarchy here, or be part of the Commonwealth, but we treat wealth just like royalty in this country. If you’re rich, it’s because you deserve to be rich. Wealth = success, so therefore if you’re wealthy, you’ve earned it by being successful. Rich people aren’t being greedy or controlling, they’re not exploiting everyone else (or if they are, those exploited are to blame for not just leaving). If they have everything, they must deserve what they have. They were just born special.
The sad thing is that this narrative is so prominent in so many ways in everything we consume, that we are seeded with a vast array of unconscious biases that make it all acceptable to us. And as wealth gets more and more imbalanced in our country, it’s also breaking us apart at the seams.
These messages are everywhere. Look at our most popular pop culture properties. In Star Wars, Luke is special not because of his tenacity or courage, but because he was born a Skywalker and inherited his father’s great power – a trend that was repeated in the most recent film from 2019, where the most powerful Jedi is that way because of the bloodline she came from. The latest movie was a perfect opportunity to show that bloodlines and origins don’t matter, to let characters of color get the powerful moments and chances to save the galaxy. Instead it came back, yet again, to the special white people who were just born that way.
Harry Potter started out living in horrible circumstances, but again, thanks to being the chosen one, he becomes the hero around which the entire world revolves. He’s not the smartest or most capable, he’s just special. He gets away with things that other students do not. He feels entitled to breaking the rules, just because it’s him, and he wants to. And this belief is justified by consistent special treatment by those around him. Plus he also finds out he’s extremely rich, so there’s an extra layer of privilege for you (but don’t worry, he doesn’t show off by trying to use his money to help others or anything).
Even the most recent video game I played, Horizon Zero Dawn, made the strange choice of a protagonist that is a clone of a famous scientist. She was created because the scientist was capable and smart, and so therefore it was assumed that her DNA would mean she was capable of saving the world. It was a fun game, but making this a core message of the game was baffling to me. Nevermind nurture, her nature is superior, and that’s all the matters. My friend and I couldn’t help joking about what would happen if the baby was accidentally dropped as a child – whoops, there goes humanity’s last chance! Should’ve made a backup!
These things seem harmless in and of themselves, and honestly, in many ways they are. Plenty of people have taken inspiration from these kinds of narratives, and in a world where it is easy to feel invisible, taking comfort in the fantasy of being seen as special makes a great deal of sense. Sometimes you just want to have fun and get lost in a good story.
But taken collectively, the consistent narrative of having to be born special, having to look a certain way, to most often be within a very narrow definition of what is attractive, to most often be able-bodied, and straight, and cisgender, and especially, white, has an impact on all of us.
So what does this all have to do with leadership? A heck of a lot.
The vast number of Fortune 500 CEOs are still white men. And of the ground that was gained by underrepresented groups, most of it went to white women. Superficial characteristics still matter a great deal when it comes to success. Even just googling the topic, you’ll find lots of articles calmly discussing why top leaders fit certain molds, as if fitting that mold and attaining leadership positions are a natural thing, not an example of bias and privilege at work. I literally stumbled across an article with the line “Given their physical presence, tall people make natural leaders at large companies” which was written by a self-described “short” man. Who then went on to argue that short men make better entrepreneurs. I guess that’s one way to respond to internalized bias?
Sure, there is a lot that could be discussed about confidence, and how fitting within certain parameters may give you more confidence, which may lead to more success. But it’s not a straight line. Rather it’s more of an ouroboros, a circle of bias entwined who is given the tools for confidence through the messages of our culture.
Unfortunately the last few years have shown how deeply dangerous it is for a society when millions of people buy into the myth of entitlement and superiority, consciously or not. There’s always been a deep cost for many oppressed members of the population, but what we’ve been seeing more recently is the horrifying lengths that people will go to when they feel their self-entitled superiority slipping away.
The country elected a completely unqualified, idiotically incompetent businessman, because he was good at pretending to be rich, and people bought the myth that his faux success meant real capability. His most devout followers genuinely desired to see an actual monarchy or dictatorship arise from this, thankfully, temporary role as Commander-in-Chief.
It’s unbelievably insane. Americans, the same ones who routinely spout off the rebelling Founding Fathers as gospel, wanted to place someone in ultimate authority, because they thought he was naturally superior – in all the ways that mattered to them.
Almost every Democrat who recently voted against the minimum wage is a millionaire. We’re seeing Republicans consistently vote against the best interest of poor and middle class conservatives, even when the legislation is overwhelmingly popular. The top billionaires in the country have gotten staggeringly more wealth during the pandemic, while simultaneously blocking their employees from unionization or better treatment. And due to so many politicians and leaders fitting within these narrow parameters of superiority, they have no desire to change the status quo. After all, they would no longer be special.
Ok, this is all feeling rather bleak. Which considering the year we’ve all had, I think is somewhat understandable. But I do think there are a lot of positives to think about here.
For one, younger Brits are much less likely to support the monarchy. Similar to the younger generations in America, they’ve had to deal with some troubling political decisions while suffering more consequences than their older peers. It’s a lot harder to blindly worship a queen when you can’t pay your rent. And we see similar trends in many areas of American culture, including increasing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, greater understanding of disability, and pushes for racial diversity.
It wasn’t so long ago that there was never really discussion of who was in power and why, and we now live in a time where many people are calling out issues of bias and who has access to opportunity in the first place. Marginalized voices are still having to fight for a seat at the table, but there are some amazing people who are being heard and making huge differences.
I genuinely believe that a great deal of the scary behavior we are seeing is a backlash from those who are mistakenly seeing their loss of privilege as a personal attack. Sadly, their panic too often results in oppression and violence towards those they have already been victimizing for so long without consequence. But I also think it’s a sign that things are truly changing. They wouldn’t be so scared otherwise. The tactics of the past are starting to fail, and they are starting to miscalculate just how much power they still have.
There are still dangers ahead, and we have a lot to do. But I can’t lie – taking down the elite, in whatever form it takes, also sounds like a lot of fun to me.
Vive la révolution.