The Snooty, Incomprehensible Lives of the Rich, Famous & Royal

I was probably the last person on Earth to watch “The Crown” on Netflix. And, like everyone else, I loved it.

But I’m a little biased. Years ago, a DNA test revealed my ancestry to be 64% English, which is apparently more English than English people. So a love for Queen Elizabeth II is in my blood. Once I finished the series, I moved on to her biography, which is a mighty tome that I have yet to finish; I’ve read as far as the birth of her third son, Andrew.

To this point, my opinion of the Queen is that she is a lady to be admired and emulated, for her character, strength, and intelligence. Yes, it’s probably un-American for me to like her so much. After all, we fought a whole war to prove how much we didn’t want the Crown to boss us around. But there’s more than one way to view the world and the people in it, and both the Netflix series and the biography got me thinking about inherited wealth, privilege, and duty.

Is it a blessing to envy? Or a trap to pity?

Those of us in the lower classes look up to people like the Queen or even just a celebrity and assume that they’re better off. They live lives of luxury, high above us mere mortals. They’re snooty and incomprehensible.

Such a position can be earned, such as by the self-made millionaire, the Hollywood starlet. Or it can be assumed at birth as a member noble or aristocratic class or the second or third generation inheriting old money.

It takes no effort whatsoever to hate such people. But the tragic reality is, normal people have something precious, which may be the most important thing in life–more important than money.

The option to choose your own path.

Mon Petit Chou, Lillibet, My Queen

“Regular” people have choices. They can choose whom to marry. Where to go to school and what profession to pursue, their friends and where they live. They can be themselves, owning and expressing their emotions.

I’m well aware that “The Crown,” while based on real history, is a dramatized version of it. Elizabeth II’s true thoughts and feelings are her own. But the character of Elizabeth II, the fictionalized version, is fair game for interpretation.

The first few episodes of “The Crown” depicted the young Queen–suddenly thrust into her royal duties after the death of her father–holding on to the choices her former life allowed her. She wanted to keep her married name. Live in the home she and Phillip had spent the early years of their marriage renovating. Choose her personal secretary. But those weren’t her choices to make.

The series also explored Elizabeth coming to terms with a sobering fact: that she can’t be Lillibet anymore, with all her personal desires, emotions, and former loyalties. Not entirely, at least. Those must be cast aside, to make way for the Queen’s duties. And in performing those duties, she has to shed her former self and make cold decisions that hurt the people she cares about. She has to think like another person.

In the show, Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, was asked a favor by a friend, as a friend. And the king’s answer was heartbreaking: Albert is dead, I am the King. And then, he gave the King’s answer, not his own.

Perhaps he no longer knew what Albert’s answer would be.

I have a hard time imagining this transformation. To be yourself is a natural and expected thing. But if you’re a called to fulfill a role–like Albert when his brother abdicated — everything you were doing at that moment, all of the plans you had for the future, your expectations for your life, and your habitual ways of behaving, must be abandoned.

Albert killed who he was, in order to become King George VI.

It seems very much to me like a tragic and sudden death. Something that completely alters what has become normal and that you take for granted. And there’s no going back.

We all find ourselves having to play roles, putting aside our true selves to fill expectations. On a less grand and consequential scale, perhaps, but it is certainly something all of us can relate to.

With Great Wealth, Comes Great Expectations

Imagine living your entire life with the world closely watching. And not just watching, but expecting something very specific from you.

“Regular” people are answerable only to themselves and their families, friends, and co-workers. That circle is very small. We still feel pressure, however, as we fulfill our own chosen or inherited duties. To become a doctor like our father, or try not to be an alcoholic like everyone else in our family, or choose a path that the people we love reject.

What if the duty you inherit requires not just immense sacrifice, but it’s something you’re obligated to fulfill and comes with grave responsibility? You may not even be convinced you’re qualified. You may spend your every waking moment questioning your decisions, or in terror of their consequences.

The Queen was tasked with such a duty–God given, she believed, to protect her country and the people in it. That’s no small task, and she can’t very well quit, not when the lives of her people are in her hands. Her job is done when she dies. There is no retirement.

I’ve often wondered if she wanted to breed horses instead. In the show, she declared that she would’ve rather have lived the life of a simple English country woman, something I doubt the real Queen would admit openly. Giving all of that up in the name of duty and service is incredibly noble and selfless and in its own way, heartbreaking.

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“The Crown” season three, with a new Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Life in a Bubble

Someone with such a life cannot live it normally. They must remain in a cocoon, separate from the outside world. In it, but not a part of it.

People often wish they were “normal,” feeling as though their qualities, whether strange or rejected or simply unlikable, separate them from other people.

Being a Royal isn’t normal and it’s most certainly a quality that separates you from other people. In an episode of “The Crown,” the Queen Mother flees to Scotland to be alone with her grief–the loss of a husband, a position, a daughter–and meets a man, from whom she keeps her identity a secret. She does so just to feel like anyone else in the world.

For “normal people,” reality is a very specific thing, so humdrum and routine that it isn’t in the least bit special. It’s a quiet and anonymous life of working, raising children, going grocery shopping, paying bills, watching TV….

Living in a community of others who do the same things is a kind of comfort. People relate to and bond with each other over shared experiences. But who shares the Queen’s experiences? Or any other person like her, past or present?

Such a person must truly an island to herself. The strength required to live such a life is superhuman.

Given what I’ve read about her character–the real Queen Elizabeth II, that is–she wouldn’t feel sorry for herself or pine for what she could’ve had. She is an example to all of us, poor and rich alike, of how to rise to overcome life’s struggles with dignity.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, courtesy By PolizeiBerlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

YOUR TURN

Do you often wish you had the wealth and privilege that people like Queen Elizabeth II or your favorite celeb enjoy? Or would rather keep your humdrum, normal life? Why?

The Criminal Character: Tommy Shelby, Walter White & The Audience Who Loves Them

Movies and TV have made the gangster kind of…sexy.

Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Tommy Darmody in Boardwalk Empire. Billy in The Departed (no, not a gangster, but pretending to be one). Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (yes, I’m serious…) Johnny Depp in Public Enemies. Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire…

No. I’ll stop right there. Sorry Steve Buschemi, but ewww. Not even for a second.

The gangster as presented in movies and TV is physically magnetic and alluring, fodder late night fantasies. The bad boy who needs a good woman to tame him. The man who takes what he wants, without hesitation. Who comes home from his latest brawl with boo-boos that need to be mended…

But the appeal of the gangster is far deeper than that.

I was pondering this question as Cillian Murphy strutted down the gritty streets of early 20th century Birmingham in the second season of Peaky Blinders. I’m now in the fourth season and I absolutely love this series, like everyone else. And it dawned on me that I’ve been this place before–enraptured with a story about gangsters.

Some of my favorite movies and TV series revolve around this law-breaking characterBoardwalk Empire, The Departed, Public Enemies, Goodfellas, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Untouchables, Breaking Bad. Even Oscar (and if you haven’t heard of or seen this movie, your life is not complete).

I have a thing for criminals, apparently.

As I was admiring Tommy Shelby’s beautiful face, I asked myself: why? Why do I enjoy movies and TV shows about criminals? Why does anyone, because I am definitely not the only one.

Gangsters Reach for the Stars…By Breaking the Law

The first answer that came to my mind was that the gangster–or generally, the criminal–as dramatized in movies and TV, rises above society’s rules to take what he wants in life. We enjoy watching his successes because we, here in the real world, are tamed and obligated by those same rules.

And the gangster, of course, wants exactly what we want: happiness, achieved when our dreams are fulfilled and our daily struggles are over.

The beautiful house and a comfortable life. Freedom from a hated job, and the obligation to work that hated job. The safety and contentment of the people we love, and providing for those people. The ability to snap our fingers and get what we want or do what we want. Money often achieves all of these things.

In our normal, everyday lives, there are obstacles everywhere, preventing us from reaching these goals. We can’t get the job we want because of nepotism in the workplace. The bank won’t give us the loan we need to buy the nice house. Rules prevent us from moving forward as quickly or as easily as we want.

The trouble is, we all have our place in this world, based on where we were born and into what family and circumstances. Often, we only have so far to move from the place we start from, especially if that starting point is closer to the gutter. How far we go depends on our grit and determination. Only the extraordinary person can rise above challenging circumstances to reach their apex of their dreams. Legally, that is.

Not so for the gangster. Those rules don’t exist for him. He rises above society and its trappings to make his own rules and capture success on his terms. That is very appealing. Seen from this viewpoint, a life of crime is a kind of freedom (fictionally speaking).

Take Walter White in Breaking Bad. He spent his whole life doing things the right way, following the rules, even as he faced a terminal cancer diagnosis. Society put up a wall that he could not climb. So he went around that wall.

On the other side is something we rarely enjoy in real, everyday life: being on top and in control, a master of your own fate.

How Movies & TV Explore Light & Dark, Good & Evil, & Everything in Between

In all the gangster-themed TV and movies I’ve watched, such characters are used in two ways: to expose man’s utter cruelty and inhumanity, or to confuse the audience by revealing his many contradictory sides.

The gangster can do very bad things. But he’s also human. He wants what we want, and despite his evil acts we can empathize with him. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but the bad man can also have a good heart.

Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire is a serial killer. Let’s not mince words. He’s killed dozens of people and does so seemingly without hesitation or remorse. But when he’s alone in his room at night, he cuts out pictures of happy families and pastes them into a scrapbook, dreaming about what he believes he can never have: a normal life. Service in World War I stole that normal life from him, turning him into a sniper who couldn’t switch off that killer instinct when he got home. It also gave him a ghoulish face wound, which he covered up with a rather eerie prosthetic mask.

He’s a fan favorite, I believe because he was a contradiction. He had an evil side and yet he was a tender, broken man, who loved and cared for a young orphan, fell in love, and created a little family just like he dreamed. We rooted for him.

For this very reason, I’m excited for Tom Hardy’s upcoming Al Capone flick, Fonzo, which I expect will paint an unexpectedly sympathetic side to a famous psychopathic gangster.

This contradiction of good and evil is fascinating, because it lies in all of us. We all want simple, normal things, to be surrounded by people we love and to protect them,  and to achieve our dreams. But we could also become killers, if the circumstances were right. Light and dark is in all of us.

Of course, fiction gives us a miraculous gift: the ability to see and analyze all these different sides and hidden motivations. We aren’t afforded the same access in real life. We rarely know why people do things, and so are resigned to watch life unfold from the outside and shake our heads, utterly confused by the events around us.

But stories give us a good window into understanding inscrutable people. It allows us to empathize, to walk in the shoes of someone we normally wouldn’t understand, to find common ground.

And yes, it’s possible to find common ground with a criminal.

Featured image courtesy United States Bureau of Prisons [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Your Turn

Can you think of any other reasons why the gangster character is so appealing? If you  disagree, I’d love to hear why. If you have a favorite fictional criminal, tell me about him or her.