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  • Margaret A. Robbins, Ph.D

The Portrayal of Women in The Crown and The Good Place

Warning: This blog post contains Spoilers for Season Three of The Crown and Season Four of The Good Place

Two of my Thanksgiving week television delights have been watching the most recent Season Four episode of The Good Place and binge watching Season Three of The Crown.

I love both shows. However, because of my academic background, it’s much harder for me to watch TV without my feminist theory perspective affecting the way I perceive the characters. As a critical viewer, I found myself intrigued with how the two shows portrayed women differently.

Is a historical drama more indicative of the time it portrays, or the time in which it is produced? Perhaps some of both, but if that’s the case, some of the portrayals of women 35 and up, in comparison to the men, in The Crown is disconcerting.

The opening of Season Three of The Crown takes place in 1964. Given that Elizabeth was born in 1926, she would have been approximately 38 years old. In this scene, Elizabeth gets a view of her new stamp. Rather than being the “young queen,” they are showing her the stamp of the queen who is now “a mother of four,” which is a nice way of saying she’s approaching middle age. She comments that age is rarely kind to people and that they should get on with it, or move forward with the new stamp.

As a point of contrast, in Season Three Episode 7 entitled “Moondust,” Phillip, in his late forties, is going through a midlife crisis. As a point of inspiration, Phillip requests a private audience with the men involved with the 1969 first moon walk, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins, all of whom were in their late thirties when they performed this remarkable feat. In the episode, the men come across as young and sprightly, even shallow in comparison to Phillip, who is contemplating the meaning of his existence. These three men are high energy, jovial, and humorous.

So, the woman in her late thirties is getting a new stamp that makes her look more middle-aged, and the men in their late thirties are young whippersnappers at the envy of the man who is pushing fifty? As a woman in the 35-39 age demographic, I couldn’t help feeling offended.

Middle age is subjective in this day and age, and it is not only a matter of numerical age, but also a state of mind and what is going on in one’s life. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “middle age” as between 45 and 65. Others define it as ages 40 to 60, and yet others claim that it now does not start until 50. Personally, in the second half of my thirties, I do not think of myself as middle-aged, although this might be in part because I’m single and do not have children. But it is disturbing how a woman in her late thirties is portrayed in the The Crown versus men of the same age demographic. Is this in part biology? Yes, but it is also societal. A historical drama should show the values of the time period. But I wonder, in this stark contrast of portrayal of men and women of the same demographic, if they are perpetuating societal double standards regarding men and women and aging. I don’t think this is the best message for women and girls, regardless of our age.

The male/female age and actions double standard doesn’t stop here. In the last episode of Season Three of The Crown, Princess Margaret’s middle-aged husband is having an affair with a much younger woman. People rebuke his actions, but also praise him for his good qualities, such as his talent as a photographer and filmmaker and his generosity toward charities. However, when Margaret has an affair with a younger man, nasty headline tabloids abound, such as “Lady and the Tramp.” Again, the show is likely showing double standards of the late 1970's. But are they still true now? Margaret is a princess and more in the public eye than her husband. However, that’s not the only reason she faces more criticism for the exact same actions as her similar-aged husband. While the show is mirroring what happened at the time, and Margaret’s reactions show the unfairness of the situation, I wonder if the show could have done more to interrogate the gender and age double standards.

I can forgive The Crown, to a degree, because I loved the portrayal of the relationship between Elizabeth and Margaret and how they handled Margaret’s mental health issues and alcoholism. As the oldest cousin and sister in my family, I could relate to Elizabeth wanting to be the caretaker. I could also relate to Elizabeth’s struggle throughout the season for the balance between empathy and needing to maintain a measured, strong public demeanor as a female leader. Did I love the season as a whole? Yes. But did I love and feel uplifted by the way the female characters were portrayed? As a whole, I did not.

Then, cue The Good Place.

If The Crown made me feel down as a woman of age 35-39, then The Good Place makes me feel uplifted. Eleanor, born in the year 1982, is an amazing vivacious woman of my age demographic who proves that she doesn’t need a new “approaching middle age” stamp or picture. Over time, she not only leads her group in discovering the secret of “The Good Place.” She becomes the main architect of the neighborhood when Michael freaks out and can’t play the role. She spearheads a plan that is literally designed to save the entire human species and the universe as we know it. To top it all off, in the second half of her thirties, she has found a person she loves and who loves her and, according to her person’s notes, is “the answer.”

The women in The Good Place as a whole don’t take things sitting down. In fact, they stand up for themselves when Brent, an upper middle-aged white man with horribly elitist mindsets, writes a book in which he portrays them as tokenized, stereotypical characters, particularly the women of color. Eleanor is also the first to call Michael out in creating the fake neighborhood. The romances on the show do not give regard to assumptions regarding race or age.

Each of the major female characters has her own unique narrative arc. Eleanor is trying to become a better person, in spite of having a bad home life growing up and the mistakes she made on earth. Tahani is trying to overcome family pressure, the constant comparisons to her sister, and the incessant need to name drop in order to validate her self-worth. Janet, who some argue is a female-bodied non-binary character, is trying to reconcile a balance between knowledge and emotion. Simone is trying to have faith, even when her intellect gives her doubt.

The male characters are perhaps more stereotypical than the female characters, but they are intriguing nonetheless. Chidi, an academic, works to overcome his indecisive tendencies. Michael wants to save humans after torturing them for so long. Jason, while more the comic relief character, wants to better himself and his relationships. The female characters and the male characters are of equal importance. If anything, the male characters are supporting the main female character Eleanor’s narrative arc, instead of the traditional reverse.

The Crown may mirror accurately the fallacies of the patriarchy and encourage us to consider them. But The Good Place picks them up and smashes them. The Good Place has been praised by many for its portrayal of philosophical issues in a humorous way. In addition, I believe it is a show that gives women hope. Maybe a young woman can spearhead the quest to save humanity after all.

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