Princess Margaret as a Feminist Icon

SOURCE: Alex Bailey via Netflix

by Shreya

Disclaimer: Spoilers for Season 2 of The Crown below.

Season Two of the much beloved show The Crown has earned a reputation for being one of the least-loved and well-received seasons of the show. While the historical accuracy and storylines of british politics are certainly less prominent than in the first season, it offers refreshing exposition on the life and romantic adventures of fan-favorite: Princess Margaret. The end of Season 1 shows the end of Margaret and Peter Townsend’s engagement, due to many external factors. Peter was a divorced man and the church forbade their marriage; Elizabeth, being the head of the church in the United Kingdom was forced to give her sister an ultimatum: to marry Peter she would have to lose her royal titles and leave the country. In the end, Margaret chose to retain her titles and ended her engagement, thus breaking hers and Peter’s hearts. Season 2 shows Margaret’s heartbreak, how she still struggles with the pain of leaving Peter and the impacts it had on her life, and how she overcame it in the end. As said before, Margaret is the audience’s favorite, and between her witty remarks and tumultuous storyline it is easy to see why. In Season 1, we saw a young rebellious princess, intent to defy tradition and pursue a forbidden and passionate romance. We fell in love with her fiery nature despite her occasional rudeness and snobbery. Public opinion of a royal like Margaret is vastly different today, with other rebellious types such as Prince Harry and Princess Beatrice criticized heavily in the tabloids, saying how their extravagant lifestyles are a waste of taxpayer money. I am sure that Princess Margaret received a fair amount of onslaught from the press, as all royals do, but I think the inside look that The Crown provides into her personality, flaws and all shows her as a true feminist icon. Beyond just the mark that Peter left on her heart, season 2 is an exploration of Margaret’s identity, and specifically how she learns to be whole before marriage. In terms of the modern world, women can learn from Margaret, to always follow your heart and never settle for less, especially in your romantic relationships. Below are two of my favourite moments from Season 2 which show Margaret’s unwillingness to lower her standards and compromise herself in a relationship: a lesson that I think that many women need to learn. 

1.Margaret Ends Her Engagement With Billy Wallace

Season 2 Episode 4 entitled “Beryl” shows Margaret’s short-lived engagement to her friend, Billy Wallace. Their engagement begins in a business-like fashion at a wedding, where the two of them are lamenting over their non-married states. Billy suggests to Margaret that the two of them should essentially get married for convenience, they both generally get along and are in the same social circles. Margaret is not particularly enthused at the prospect, but agrees amicably and uninterestedly as if she is committing to a lunch date and not a lifelong union. This can likely be attributed to her feelings of bitterness and nostalgia from being at a wedding; she was denied being able to marry Peter Townsend by her sister. After the engagement, Margaret calls her sister-the Queen-and informs her of the engagement, still sounding quite uninterested. She is definitely not in love with him and vice versa, but that may be exactly what she was looking for post-Townsend. Her relationship with Peter was a passionate and forbidden one; splashed across the British tabloids. It is completely reasonable that Margaret was just looking for something simple, something safe that wouldn’t leave her heartbroken. Elizabeth gives her informal assent to the engagement and the two hang up. Afterward, Margaret smokes one of her cigarettes and goes to sleep. It is shown that Margaret smokes and drinks a lot, and Elizabeth comments that she’s been doing it more recently to which Margaret replies that she’s been unhappy because she was “denied my perfect match.” All of her behaviours of apathy and excessive smoking and drinking point to someone who is truly heartbroken yet has not worked through her pain. I think that a Billy-type character could have been good for Margaret; he could have helped her as a close companion and through many years the two would develop a deep connection and respect for each other. It wouldn’t be a marriage of a great love like Margaret and Peter would have been but many say that you should look to marry your BFF. Unfortunately, Billy turns out to be a major prick, in real life and in The Crown where there is absolutely no redemption for his character. It is shown that Margaret and Billy are supposed to attend an event, perhaps to announce their engagement, yet Billy is nowhere to be found. An enraged Margaret shows up at his residence where she finds him bruised and hungover in bed. He reveals to her that he was in a duel with his friends, and a flashback shows what a bumbling idiot he certainly was. She breaks off the engagement on the spot delivering one of my favorite lines of the entire show: “Take a look at this face, a picture of disappointment and disgust.” The reason why I think this is such a great moment for Margaret’s character is it shows her taking her dignity back. She is heartbroken, has been moping and generally not enjoying her life. But this scene shows that Margaret still has self-respect, she doesn’t try to make excuses or salvage the situation. She understands that this marriage, the easy way out, is a mistake on so many levels. In a way, she chooses to continue her heartbreak and loneliness for the sake of her dignity. 

2. Margaret’s Vulnerable and “Scandalous” Photo taken by her future husband: Anthony Armstrong-Jones

After her short-lived engagement to Billy Wallace ends, thankfully, Margaret unfortunately is thrust back into loneliness. One day she attends a party with one of her friends, and even though she does not fit into the crowd, they are all quite eccentric, she meets a kindred spirit: Anthony Armstrong-Jones. He’s a photographer who greatly differs from the one who takes the royal portraits. His techniques are unique at best and he even describes photography as “invasive.” He convinces Margaret to let him take pictures of her one day at his studio where he reveals how he believes that neither Margaret and the world know who she truly is. He takes many photos of her and is dissatisfied for the aforementioned reason; he doesn’t give up though and starts talking to her about her ex-fiance, Peter Townsend. Margaret is visibly saddened and uncomfortable by the conversation, even flinching at one of his questions, but he presses on. In a rare moment of vulnerability, he walks over to Margaret and slightly unzips her dress, pulling it down her shoulders so her upper body is bare and takes a photo. When the two go to develop it and see the final product, Margaret marvels at the result saying: “It’s a Margaret no one’s seen before.” With a cheeky smile, she asks him to send it to someone. It is revealed at the end of the episode that the “someone” was the daily newspaper. The photo of Margaret appears on the front page with a sultry and almost flirty expression, appearing like she is naked. It’s sending a clear message to her mother, her family, Peter Townsend, and the world who Margaret really is and how she’s unafraid to make a splash by following her heart. I think this is the moment where Margaret seems to be moving on from Peter Townsend; I think that Anthony helped her realize that she has been spending a lot of time living for other people: trying to be unproblematic for her mother and her sister, only desiring to find love and get married. Anthony shows Margaret that she can have a good time doing things for herself, bringing out a more rebellious side to her. This is likely what attracts her to him, as he brings out her wilder and more free-spirited impulses. Even though their marriage does meet a sad end, with them divorcing in 1978, I think that Margaret and Anthony are one of the best matches shown in The Crown. They embody free-spirited and passionate love, with his carefree nature and her almost neurotic one. The actors did a wonderful job making the opposites-attract trope come to life.

So much toxic misogynistic culture has taught women to be pleasers; to adjust and adapt for the convenience and pleasure of their male counterparts. This is as much ingrained into women as it is expected from women: women feel that their sense of purpose comes from caretaking, especially of men. This comes at the expense of women’s self love and self care; we deny ourselves happiness by compromising our standards and happiness for men, especially in romantic relationships. While there is a necessary element of compromise and sacrifice in relationships, it should never be one-sided. The Crown’s portrayal of Princess Margaret shows that standing strong in one’s values for what you want in a partner, may lead to intense heartbreak, but when those standards are met, it is always worth the wait. Characters like Margaret provide necessary contrast to others  who have compromised themselves in their relationships and marriages, and are thus leading an unhappy life. Every woman should take away the lesson that having high standards is not a problem, and it is not worth it to lower them just to find someone. 

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