Dr Emma Katz argues that Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ glamorises the controlling behaviours used in domestic abuse.
Coercive control is a harmful criminal offence, yet it hides in plain sight. Sitting front and centre within our culture, it is performed routinely before our eyes. Coercive and controlling behaviours are glamorised in plotlines where abusers are sexy and romantic bad boys, and women enjoy being dominated and suppressed. It is vital that we challenge these representations, in order to tackle coercive control effectively.
The UK has recently taken the bold step of making coercive or controlling behaviour within intimate relationships a criminal offence. This is a breakthrough in our efforts to tackle domestic violence and abuse.
Perpetrators can now be prosecuted for controlling their partner’s activities, damaging their partner’s confidence and self-esteem, and isolating them from family and friends.
This lack of action is partly fuelled by the representation of these behaviours in mainstream Western media.
A prime example can be found in the critically-acclaimed Netflix series The Crown, and its depiction of the relationship between the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon (Matthew Goode), in season 2, episode 4, ‘Beryl’.
As a researcher of domestic abuse who focuses on coercive control[i], I watched this episode with horror, seeing how Antony Armstrong-Jones’ controlling behaviour is portrayed as pulse-racingly hot.
Antony (a professional photographer) first meets Margaret at a party and offers to photograph her in his studio on the condition that she does everything he says for the duration of the session. He tells her she is ‘dying to be a supplicant’ – someone who behaves humbly towards a powerful figure.
This introduces a clear controlling dynamic – Antony will have the power in their interaction, and Margaret will submit her will to his. Margaret cannot complain, Antony asserts, because this is something she secretly desires. This is a classic example of how perpetrators of domestic abuse manipulate victims into thinking that they are to blame for their own abuse, creating a feeling of shame that often prevents victims from seeking help.
At his studio a few days later, Antony begins their session by ordering Margaret to wait downstairs. He then goes upstairs and calmly topples chairs and bangs on tables to make as much noise as possible. Margaret sits downstairs listening to the noises, unsure of what is happening. Having established his dominance and potential to use violence, Antony returns downstairs, offering no explanation of his actions. The message is clear – he can behave in a bizarre and violent way at any time and Margaret is not to challenge him.
Many more ‘red flags’ of abuse appear as Antony begins taking Margaret’s photos. Antony tells her she has ‘no idea who she is, not the faintest idea’. This comment attacks and destabilises Margaret’s self-confidence[ii]. He suggests that Margaret’s family doesn’t treat her well – laying the foundations for isolating her from them and setting himself up as ‘the only one who really loves you’.
At one point, without warning or consent, Antony pulls down the straps of Margaret’s top to expose her bare shoulders – beginning to establish the sexual coerciveness and sexually assaultive behaviour that is common in abusive relationships.
At the end of the session Antony becomes light-hearted and cheerful, as though his behaviour had never happened. Such abrupt changes of mood[iii] are commonly used by domestic abuse perpetrators to confuse and Gaslight victims by invalidating their experiences of reality. Victims are left thinking: ‘If he’s acting like everything’s alright now, then what just happened to me can’t have been that bad. I must have overreacted. I must be too sensitive’.
How is Margaret depicted as reacting to all this? Does she run a mile? Is she outraged? Is she afraid? No – she goes home to her bedroom in a state of utter joy. She plays the song ‘I only have eyes for you’, which begins with the lyrics: ‘My love must be a kind of blind love. I can’t see anyone but you.’ She smiles, dances, and is thrilled to have met such an exciting man. Viewers are encouraged to share her excitement.
What about the media reaction? Did they notice that this episode shows almost every red flag for an abusive relationship? No – much of media commentary described it positively. The photography scene is ‘when they fell in love’, Antony is ‘dashing’, ‘handsome’, ‘hip’, and ‘someone to get excited about’, the storyline is a ‘magnetic flirtation’ and a ‘red-hot romance’.
Given this glamorisation, it is unsurprising that the police may struggle with the idea that coercive and controlling behaviour is part of an offence they should be tackling. How can it be wrong, a police officer may wonder, if it is depicted as so thrilling, and as something that women are enjoying so much?
The grim reality is that such behaviour is rarely enjoyable. Most women whose partners are coercive and controlling experience a nightmare of abuse and manipulation from which they may need considerable support to escape (and the same is true for male victims of coercive control).
If this episode of The Crown is anything to go by, it may be a long time before controlling and coercive behaviours are seen not as the actions of sexy ‘bad boys’, but as the repugnant acts of domestic abuse that they are.