Capturing Generational Change: The Queen

“The Queen,” a 2006 film by Stephen Frears starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, was on TV last night. I’ve seen it before but I got sucked in and watched every minute of it again. 

When I first saw it, I thought it was about British politics and the phenomenon of Princess Diana. But this time around, I saw something else at work. Once again I have to wonder if the film-makers knew about this particular dimension of the film, or if they captured a truth about how our society is changing without realizing it. I did find a telling quote in an interview with Frears:

“My mother is uncomplaining, stoic, never sees a doctor, would be in incredible pain and never mention it, thinks aspirin is decadent, walks around turning the lights off and wears clothes that are 30 years old,” he said. Such an attitude contrasts with the “narcissism and intolerance of pain of our generation, to whom happiness is a God-given right,” he said.

He does see the generational difference, then. And like so many, he admires “the Greatest Generation” for being how they are. They had to be stoic. Most of them were born about the time of World War I and the great influenza pandemic of  1918, experienced the Great Depression when they were children, and came to adulthood at the time of Hitler and World War II. They had to be tough and stoical to survive. The queen, who became the monarch when she was only 25, had to be even tougher.

They were the last generation to be like that. Pendulums swing. Or perhaps, the fairies intervened, for this tight-lipped, highly private, perfectly groomed generation gave birth to changelings. Their children grew long hair and beards, wore loud and ragged clothing, and spoke out on everything. They gave a voice to those who had been forced to be even more silent than the stoical ones: people of color, women, people with disabilities, people of different sexual preferences. They spoke out for the planet. They spoke out against family traditions of incest, abuse, and alcoholism. They bared their souls (and often their bodies) in public.

No wonder their parents were horrified and bewildered. Nothing was sacred any more. Nothing was private. Like Frears, they saw much of this behavior as narcissistic and self-indulgent.

The movie captures this generational difference beautifully. But I think it captures something else as well. 

Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology who specializes in cognition and psycholinguistics (the role of language in human development), wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, a line from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In it, he argues that violence has been steadily declining in the West for centuries, because of “changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.” One of these changes, he thinks, is an increased sensitivity to violence. People used to be used to violence. They went to see hangings for fun, and put babies out on the hillside if they weren’t perfect. But for many reasons (too many to list here), over time we’ve become less inured to violence–and injustice, I would add–and so we get more upset when it happens. And more likely to object to it and try to stop it instead of just saying “oh well, that’s the way things are.”

We’ve also become more connected to each other, thanks to our global media. We get used to seeing and start to care about the people we see onscreen, even if we’ve never met them or ever will.

Diana evoked a lot of this caring from people. She was young, she was beautiful, she was vulnerable, and she was mistreated by her husband and her family – or so people saw things. She also spoke out and worked for social causes, like the effort to get rid of land mines. She was “the people’s princess” for the modern age, while Elizabeth was the queen for the earlier  hard times.

When Diana died, the queen did not understand the upwelling of grief and the people’s need to speak up and to have her speak up about it. Tony Blair did, and eventually got the queen to give her people what they needed. At the end of the movie, Elizabeth admits to Tony that she has always tried to be the queen that the people want, but that she doesn’t know anymore what that is. 

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