Mental Health Literature: The Crown Season Four

Disclaimer: this post discusses eating disorders, specifically binge eating disorder, and bulimia. It also contains spoilers for season four of The Crown.

Peter Morgan’s historical royal drama, The Crown, is now in its fourth season and was premiered in the latter half of last year. It focuses on the stories that built the British royal family headed by Queen Elizabeth. This season holds a lot of its stock on the marriage between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, later Princess Diana of Wales, and its tumultuous nature full of mutual infidelities, etiquette restraints, poor mental health, and potential psychological abuse. However, there is one storyline that has been a main topic of discussion, and one which the royal family were thought to consider an embarrassing issue.

Diana and the bulimia that dominated many years of her life.

I was aware, from a young age, of Diana having bulimia, as she was a very popular royal, and people were enraptured by her; so absolutely invested in her life, as though she were their next door neighbour. And, during my own eating disorder, she was often a feature on Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia websites, with her experience being denoted as something to emulate. She also discussed it herself in the interviews she partook in, particularly in the documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words. Here, she largely indicates her bulimia developed from a comment made by her then-husband, Prince Charles, who said she was getting chubby. Comments like these can often be the trigger that fires the bullet of an eating disorder, especially one that surrounds restrictive and purging patterns.

And, this is what makes Peter Morgan’s portrayal of Diana having an eating disorder so interesting, and, in my opinion, real.

Because, it was real. It was ugly. It is what an eating disorder deserves to be portrayed as.

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When The Crown was first released, there were many critics of the portrayal of such an eating disorders, with words being thrown around like SLAMMED and BACKLASH. It was deemed graphic and too shocking for many to watch. However, I would like to add that most of these were comments from “royal experts” and, at the time, the royal family were thought to want the problem to just go away. And, that article is from The Sun so… anyway. It is important to note that when the creators of The Crown were developing this storyline, they approached Beat to understand the complexities of an eating disorder like bulimia. This allowed The Crown to gain comprehension of peoples’ lived experiences, by including us and including clinical experts in the conversation. Therefore, bulimia was shown without glorification and with resources and disclaimer warnings to prepare and support anyone affected. Unfortunately, this is quite groundbreaking, as you can guess if you have watched the media that covers this topic *cough* Skins *cough*

In working with an eating disorder charity, bulimia was not glamourised. It was rough to watch, having had these experiences myself, and I would recommend proceeding with caution, as any portrayal of eating disorders can be triggering. However, I appreciated the stark reality of Diana struggling with bulimia, as it was made clear the absolute hell we have been put through at the hands of an eating disorder. Consequently, people can be properly educated of the physically and mentally damaging impact.

The Crown does show explicit scenes of an eating disorder with methods commonly used to enable the purging process. The bare-faced depiction methods are difficult to take in but it should be seen to raise awareness of the reality of bulimia. Particularly, to those who have not been directly affected by it. Or, any eating disorder. Many consider eating disorders as one thing, one very two-dimensional thing, where the individual is so obsessed with the self and getting attention.

However, this particular portrayal gets down to the nitty gritty, or as gritty as the royals can get, of what eating disorders can do to the individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as their social and occupational functioning. When the problem surfaces to the attention of your inner circle or the public, your every move can be scrutinised and you can be doubted for everything you currently do and want to do. And, this is where I found comfort in being heard for my experience.

I was put through hell with dangerous behaviours: of binging, of restricting, of purging, because I was deeply, deeply unhappy, alone, and feeling out of control.

I don’t relate to Diana’s background, because I grew up in a working class environment, and almost certainly didn’t have a marriage to a prince on the cards. However, what I did relate to was that feeling of loneliness, and isolation, that feeling of being powerless to change your situation no matter how hard you try. What The Crown did was zone in on those emotions, the ones that can be the catalyst to the development of an eating disorder. It did not centre on the so-called vanity of eating disorders, that it is a method to seek attention. Before and during my eating disorder, I dealt with overwhelming and crippling anxiety and loneliness. Watching the scenes of Diana stuck in her apartment, begging to speak to her mother-in-law to be, and her future husband, while being denied requests and being subject to strict and controlling regime and rules of royal decorum – it made me reflect, on some level, of my suffocation within school and family. Feeling like I was screaming out for help, and hearing my voice only echo back.

Who knew I could relate to a member of the royal family? I didn’t have the lovely backdrop of royal historical artefacts though… Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

It was the very moment Diana felt so encumbered by her loneliness and limited control that she engaged in what may have been the first of the binge-purge cycle that is bulimia. So consumed by these overwhelming emotions and unable to process them or seek help, she binged in the kitchen to feel some kind of comfort. The way, in which her binge was shown was generally accurate, as the person can become completely absorbed by it. And, then, as often is with bulimia, the feelings brought by a binge are quickly taken over by a deep concentration of the calories you have, the food in your stomach, and there is so much intense guilt. As quickly as she experienced a binge episode, she was purging the contents into a toilet. The first occurrence of this binge-purge cycle seems slow and intense, because the audience should take this in. Those with eating disorders know what it is like, and know all about the behaviours and their dangers, whereas those without this illness can often dismiss the behaviours, as I mentioned. Peter Morgan drags this out and then hits the audience with Diana purging to really show how overwhelming a disorder like this can be.

As Diana’s bulimia continues over the years, we see her develop a routine of sorts. Her binge-purge cycles become methodical with ‘techniques‘ sharpened to make the purging ‘easier.’ An interesting portrayal, as most people consider bulimia to be a messy and chaotic disorder; spinning the cycle of shame further. The oxymoron of it all is that it can be a very organised disorder with the individual knowing their best ways of purging, and how to hide the after effects i.e. red eyes, flushed cheeks. There an increase in speed in which Diana’s bulimia is shown, conveying the idea that the episodes become an integral part of the person’s day, as it becomes their coping mechanism during a time of distress, anxiety, and feeling lost. This, again, is something I appreciated in the portrayal of Diana’s bulimia, as it can be such an intense and powerful thing to watch, as the behaviours of bulimia are carried out again, and again, and again, in quick succession over several occurrences. This shows that it is not a silly little attention seeking thing, or a one-off, but rather a debilitating disorder that can be detrimental to our emotional processing, as our malnourished brains slot it in an essential part of our day.

I appreciated that the disorder was not only designated to one episode, and was carried through the season. Keeping it as a running theme throughout, The Crown kept bulimia in the spotlight, highlighting its unfortunate staying power. It isn’t something we should close our eyes to, breathing a sigh of relief that it’s over and we don’t need to talk about it any longer. This kept it in the conversation, and showed you how its progression. It began to affect Diana’s relationships and life as a royal. The continuation allowed us to see how difficult it can be to recover from an eating disorder like bulimia. Bulimia doesn’t go away after one occurrence, and that should be recognised.

But, on of the other hand, while I believe Peter Morgan did a great job of keeping bulimia in the conversation, one of my main criticisms is how Diana’s bulimia just went away at the end of the season. That just defeats the purpose of it being shown across several episodes. There is a moment where Diana runs to the toilet to purge, but instead decides against it and sits away from the bowl, as though she had some epiphany. Classic television trope. In reality, that doesn’t happen. Recovery doesn’t just happen … well, it didn’t for Diana and it doesn’t for a lot of people. Recovery comes after such things like treatment, support, and lots of time and hard work. Diana disclosed her mental health quite openly after some time, and this resulted in the Diana Effect, therefore it can be a fair assumption that she was an advocate for mental health support. She attended therapy with Susie Orbach in the 1990s. She worked toward her recovery, because it is highly important, and it deserved to be recognised. I wished we had seen this, rather than the simple way of trying to wrap it up in a neat little bow.

That being said, in the closing scenes of the final episode of the season, Diana is illustrated as an isolated part of the royal family. She appears to look toward the camera, looking very trapped and broken. Therefore, it might be that her bulimia had not truly gone away at that point.

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Watching these episodes was hard for me, having experienced a binge-purge cycle within my atypical anorexia. I can imagine many others like me felt the same. However, I believed it to be a portrayal that was needed. It was not prettied up. It was not glorified. It was real. It was the type of awareness of bulimia, and eating disorders overall, that is needed. It didn’t focus solely on weight, and gave a stage to the psychological behaviours; something that is so highly ignored in favour of the physical ones. It is such a distressing and overwhelming disorder, and can interact so heavily with other aspects of poor mental health and wellbeing. The Crown showed how it can be a dangerous coping mechanism, but one, which is so powerful and makes us feel like we are in control and therefore coping.

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If you would like further support and information, please visit Beat or Netflix Resources.

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