I enjoy The Royals. It’s unabashedly trashy, soapy TV fun. In the world of Peak TV, not everything has to be chasing critical acclaim or reshaping the boundaries of the medium. A show that revels in its tawdriness is a refreshing change of pace.
The show follows the hijinks of the fictional British royal family, the Henstridges, led by the fierce, Machiavellian Queen Mother, Helena (Elizabeth Hurley). The heart of the series is the romance between wild child Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park) and royal bodyguard Jasper (Tom Austen). They’re young, they’re attractive, and Park is clearly the breakout star of the show. They have a fandom portmanteau name “Jaspenor” that even made it into an episode of the show.
The problem arises from the couple’s origin dating back to the first episode. At first, Jasper seems like a nervous bumbler ready to be steamrolled by the out-of-control princess. After a wild night in Paris, the two wake up in bed together. Eleanor proceeds to dismiss him. But he reveals that he drugged her and filmed her having sex with him and threatens to release the tape if she doesn’t do what he says.*SCREECH* What????!!!! I’m not going to quote a definition of date rape here; I hope most people will know that the scenario just described fits the definition perfectly without my putting in the effort of cutting and pasting. If any readers don’t know that already, trust me—it does.
Over the next few episodes, he continues to blackmail her into having sex with him. *Pause to settle acid reflux* Then, he develops feelings for her and admits he doesn’t really have a sex tape. He lied about that part. And, apparently, he lied about drugging her too. She had sufficiently drugged herself so that he didn’t need to make a contribution to her intoxicated state. Apparently, this confession is supposed to lessen our feelings of disgust at his behavior. Perhaps, I should cut and paste that definition of date rape to the writers after all. Having sex with someone so intoxicated that they* don’t remember what happened the next day is date rape. Blackmailing someone into having sex is rape, too. Coercive sexual encounters are rape whether the force used is physical, chemical, or something else.
And, yet, I continued to watch the show. Even more bizarrely, despite my recognition of an abusive relationship based on rape, I actually began shipping the couple. I consider myself a good feminist, so shipping Jaspenor was a source of great internal conflict. It’s like my love of McDonald’s Quarter Pounders. I know they’re bad for me, but I don’t want to give them up. Much credit has to be given to Park and Austen for winning the audience over.
As the series has progressed, Jasper and Eleanor has become the focus of fan support. Most of the promotional materials for the series mention the couple. Clearly, a happy ending for the two has become the endgame for the writers.
At least, the relationship is no longer based on rape. Jasper has reformed his rapey ways to the point of becoming subservient to Eleanor. He has been forced to prove himself worthy of her time and again. At the beginning of Season Four, he even gets shot in service to the royal family. After his stay in the hospital, Eleanor prepares a joint bedchamber for the two with pillows monogrammed with “J” and “E.”
The last time the couple’s problematic origin was mentioned was early in Season Three when Eleanor was having trouble writing Jasper a letter and mumbled that she didn’t remember their first meeting (as she was too drugged). The series has never used the “r word” to describe the couple’s early encounters. While this lack of acknowledgement makes it easier for the audience to forget the couple’s beginnings, it’s more problematic than tackling the issue openly and honestly.
I would like to tell myself that it’s only a show and to watch it with no qualms. But it’s not. Last fall, during the wave of Hollywood sexual harassment and abuse accusations, series creator Mark Schwahn was, first, accused of sexual harassment by 18 women who worked on his previous show, One Tree Hill. Alexandra Park followed with her own accusation of sexual harassment against Schwahn. Subsequently, 25 other female members of the cast and crew came forward with a statement accusing Schwahn of sexual harassment. Schwahn was then fired by Lionsgate TV, which produces The Royals.
Another series could live on with a new showrunner, but The Royals is compromised by sexual misconduct both on screen and behind it. Sexual misconduct is threaded into the series’s narrative, in the storyline of their popular, highly promoted couple. These characters can’t go away like Schwahn without substantially altering the series and upsetting the fanbase. The series wouldn’t work without Jaspenor.
The problems of The Royals are glaring in the #MeToo era, and there seems no way to ameliorate them without ending the show. Yet, putting people out of work and disappointing the fans won’t do much to further the #MeToo cause. And I don’t want it to go away. Ultimately, the decision to take the series off the air will likely have little to do with its problems with sexual misconduct and everything to do with declining ratings.