Now past 90, Queen Elizabeth II is the only British monarch most folks have ever known. But her rule—like those of Mary and Victoria—is actually an anomaly. Britain has mostly been led by kings, so despite television’s current fascination with the country’s female sovereigns, there just haven’t been that many of them.
That fascination also extends to their spouses—consorts who stand alongside their wives with little to do besides help produce their heirs. Their lives are portrayed as listless, identity-less and filled with frustration.
Therein lies the appeal, perhaps, of these shows right now: The tension these men feel between traditional notions of manhood and the need to support their powerful wives makes for compelling drama. Arguably, by centering so much of their stories around the male consorts, shows like The Crown speak to our current age, where patriarchy is questioned, and men struggle in a culture of toxic masculinity—as harmful to themselves as to those around them.
Meanwhile, these British queens are by no means liberated from the clutches of wifely duty and motherhood (just as today’s women, despite the gender parity gains of recent decades, are not). Without a husband there would be no heirs; and without heirs their throne is never truly secure. Kings can always find new wives; for queens there are no such options.
This trope, of a powerful woman facing down enemies and perils, will be taken to new heights in the final season of House of Cards, modern-day America’s own operatically royal drama. The Netflix show’s sixth season will arrive next year without Kevin Spacey, the actor facing sexual harassment and assault allegations. His character, president Francis Underwood, is set to meet an as-yet-untold demise, opening the way for Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood to anchor the show—probably as America’s first woman president, and presumably without a man by her side.