My earliest memory of Britain’s royal family is falling asleep on my parents’ living room floor during the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
For some reason my mother thought I should witness this worldwide event and woke me up to watch it. As a dutiful daughter I complied, but I could not have cared less. All I knew was that a 32-year-old man was marrying a woman barely out of her teens. I found that creepy.
Beyond that, I couldn’t understand why Americans were so transfixed by these people. Sure, all of the pageantry offered a kind of eye candy for those into that sort of old-world pomp. But wasn’t there a whole war fought to free a once-fledgling nation from the tyranny of this same monarchy? Wasn’t life under the yoke of hereditary rule the antithesis of democracy, where people are allowed to choose their own leaders?
Fascination with the royals eluded me. Four decades later, it still does.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II, 96 and in failing health, was not unexpected. But the same cannot be said for the excessive mourn-a-thon that has gripped America since her passing last week. For the first few days afterward, it was as if all other news of the world had stopped for special, expanded, bonus, exclusive coverage of the queen’s life and times.
There are real issues germane to American lives that would never be afforded even a smidgen of such media attention.
“The world’s queen dies,” blared a headline repeated in several American newspapers. That was news to me because last I checked, America had no queen. (Apologies to fans of Beyonce, Dolly Parton, or Sheryl Lee Ralph.)
Given England’s long, bloody history of colonialism, imperialism, and the violent subjugation of millions, calling Elizabeth the world’s queen seemed especially unhinged. But any barriers between an honest assessment of the queen’s tainted legacy and smothering hagiography quickly crumbled to dust.
On display again is America’s unrequited royal envy. This nation left the monarchy but has never fully let go. It remains in England’s thrall — so much so that ABC, CBS, and NBC interrupted regularly scheduled programming to air Charles’s first comments as king. Just a week earlier, those networks couldn’t be bothered to do the same when President Biden gave a primetime speech defending democracy and denouncing the grave threats posed by Donald Trump and “MAGA Republicans.”
For the networks, our nation’s precarious state isn’t nearly as important as a guy across the pond always destined to wear a crown adorned with jewels stolen from countries his ancestors plundered for profit.
America is so desperate to scratch its royal itch that the Kennedys were dubbed “America’s royal family,” as if to say, “Hey look, we got one, too.” Yet that never dulled this nation’s obsession with the British monarchy.
But here’s the difference — the Kennedys were elected to public office. And when the people wanted change, they were voted out. The House of Windsor is beholden only to its own bloodlines and the absurd notion that their family has been divinely chosen to rule with the people as their subjects. (I guess ”objects” would have been too obvious.)
Until the queen’s death, I don’t think I realized how appealing that concept is to some Americans. Look no further than the torrent of bills and laws in Republican-led legislatures undermining voting rights or the many election deniers upset that Trump lost on the November ballot. It’s all designed around the corrosive idea of unchallenged white monarchal might.
The queen’s funeral is next Monday so, after a slight lull, media coverage will soon ramp up again. Those who watch may be curious to see how this “very much not a racist family” that also gave cover to Prince Andrew after he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl, navigates its myriad dysfunctions in public. They’ll certainly watch Harry and Meghan, wise enough to put an ocean between their family and “the Firm,” briefly back in the maelstrom that gave them no comfort or peace.
If I watch any of it, it will be to hear what is said and the volume of what goes loudly unsaid. Any marveling over the coordinated grandeur and protocols, in mothballs for 70 years, will be best left to others. Instead look for what lurks behind the fervent American interest in the royal family — a yearning, as old as white supremacy itself, for unchecked power entrusted to a precious few.