Refusing to Vanish into Thin Heir: Why we remain obsessed with the royals, come reign or shine

Features

Image Description: Buckingham Palace and the Queen Victoria memorial 

Time reported in August 1981 of “A splendid Prince, his beautiful Princess, a carriage, a crowd: fantasy come to life, a dream.” Lady Diana Spencer’s marriage to Prince Charles captured the public imagination for what it later emerged to be anything but: “a dream”. What followed was all too real. The events of this era are precisely why the public’s royal obsession has since withered. The reality of an exclusive, elite, and archaic institution had come to the fore, hardly speaking to the progressive zeitgeist of the twenty-first century.

Unsurprisingly, the media instead favoured the rise of celebrity couples emulating the tone of the moment, such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West: members of a high-profile family of television royalty, who spark discussions about mental health, the power of the press, and a post-racial future. Inevitably then, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s marriage would singlehandedly resurrect the royal obsession, as they offered a pastiche of Diana’s “fantasy” and Kardashian glamour. The Kardashian brand certainly funds a rather regal lifestyle, with Kim earning a reported $4.5 million per season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, whereas Buckingham Palace costs an estimated £1.1 million per year to run.

They cannot survive in the form of a problematic, outdated institution, and arguably now rely on the sparkle of celebrity appeal to stay afloat.

The line between celebrity and sovereign has never been so blurred, appearing to have resulted in the biggest boost in public interest in the royals since Elizabeth’s 1992 “Annus Horribilis”. The Crown has gathered dust over the years; the Queen, having held the longest reign of any British monarch, has become a symbol of calm consistency in a world that favours high-octane drama and gripping gossip. Despite Oxford’s Magdalen College recently removing a portrait of the Queen, as “a symbol of recent colonial history”, she has risen from the ashes of this dated, pre-Netflix edition of the institution. Hailed as “the ultimate feminist”, she is also the subject of adoring articles such as The Telegraph’s “25 Reasons Why We Love the Queen”. Magdalen’s awareness of the monarchy’s colonial implications, alongside The Telegraph’s royal reverence encapsulates the current tension surrounding the monarchy. They cannot survive in the form of a problematic, outdated institution, and arguably now rely on the sparkle of celebrity appeal to stay afloat.

In this way, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding provided the perfect storm; reviving the dazzle of the Diana-days whilst harkening back to the dramatic addition of another American divorcée to the family, Wallis Simpson. The couple began dating in July of 2016, embarking upon their “fairy-tale” relationship in the press exactly as Prince Harry’s parents did. Similarly to Simpson, Markle became a perceived threat to the monarchy; she was viewed as the instigator in the couple’s choice to step down from their roles as senior royals in March 2020.

Yet, where Simpson threatened the line of succession, Markle’s actions more explicitly threatened the concept of the institution itself. The royals’ inability to successfully incorporate her into the fold exposed the crumbling foundations of monarchical rule in the modern world: the archaic precedent it sets for social ‘breeding’, and its inherent defiance of social mobility. As Prince Harry and Meghan reignite a royal obsession, it’s becoming clear that we care most when the entire nature of the monarchy teeters on the brink of destruction.

At this point the royals only remain relevant at the behest of the press barons, reinvented and reimagined to cater to public interests.

American media companies are contributing to the surge in royal popularity, picking up the British monarchy off the shelf and dusting it down to produce glossier versions, such as Netflix’s The Crown (2016-present) and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021). These productions, alongside KUWTK, leave audiences hooked by peeling back the layers of the famous families to seemingly permit audiences to become privy to their private lives. So, in an era where Kim Kardashian has propagated a new kind of transparent celebrity, The Crown’s effect upon Royal ratings is hardly surprising.

Clearly, American media has decided to give the British royals the Kardashian-treatment, and by extension managed to grant them a life raft of relevancy on to which they might cling. At this point they seem only to remain relevant at the behest of the press barons, reinvented and reimagined to cater to public interests. At what point do we discover the entire family to be avatars coded by the press itself, simulations upon which the media project personalities in order to captivate us with content?

The monarchy is no longer viewed as untouchable or set in stone, but somewhat workable in the public’s hands.

Perhaps this has already begun. In 2017, PinkNews claimed Prince George as “a gay icon overnight”, after a photograph emerged of him holding his face in excitement at an event. The article was met with much backlash, with Jim Allister of the TUV party labelling the article as “outrageous and sick” for sexualising the young prince. PinkNews’ writers retorted that Lady Gaga, or even the Babadook, have shown that “you don’t have to be gay or even have a defined sexuality to be an LGBT icon”. What the public needed was a gay icon, and the media decided that Prince George fit the bill, monarchy willing or not. Where the royals may try to write their own narratives with personal Twitter and Instagram accounts like @sussexroyal, the press is clearly writing the screenplay for future seasons of The Crown according to its own agenda.

The monarchy is no longer viewed as untouchable or set in stone, but somewhat workable in the public’s hands. Where before, the public and media were simply subjects, they have now become the writers, producers, and directors of the royal reality show. Our current royal obsession lies in the tension resulting from this shift; the people have been granted the power to decide whether they want to fund another season of The Crown, or to leave the royal narrative on the cutting room floor.

Image credit: Norali Nayla via Unsplash

 

Sign up for the newsletter!


Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details