Queen Elizabeth II passed away on Sept. 8, 2022, and instead of paying respects to the dead, many were mocking and even celebrating her passing. Reactions included memes about Diana puffing on that Queen Elizabeth pack, Elizabeth taking a one-way trip down to hell, Great Britain parading around the Queen’s limp corpse and giving the recently departed a quick prank call on the Ouija board (maybe asking her if her refrigerator is running, or if she knows Mike, last name Oxhard). Whether it be the memes, #ripbozo trending on Twitter or words of vitriolic hatred for the monarch, it is clear the Queen was a controversial figure. Many who observed these interactions were quick to write off the hate for the Queen as trolling or baiting a reaction out of their targets. It’s an easy conclusion to come to, but there may be more to the story than just that. Looking at the flaws of the royal family and Britain’s history of imperialism, why was the Queen’s death so divisive?
Queen Elizabeth did not hold nearly as much power as previous monarchs. However, she did still hold some positions. As the head of state, she acted as a diplomat, visiting other nations and inviting world leaders to the UK. Most of what she did was ceremonial, appointing Prime Ministers after being elected, opening and closing parliament, swamping laws into approval, etc. Despite this, she was still an important symbol for the nation. When you think of England, you think of Big Ben, tea and Queen Elizabeth. That’s her job — not solely a figurehead or celebrity, but not a Prime Minister either.
Clearly, the nation was reeling from the death of such a well-known symbol. People from around the country showed up to pay respects to the late monarch, while politicians and celebrities in the UK and around the world offered words on her impact and legacy. Death and grief are universal parts of the human condition, and disrespecting the dead is a taboo across nearly all walks of life — yet, as we look at
people who are either anonymous or don’t have an audience of millions, it says a lot that many felt the words “RIP bozo” succinctly summarized their thoughts on the matter.
The royal family has had their fair share of run-ins with controversy. Princess Diana was beloved by many, using her celebrity status as a means to do charity work and activism. She focused her philanthropic efforts on stigmatized issues like homelessness and drug addiction, as well as diseases like AIDS and leprosy, helping change public perception. To facilitate her activism, she used the media as a tool, but it came with downsides. Her personal life, and her marriage to Prince Charles (now King Charles III), was constantly within the public eye, even more so during their divorce. Popular theories suggest that it eventually led to her death, in a car crash caused by her driver trying to avoid the persistent, invasive eyes of the paparazzi. While not directly the fault of the family, failure to put a stop to such rumors and gossip was clearly disrespectful to the privacy of the previous princess. The whole situation was a blend of controversy and tragedy, and the family’s lack of decisiveness in assisting Diana in her effort to live a content life separate from them is questionable.
Worse than that, however, is the gross legacy of Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband. His offensive remarks were passed off as “one-liners that can make some people chuckle and some people cringe” by the BBC. He had quite the track record of racist remarks, including ones directed toward Kenyans, Chinese, Hungarians, Cayman Islanders, Scots, Indians, Australian Aboriginals and Filipinos. Philip was in an incredibly privileged position where he could go completely unpunished for an attitude that should have been left in the last century; one where white men can get away with blatantly mocking and belittling others’ ethnicities while living as literal royalty. It’s pretty sickening. The worst part is the failure of the royal family to speak on the matter. His racism is just a nasty little part of the whole package that comes with it all.
The racism and privilege wouldn’t be as upsetting without the historical context, though. Britain has a bad habit of imperialism, and it doesn’t just show up in history books as a thing of the past. The Koh-i-Noor diamond, one of the world’s largest diamonds, is physical proof. Discovered in India, it spent hundreds of years passing hands between the different peoples of South Asia. However, the gem ended up in the hands of the English after coercion from British colonists. With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, the demands for the Koh-i-Noor followed. The Koh-i-Noor is far from the only evidence of colonial-era looting in the UK, and they show no signs of giving any of it back. On top of stealing precious cultural artifacts, the British empire brought systemic oppression and racism along with them, causing large-scale damage to countries they colonized that are still affected today. For example, Apartheid may have ended officially in South Africa in 1990, yet its effects are still seen economically to this day, with widespread poverty for the Black population. After all, that kind of damage doesn’t just disappear overnight. (Sunil Khilnani wrote a fantastic article for the New Yorker on the topic of the British Empire and their unrecognized brutality.)
The Queen isn’t just a symbol for England; she puts a face to all the damage done, all of the crimes that went unpunished and misconduct that was unattended to. It’s clear that for some, the negative reaction to the honoring of the former Queen of England is more than just trolls looking for a quick jab. Add that to the fact that social media completely removes the possibility of a nuanced discussion on such topics, and you’ve got yourself the perfect storm of anger and disillusionment. When you have to reduce your opinion to 280 characters or a minute-long video, details get lost in translation,
and anonymity allows people to get pretty ferocious pretty quick: bolder statements, hotter takes, harsher insults — the internet isn’t known for its civility. Social media is engineered to get you to feel strong emotions and see controversial opinions so that you continue to engage with their app, and yeah, the Queen’s passing seems to have elicited a few strong emotions, to say the least. While there may be some serious discussion potential on the privilege of the royal family and the unfixed damage of
the British empire, most likely the closest we’ll get is quite a few very hearty “RIP bozo”s.
Daily Arts Contributor James Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.