Queen Elizabeth II passed away in her sleep on Sept. 8, 2022, following her 70-year reign as the United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch. Whether this development has been perceived as a great tragedy, a moment of indifference or a chance for criticism, it is undeniable that the Queen’s death marked the end of a relevant and long-lasting reign, the impact of which has been felt even in America. But why exactly do the Queen, and the British monarchy she represented, take up so much space in the American psyche?
From “Harry Potter” and Shakespeare, to red telephone booths and the ever-romanticized British accent, the United States has wholeheartedly accepted a number of iconic symbols of British culture. While escapism and romanticization play a part in the American public’s devouring of royal drama, could there be an aspect of the British monarchy that parallels a greater American desire?
The monarch is an apolitical figure who must “remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters” during their reign. Consequently, most of the monarch’s duties are merely ceremonial, and the monarchy functions as a unifier during divisive periods representing a common entity British citizens can rally around. The United Kingdom’s very identity is tied to its monarchy and historical image. The American equivalent of this kind of unifying factor could be the democratic ideals this country was founded on, but even that bedrock value is widely debated in today’s polarized political sphere.
The United States and its citizens — without a monarchy to rally around — crave stability and cooperation on a national scale. This could explain the American obsession with the monarchy, but reactions to the queen’s death have been notably mixed. While some Americans have openly expressed their sadness at the Queen’s death, some have rejoiced at her death due to her complicity in colonization. With this sentiment in mind, it is important to remember that while Queen Elizabeth II did represent the U.K. during her reign, she is not solely responsible for the country’s actions and her death does not spell the end of the country’s colonial history.
When looking at her reign in its totality, the Queen’s death represents the end of a historically significant reign, 67% of Americans oppose America having a monarchy. From the highly divisive American reactions to the queen’s passing, it is clear that Americans on the whole view the Queen and her Royal Family more as cultural icons than political ones.
In the United Kingdom, it is considered highly inappropriate for members of the Royal Family to express political opinions. Despite the British public viewing a partisan monarch as improper, over one-third of polled Americans believe that British royals should make public political statements.
The disparity between how Americans and citizens of the U.K. perceive their public figures’ politics highlights an important distinction between the two nations. In America, it is difficult to conjure a figure akin to the queen in sociocultural influence and historical precedence. Even nominally apolitical figures are politicized in the U.S., as seen with Dr. Anthony Fauci in 2020. Although Fauci’s role as chief medical officer throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was intended to offer universal advice, his opinions quickly became politically polarizing. In December 2021, Dr. Fauci’s approval rating among Democrats was 85% and just 19% among Republicans.
In line with the distinctly American push-pull relationship with public figures, when the Queen passed away, on Sept. 8, “RIP BOZO” and “Betty White” were trending on Twitter. Twitter was ridden with a vast collection of jokes, many demeaning the Royal Family. But why respond with comedy? The question is not satisfied with a basic answer such as “dark humor.” There are varying reasons for this, from the bloody history of colonialism that the monarchy is continuing to thrive off of to the complicated (and ironic?) American hatred of British culture.
Yet in another sense, Americans also seem to cherish the British. “The Crown,” a show about the Royal family’s history, began trending following the Queen’s death. “Peaky Blinders,” “Downton Abbey” and “Bridgerton” are prominent British TV shows that American audiences seem to love, despite the established disdain many Americans have for the monarchy. However, it’s certainly possible to consume and even enjoy British media while also critiquing the complicated reality of the monarchy.
So, why do we often find the most liberal, down-with-the-monarchy individuals to be the most avid British-show enthusiasts? The viewers are not British people; in fact, over a third of the viewership of “Bridgerton” comes from African American and Hispanic women. The reasons Americans watch these shows are somewhat the same reasons that Americans “joke” about hating the British. This kind of relationship between Americans and the British monarchy showcases that the high-class, elite society depicted in these shows is appealing in fiction, but it’s somewhat appalling to see in the current day.
The aforementioned dichotomy between how younger generations view the monarchy and those who watch shows about it in America highlights the starkly different views people in this country have toward the Queen’s reign and the monarchy as a whole.
History already happened, and if a show is showcasing a certain era, then it’s entertaining to view the cultural landscape at that time. However, today, we cannot look at the subject of the monarchy in such a resigned manner. There are a lot of ideological imperatives at work when the subject at hand changes from the past tense to present. And this ironic, metamodern ideology is unique to the youth and it’s not right or left leaning.
As America is far larger and more heterogeneous than the U.K., it stands to reason that we find it challenging to unite around an entirely apolitical civil servant. When choosing to support public officials who lack the queen’s sovereign immunity, critique and debate are essential to American identity.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II has highlighted the differences between American and British expectations of public figures, while also drawing attention to the rise of meme culture in responding to major events. In the full range of reactions to the Queen’s death that America saw, we are reminded of the vast array of ideological perspectives in this country.