Many Americans will be watching the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, even if it requires waking up in the early hours of Monday to do so. They will probably be among some 4.1 billion viewers or around half the world’s population that could tune in to the event.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why: This is, after all, the monarch who stood over the United Kingdom for seven decades. To borrow a line from a great American playwright: Attention must be paid.
Count me among those Americans who can’t comprehend our ongoing fascination with the royals. I mean, why should we care about all the pomp and pageantry associated with the leaders of a state we fought against to win our independence?
No knock against the queen personally — “Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl,” as the Beatles once cheekily sang — but she was not my queen. Or, more to the point, I’m proud to live in a country that doesn’t see the need for a queen or king, even ones that play mostly non-political roles, as the monarchy does in the U.K.
And yet, so many Americans treat the royals as if they were our very own. Or, at the very least, they pay attention to a lot of royal-related news and events. Consider that about 30 million Americans viewed the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. As one report noted, that’s more than the number that viewed the Oscars broadcast the same year. And American women started getting plastic surgery or non-surgical fillers to emulate that “Markle sparkle” — particularly, her nose and lips.
The Harry and Meghan mania rolled on as their challenges with the royal family emerged. The Oprah Winfrey 2021 CBS interview with the couple attracted a viewership of 17.1 million. Granted, that’s less than a third of the audience that Winfrey racked up for her 1993 ABC interview with Michael Jackson — a whopping 62 million, to be exact. But the fact we can make comparisons between the two televised events offers a key clue to the American fascination with the royals.
Namely, this is more about our obsession with celebrity culture than anything else.
Americans love their celebrities. Why else would we still be talking about the Kardashians — a family that’s basically famous for being famous — all these years later? I’d argue that the royals are akin to the Kardashians, but with the British accent that Americans prize as a symbol of class and prestige.
Plus, even more than the Kardashians, the royals are associated with lots of drama, intrigue and tragedy. Who could forget the death of Princess Diana for example? The royals are essentially our longest-running reality series. Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of Netflix’s NFLX, +2.02% most popular shows with Americans in recent years is “The Crown” and naturally, its viewership has soared since the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
I’m hardly the first to pick up on this point — quite the opposite. Observers of pop culture have long talked about the royals as, well, pop-culture icons. Media critic Bill Goodykoontz sees the parallel between the royals and the Kardashians, but also likens them to sports figures or teams. As he recently wrote, “The royal family is like sports for people watchers — something ultimately meaningless in your daily life that is fun to become invested in. It’s not all that different from a crazed Red Sox fan who will never set foot in Fenway Park but lives and dies with every game.”
Of course, there are other factors at play when it comes to our royal obsession. We’ve always been interested in our kings and queens — and perhaps even more so, our fairytale princesses — again, think about Diana. It’s a kind of mythology that’s easily understood. And some say Disney DIS, -2.27%, the media giant that has built much of its storytelling around princesses, has played a significant role in exploding this interest — at least in recent times. As British-born journalist Sandro Monetti told CNN, the “princess was the ultimate dream” in the Disney vernacular.
Let’s also not forget our love of all things British, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the “Great British Baking Show” (also on Netflix). It’s almost like the royal family becomes a proxy for that — to love Paul McCartney is to love the monarchy. And lest we not forget, Paul (or Sir Paul) was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, as were many other British celebrities. It’s all of a piece, as they say.
Another often espoused theory worth mentioning: Americans look to the royals and the form of government they embody — the constitutional monarchy in which the family has a largely ceremonial role — because our own democratic state has become such a messy, polarized affair of late. It’s a point that former President Barack Obama even made when he hosted Prince Charles (now King Charles III) in 2015.
“The American people are quite fond of the royal family,” the president said. “They like them much better than their own politicians.”
I say all this not to discount the very real and serious nature of some events in the life of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II’s passing. There’s indeed a sadness surrounding the death of a woman who served her state for 70 years and who, by many accounts, was a loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and who cared for all those Corgis, too. But again, the state she served happens to be across the Atlantic. And its continued support of the monarchy strikes me as inherently un-American.
Nearly 250 years ago, we fought a revolution to free ourselves from the shackles of a British king. To quote the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
The United States is not alone. The story of the British Empire in the 20th century is the story of decolonization. For most citizens of the world, the right to be independent — to no longer have to answer to another state, especially one with a king or queen pictured on its currency — is a sacred one.
In the end, I admit I might sneak a peek at the queen’s funeral — it’s a spectacle, to be sure, and I respect the woman on a certain level for the reasons already stated. I also admired the occasional sense of humor she brought to the job, as when she shared tea with Paddington Bear.
But my admiration goes only so far. Even with the challenges we face in this country, we remain a nation ruled without the stamp of a monarch. That’s a freedom we should never forget.