Americans are fascinated by the royal family of the United Kingdom. As visitors to this very website so often ask in the comments: Why? Didn’t we fight a war to get away from these people?
It’s a fair question that I ask myself, as I enthusiastically consume media about the Windsors. It’s one of many prompted by the news frenzy kicked off by the approaching wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Should we think of them as another sort of family of celebs—a Kardashian franchise that’s been going since William the Conqueror? Or are they something fundamentally different? Are they deliberately parceling out details from the upcoming wedding in such a way as to control the news cycle? Did they know exactly how perfectly clicky the detail of invitations made by a young woman named Lottie Small working on a die-stamping machine from the 1930s nicknamed “Maude” was?
I spoke to Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University who has written about the monarchy, including a current work-in-progress about the politics of queenship in the 19th century, and often speaks to the media about the American fascination with the institution. But we also talked about the young Windsors—the so-called “Fab Four”—and their delicate dance with the media, doling out just the right amount of detail. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
JEZEBEL: To orient us here, how does the enthusiasm for this particular royal wedding compare to the Will and Kate frenzy, for instance? On a scale of one to ten for Royalmania, where are we?
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ARIANNE CHERNOCK: So, it’s not new. That tends to be the line I take on these royal events. Each new wedding or birth we tend to think of as signaling some new turning point. But in fact, when you look at the broad sweep of history, you see that there has been an American enthusiasm for the monarchy for centuries—which is somewhat surprising, but part of the historical record.
What is maybe new, but is really a trend, is that with new media and 24/7 broadcasting and more access, we can feed on more stories and we feel more of a potential connection or intimacy. Because of the changing role of the media and because of the monarchy’s own attempts to modernize and the fact that this particular generation of royals is certainly striving to be more accessible.
Yeah—obviously people have always been very enthusiastic about this family and the whole institution, but I do think it’s interesting that you see things like, so many of the pictures they release are pictures that Kate Middleton took. There’s this positioning that they’re doing that seems like it may be feeding some of the enthusiasm.
Yes. They are so much savvier. I think they have learned so much from watching and hearing about Diana’s struggles with the media in the ’80s and ’90s, and they’ve taken a page from her. They are really the ones who try to own and control the narrative, as much as possible, and the fact that Kate tends to release photos that she herself has taken is part of that process. It’s access, but in a very controlled way.
If you look at the broader sweep of the way celebrity works now, a lot of celebrities want to do that same dance, where they’re in control by putting things on Instagram instead of necessarily sitting down with Vanity Fair. Or whatever. To what extent should we think of these people through the lens of celebrity?
They are celebrities in many respects, and they certainly benefit from celebrity culture. Especially in America, we tend to treat them more like celebrities because they’re not our royal family. It’s not our government. So there is a bit of a leveling effect that takes place. But they’re a particular kind of celebrity, and I think that really becomes clear when you look at someone like Queen Elizabeth, not so much Meghan or Harry. Because how many other celebrities are in their 90s and still attracting so much media attention? Obviously, the curiosity about her has so much more to do with the position she has inherited, the title she’s inherited, and the responsibilities that she has pursued, often doggedly, for decades. It’s not about that brief moment of fame. With her, it’s about staying the course.
It seems like there are two parallel storylines—there’s the story of Queen Elizabeth that’s tied up with the history of Britain in the 20th century, whereas the younger royals, it seems like it’s closer to the usual celebrity stuff.
Well, we wouldn’t be paying much attention to William or Harry if they didn’t happen to be members of the royal family. Otherwise, they’d be fairly unremarkable, and they probably actually would like that. It’s a little different with people who marry into the family. Kate is kind of famous by association, right? She made that choice. But again, if William was not part of the royal family, they would attract no notice.
Meghan is interesting because she is literally the blending of these two versions of celebrity. She is a celebrity in her own right with her background in entertainment, and now she’s also joining the royal family. That fusion will be really fascinating to follow.
One thing I’ve noticed, watching Kensington Palace on Twitter—the way they’re doling out details of the wedding reminds me of a lifestyle site like the one she used to run. The way they focused in on the young woman making the invitations, Lottie—that’s a really fun way to read about the wedding, but it also struck me as very savvy.
Well, again, it’s also that very selective disclosure of detail. I think they’ve realized the public does crave details, but again, they want to be the ones to provide those details. They aren’t looking to other people to offer them on their behalf.
How much of a change is that from the long history of the monarchy in the 20th century? How much of a break with the past is this?
I wouldn’t say it’s a break. I think it’s an increasing sophistication. From the 19th century, when Queen Victoria was first figuring out how to be photographed, their approach to handling the media has evolved. And Queen Victoria herself came to love the touch-up, because she realized photography could be a real tool for communicating a particular version of herself and her family, as a technology.
There’s that push and pull between access and control. How sustainable is the current balance they’ve struck, do you think?
Oh, I think this is a pretty winning model, and it certainly gives the public what they want while also allowing the royals to maintain their own privacy.
How much active shaping do you think they do of their narrative? They’re presented as very authentic. They’ve managed to convince people that they are authentically themselves while being part of this ancient structure. Do you think that they spend much time thinking about how do we position Meghan or how do we position William for the sake of brand Windsor? Do they think in those terms?
Yes, I do. I think it’s a kind of studied informality. And certainly, they’re all having conversations about this. I mean, they have to strike the right balance between being themselves and appearing relaxed and natural. But certainly, there’s quite a bit of thought that goes into it. And again, this is where I think this generation really has learned so much from Diana, who when she first entered the public sphere really was not necessarily as controlled in her approach or as reflective on, say, her fashion choices, or what kind of information she disseminated. And you can certainly see that in her early encounters, the way she was photographed early on and what she wore.
It’s interesting how much more control you have of something when you present it as a done deal to begin with.
That’s right. And certainly, Meghan’s background in media makes her a natural for this. She’s already thinking that way. So it’s not going to require a huge leap.
Looking back to the longer history of the monarchy, to Victoria and even further, in the hundreds of years’ history of the monarchy, what is the role that royal weddings have played in the maintenance of the institution? If you go back to the Hanovers, are these public events?
Not in the same way. When George III had his Jubilee, it was a very—I’m not going to call it slapdash, but it certainly wasn’t given much thought, nor was it really commented on in the ways you’d expect, if you look back at old newspapers and whatnot. I really do think the 19th century is the turning point here, as Britain was becoming more of a democratic polity. I think there were increasing attempts to make the sovereign represent “the people” and royal ceremonies are great moments for engagement and creating that sense of unity.
I guess as their formal power has waned their engagement with the public—the symbolism—became important in a different way.
Absolutely. Ceremony has always been a part of the monarchy, but it’s taken on only more meaning as the monarchy itself has become ceremonial. Because given their ceremonial functions, without the ceremony, then what are we left with?
How important is the media to the royal family? Do they need to be on newspaper covers?
Yes. And that’s why Kate takes pictures and shares them. Lots of countries have decided that the monarchy is completely dispensable. And so for the Windsors to maintain a connection and maintain relevance—they live on taxpayers’ money—to convince people that they’re worth the effort, they have to engage and they have to be visible.
So one of my biggest questions about all of this is—and I say this as an American who is fascinated by them—why do we actually care? Why are we so interested in these people? I include myself in the “we” there.
There’s one part of it that’s kind of transnational, because this interest certainly transcends the US. I think that has to do with the fact that, as I was suggesting before: How many other kinds of institutions exist which have existed for centuries and that take people who just happen to be born into this institution and make them lifelong servants of it? There’s this real quality of watching people move through the stages of their life in this complete fishbowl. I think that has inherent interest built into it, as well as the system’s longevity ties us to this past.
For Americans, specifically, though, I do think that our own historical tie to Britain is really important. Because we aren’t as interested in other monarchies, I would say. I don’t think the Japanese crown gets nearly as much attention. Pretty much right after the American Revolution, Americans began to follow the royals again and still felt that familial connection to them. Our colonial past is part of this story. We are kind of their subjects by extension, even as we’ve chosen a very different form of government.
It seems like maybe somewhere like Australia has a more complicated relationship to them, just because every so often they have to have the conversation of, “Do we want these people to still be our sovereign?” We cut the cord, so we can be fascinated.
Right, it’s not our head of state. If Queen Elizabeth was our head of state, I think we would have a more complicated response.
People in the modern United Kingdom—how do they engage with the royal family, as opposed to, as you said earlier, Americans where the relationship is more purely celebrity style.
I think Americans tend to romanticize the dynamics a little bit more. Perhaps that stems from our lack of really concrete knowledge about what they actually do. When we see the Queen opening Parliament, I think Americans often don’t quite understand what that means, and all of the other kinds of responsibilities she still has. So I would say in Britain, there is still an enthusiasm and they’ve had a good run recently in terms of public enthusiasm based on polling.
In part, that maybe stems from the very fragile nature of the British identity itself and recognition that this is one of the few institutions that bind the nation together post-Brexit. I think people in Britain, maybe for more pragmatic reasons, see it is as a good. But it tends not to have that same kind of dignified romantic cast.
Is it a media bonanza in Britain in the same way as in America?
Oh, definitely, it sells copy. When I go there all of the kind of Hello! magazines, they tend to have Meghan or Kate on the cover, too. So I’m not necessarily trying to say that Americans are particularly obsessed. But I think the nature of America’s interest is a little bit different.
Even if you just look at the difference in the copy between Hello! and US Weekly—I was reading a copy of Hello! the other day and it was like, “Oh it’s been a wonderful year for our beloved Windsor family.” Whereas US Weekly is much more, “Oh, mum Kate!”
Oh yeah, we’re more informal about it. Obviously, though, it depends on where you look in Britain. I think in Britain you get a much broader spectrum of commentary. What you read in Hello! magazine is going to be decidedly different than what you read in the Guardian. Where in America, I think it gets pressed exclusively into the entertainment category.
I do wonder to what extent the current media landscape is feeding enthusiasm for this wedding. Because it’s the one story that’s not miserable.
Well, that’s the thing about it in this particular moment, and that’s why I was saying a lot of Britons for pragmatic if not other reasons are willing to play along. On the one hand they kind of need the monarchy, it’s really good for the economy and tourism. But on the other hand, it’s a feel-good story. And in this particular year, who doesn’t want feel-good stories? It’s really nice to read about weddings and births and to look at attractive people. I think there is an escapist element. Certainly, I like these interviews because it gives me a few moments just to talk about topics that aren’t nearly as contentious or difficult or politically divisive.
What I think is neat about the current generation of royals is that while many might be drawn to them for these escapist reasons, I think they have found some really interesting ways of using the monarchy as a platform to create real social change. That may not be why we’re clicking on these stories, but if you look at what William and Harry and Kate and Meghan, as well, are doing around issues of bullying or what they’ve done to reach out to gay communities and gay teens, and other issues that they’ve taken on, the Invictus Games—that’s really what makes me hopeful about them.
It’s not just that they dress up and attend these events. I think they actually have found some quite clever and effective ways of pushing the envelope on some hot-button social issues. And I suspect Meghan will do this around women and gender, as well.