A Royal Pain: The Case for Coming Together—to Ignore Monarchy Headlines
Royalty are the most private lives performed on the most public stages, yet the sense of belonging they promise is found between those two extremes.
British royalty have been in the center of a recent media storm: the BBC rendered the 10 days of national grieving after Queen Elizabeth’s passing into a worldwide media event, and now Prince Harry’s book tour is breaking the silence and with it book sales records.
What should one make of such nonstop coverage?
Here is why I am slow to tune into royalty headlines.
British royalty headlines turn heads for many reasons: there’s the Disney childhood awe that some feel for the most famous holdout from the history of real-life princesses and princes; there’s the celebrity fascination with the untouchable lives and (at least until the Crown) the grandeur of weddings, coronations, and funerals surrounding the House of Windsor; there’s the screwy side eye that many of us, especially in former colonies, give a peak fourteenth-century institution somehow still attracting tourist revenue in the twenty-first (oh monarchy!); and then there’s the well-earned reaction many feel for the symbolic heads of an empire that ruled the world, often with blood and horror. As a citizen of one of the 65 former British colonies, I pause to puzzle: why do so many want a part in the circus that is the British royalty?
I think my reticence to indulge in royalty fascination springs from a larger lingering unease I feel about how English-speaking publics try to satisfy our demand for symbolic reverence and ritual belonging. Everyone needs to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves: why do so many gravitate toward the public symbolism and private gossip of the British monarchy? And by the way, where should one find a shared sense of identity and belonging, and maybe even beautiful rituals that infuse meaning across time and space?
I don’t know for sure. But borrowing from Daniel Dayan and the late Elihu Katz’ signal work on media events, perhaps we can account for just a few overlapping spheres in which narratives of identity and belonging are ritually enacted: sports culture, celebrity culture, and royal families. A word on each.
Many people I know and admire find a sense of communal identity in sports (choose your favorite football), a tradition of belonging forged out of millennia of warlike tribalism that modernity has since sequestered and domesticated in the bounds of a refereed court. It is a curious fact that women often rim the fields where male violence is legitimated—and that violence still spills off the field among the fans. Sports has all the dramatic trappings of the previous age of empires: colors, flags, insignias, the politics of victories and losses, the statistics of prediction, and especially team fandom as a proxy for regional and national identity. Except for Sarajevo and now Ukraine, it has been generations since Europe has known the public rituals of war outside of the Euro football field.
Many others I know and admire also invest their search for belonging in the celebrity cultures trailing the last century of broadcast media. Here the sense of belonging is one of unilateral parasocial intimacy. Who among us does not feel a longing for a closer connection with our favorite actor, author, journalist, radio host, or late-night television host? It would be madness to find a sense of belonging in such relationships, imagining them to be somehow reciprocal: the late Betty White and Dwayne Johnson smile a lot but they never smile at me, no matter how many times I smile at the screen first. And yet to be a fan is precisely to indulge the desire to convert unilateral intimacy with celebrity into a sense of belonging.
I have little against sports or celebrity fandom cultures per se; rather, once framed as cultural covers for symbolic violence and intimacy, they help show why royalty headlines bring no staying sense of identity or belonging. For this bit is hard to miss: the royal family appears perhaps a peak embodiment of domesticated war celebrity culture. For what is a member of a royal house except a celebrity figure invested with the symbolic power of the very house that colonized and waged wars for centuries? (That princes today find military service anonymizing and comforting marks a sideways continuity with warring historical princes.) What is a royal family except celebrities by blood that answers for the blood of a nation? I am not saying that the House of Windsor itself wields much actual power, empire, or celebrity; rather I am suggesting that the perverse desire among English-speaking cultures to indulge in the symbolic power of violence and intimacy finds few figures more likely to scratch that itch—and then inflame it—than the British royalty.
Perhaps the English-speaking media environment, although arguably the most advanced in the world, is less advanced than it might hope, given that it expresses its preoccupation with the public power of states and the private life of celebrities through the same form—hereditary monarchy—that the petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England settled on in the tenth century.
It’s an old mistake. A sense of belonging and social progress are found in neither a fully public sphere nor an intimate private sphere. Rather they grow best out of that Goldilocks zone of interpersonal life that is more public than a private life while also more private than a public life, or in other words, the mezzanine second-order social orbits of neighborhood committees, community service, city and regional councils, schools, church congregations, intramural sports teams, neighborhood events, and others. Social life flourishes in the rich valleys between public headlines and private houses.
Royalty magnetizes almost the polar opposite of this magical Goldilocks zone: if meaningful social belonging emerges among people who are neither immediate family members nor total strangers, royalty are close to the inverse; they are the most private lives performed on the most public of stages, a filial relationship of daughter, mother, father, or son under the scrutiny of worldwide televised and tabloid audiences. Perhaps no life worth living or emulating can bear such perversely grandiose intimacy.
We can sense bits and pieces of this tension in our own media. Borrowing from Erica Robles-Anderson’s riff on the recent Twitter nomenclature change, social media tends to unfold between the celebrity logic of “for you” gossipy personalization or the sport logic of “following” public fandom. Our media lives demand we declare ourselves as public followers or avail ourselves mini-celebrities to the sleepless eyes of personalization algorithms. Most of the magic in life—good conversations, service, community—sprouts in social soils far removed from the micro-celebrity narcissisms of “for you” and the public fandom of “following” others.
I wish royalty the same thing I wish for all those in broken families: a middle orbit of trusted counselors, a spiritual adviser, a therapy group, and the time and space to heal. (I could do with or without Prince Harry’s philanthropy and without a book tour drumming up media attention about the traps of media attention.) May his tribe enjoy healing greater than a home and smaller than a state: game nights with new family and friends, picnics or walks in the park with neighbors, classrooms at community centers, the vital work of congregations, and, in stark contrast with symbolic monarchy, the democratic rituals of polling places. These are just a few of the secondary social orbits greater than our friends and smaller than the sum of all strangers that no royalty will enjoy nor coverage, satisfy. A live royal wedding, coronation, or funeral may invoke an afternoon’s worth of solemn meaning, but the smart bet for building ritual belonging and lasting political identity is with those caucasusing in middle school gyms, sharing cookies at polling stations, and deliberating at neighborhood councils. Belonging itself belongs to the fecund scrum of living among others, not sterile garden parties and the changing of the guard.
So let’s enjoy our selected sports and celebrities while taking a healthy break from the headlines. Let the next generation live normal lives: dissolve the monarchy.
May an acute unease with empire nostalgia, the anachronism of hereditary monarchy, the immodesty of intimate roles enacted on world stages give us reason to look away from the headlines while taking comfort in the fact that all those serving social goods in orbits larger than private houses and humbler than global publics cast noble shadows.