Royalty. Even the word is deeply evocative. It oozes luxury, history, opulence, and power (and, also, colonialism). Our favorite fictions and fairytales are gilded with its presence, our culture studded with our own personal kings, queens and princesses. Whether it’s fascination or some less flattering sentiment, it’s no wonder our collective imaginations are so enticed by tales of royal families.
At times, it feels like we crave our own royal story in America. But with no monarchs to speak of, we elevate our closest options — politicians, presidents and famous families — to imaginary thrones.
Why we’re obsessed with the Royals
The British Monarchy, of course, occupies a special place in the American obsession. The Windsors are far enough removed from our own society that they appear more as celebrities than heads of state. Yet, there’s also a closeness, a personal interest in their stories that feels justified by the entwined histories of our two countries.
The numbers don’t lie: 17 million people in the US tuned in to watch Prince Harry and Meghan’s much-talked about interview with Oprah in which they alleged Meghan, who is mixed-race, recieved racist treatment.
In 2018, 29 million people in the US woke up at the crack of dawn to watch their marriage. About 23 million watched Prince William and Katherine get married in 2011, with a global viewership of about 2 billion.
“The Crown” is one of the most popular shows on Netflix, and there are so many documentaries, books, tell-alls and shows about the life of Princess Diana that she continues to be a hyper-relevant part of American culture more than 20 years after her death.
Even if you don’t care about the Royals, a lot of Americans do.
“Royalty stands out as so unique, sometimes so glamorous, so rich, so story-book,” says Frank Farley, Professor of psychological studies at Temple University. “They have ongoing salience against the backdrop of the frequent passing celebrity and fleeting fame.”
When these people, charmed in a way so few are, are wrung through the universal challenges of life — marriage and family, divorce or discrimination– it’s natural for the public to crane their necks to see how they’ll handle it.
Farley, who specializes in media psychology, labels this a type of parasocial relationship, when we create a perceived connection to a person, like a movie star, athlete or prince, that we don’t have. We care about these people, even if we don’t actually know them at all.
“We live in a media-intense age which means there will be many who identify with the Royals’ issues, and be interested in how such famous wealthy figures living against a storied historic backdrop deal with life,” Farley says.
It just so happens, in the Windsor dynasty, there are innumerable instances of controversies, mysteries and, yes, happy endings.
These goings-on are perceived differently by the British public because, well, it matters more in their lives. For Americans, it’s like peering in the window of our very glamorous neighbors.
How we make our own American royalty
In the UK, the monarchy serves a ceremonial role that is separate from the political role played by the British Parliament. In the US, we don’t have that ceremonial aspect.
What we do have is a love of wealth and showmanship that can bridge our concept of actual royalty and, well, just plain fame. Powerful families are “dynasties” and “American royals.” The most famous and accomplished among us are kings and queens of their crafts.
Presidents, of course, are the easiest to imagine in this way.
Former President Donald Trump, for instance, was especially invested in being perceived as royalty. His interest in royal families is well-documented. Immortal images of the family’s gilded Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan radiate the same level of opulence as any palace. Many of Trump’s most ardent supporters dream of a future where various members of his family hold office in one long line of succession.
While seeing Presidents as kings holds terrifying consequences for our democracy, every administration inspires a fascination — often minimally political — among the American public similar to that of a monarchy. A lot of this interest revolves around a politician’s family and personal character, and there’s a clear reason why.
“In the US we’ve compartmentalized the roles of the ceremonial and the political,” says Arianne Chernock, Associate Professor of history at Boston University. “The president does political, partners do the ceremonial.” That’s why the details of, say, a First Lady’s outfit or the private interests of our politicians matter so much. They’re telling an American story with their choices, just as the British monarchy tells a British one.
“The monarchy is essential to Britian’s national story,” Chernock says. That’s why Queen Elizabeth, who has held the throne for 68 years, is so much more than a monarch to many British people. “They anchor people to an increasingly attenuated notion of what it means to be British.”
Similar narratives have framed the American identity for generations. The Kennedys, often referred to as a dynasty. The Obamas, whose influence and popularity has touched every corner of our culture. The Reagans, a Hollywood story come to Washington. We see ourselves in these families, and what we most desire: wealth and power, maybe. Or perhaps a deeper sense of belonging to our nation, a blueprint for what it means to be American.
How this shapes our culture
When we apply celebrity conventions to politicians, the way they influence popular culture changes, and an aesthetic function arises alongside a political one. Even while they hold office, popular politicians straddle the line between politics and entertainment. Many leverage this space, connecting celebrity, policy, and their own identities in a powerful and often confusing concoction.
“In a very complicated culture with so many moving parts and so many uncertainties we need political leaders who stand out and take stands on issues, and those qualities garner strong media attention and thus create celebrity status,” Farley says.
The British Monarchy also does a lot of their most influential work in the grey area between the power they were born with and the fame they attract. Princess Diana may have been a fashion icon and enduring enigma, but she was also beloved for using her status to call attention to underrepresented social issues. Princes William and Harry, her sons, have extended her legacy by discussing once-taboo issues like mental health.
“Certainly the monarchy has modernized in the way they engage with media and the people.” Chernock says. “At the same time, the allure of the institution depends on its traditions.”
It’s no different in America, even if the titles aren’t there. For better or worse, leaders know that people watch their every move with interest, adoration or criticism. They know that what they do will be emulated, and what they say will resonate through history. And even if they sit in the White House instead of on a throne, they still feel the presence of an invisible crown.