For Americans, Queen Elizabeth II Is a Character First
The royal family is so far removed from American society that they might as well be fiction.
I’ve never been much of an “appointment TV’ viewer. On November 4, 2016, though, I absolutely was. I had cleared my schedule beforehand and raced home from school as fast as I could. I wanted as much time as possible to simply sit, engrossed and entertained.
I’d been anticipating the premiere of “The Crown” for months. I knew, after watching just the first teaser trailer, that the series would be not just fantastic television, but a moment in cultural history. It would be something that society at-large talked about, even obsessed over. Obviously, I wasn’t disappointed. “The Crown” managed and continues to manage to create the perfect blend of political drama and family drama, of being creative and interesting without seeming pretentious. It’s the kind of show that is designed to be a cultural obsession.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “The Crown” over the past week or so, for obvious reasons, but particularly because in the six years since it premiered, I’ve never really associated the Queen Elizabeth II I saw on screen with the real person. In fact, unlike other “based-on-a-true-story” series, I didn’t find myself seeking out what was real and what wasn’t about the royal family. For the major political events that were featured, I would binge-read wikipedia pages. But when it came to the happenings of the monarchy, I had no curiosity for “the truth.”
Part of the reason why, I’m sure, is that “The Crown” is very effective at making the royal family feel authentic. If I’m being honest, though, the more important reason is simply that I didn’t care about what really happened. “The truth” just didn’t matter.
From across the Atlantic, the entire royal family, Queen Elizabeth II included, might as well be fictional characters. Their existence is so far removed from American society — especially because there is no equivalent here for the role they play in British culture and politics — that our only framework to understand them is either through American celebrity culture or the works of Shakespeare — either as personas or parts in a play.
The latter materialized literally in the play “King Charles III,” by Mike Bartlett, which premiered in London in 2014 and transferred to Broadway a year later. The play is set in the future — now our present — in the months following Elizabeth’s death, and is written entirely in the style of a Shakespearean tragedy, depicting the downfall of the man who is now king in real life. It was so effective in its depiction that many of the American reviews of the play talked about it as if it were truly a work of the Bard, rather than a critique of actual people and very much rooted in reality.
The responses to both “King Charles III” and “The Crown” cemented for me the American perspective of the royal family. It is not simply that we are entertained by them. It is that, here, they exist solely for our entertainment.
The same cannot be said for much of the rest of the world. In most places, Elizabeth was and is a symbol. For many, a symbol of British nationalism and culture. For others, of the dark legacy of the British Empire and colonization. And although we are often taught that symbolism is limited in its power, symbols serve a tangible purpose. They matter.
Still, the overlap between character and symbol is that they are not a fully-realized person. An oft-repeated facet of Elizabeth’s life, especially in remembrances over the past week, is that she didn’t want to be the monarch, but did so anyway out of a sense of duty. She chose to not be a fully-realized human in the eyes of society because she believed the world needs both characters and symbols to lionize, criticize, utilize, and now, eulogize.
I’ve seen a lot of headlines over the past week along the lines of “Why Do Americans Care So Much About Elizabeth’s Death?” It’s a fair question, considering everything I’ve said so far, but — and this is where I’m going to contradict myself — the thing about the best-written characters, and the best-written stories, is that without us realizing, they often do more than solely entertain. They make you care about them, and as a result, they matter, too.
That’s all for this edition of Cansler Culture. If you like what you’re reading, don’t forget to smash that like and subscribe button (Or share it. That works, too).
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