Dirt: Queen as content
Ana Kinsella on royalty memes.
Our London correspondent Ana Kinsella sends in a letter about consuming the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death and taking reality TV too seriously.
When it became clear, on the morning of Thursday, September 8th, that the Queen of England was not long for this world, the internet knew what to do. Twitter morphed immediately into ‘bird in assembly hall’ mode, the intense and enthusiastic style used by posters who are on the edge of their seat about a rapidly changing news story. Every meme format in recent history started popping up as energy ramped up (“Breaking: Jason Derulo has fallen down the steps at Balmoral”). The relatively new Circles feature was called into service, bearing the weight of so many questionable jokes, offensive memes and, as many posters said, tweets so anti-establishment that surely MI5 would put them on a watch list.
As the news officially broke, just before teatime that evening, the jokes stopped. Instead I saw a deluge of Instagram Stories ironically reposting tributes from unlikely brands (Domino’s Pizza, Pretty Little Thing, the British Kebab Awards) alongside sincere vintage drip pics of the Queen in her Barbour coats and tweed prime.
I wasn’t surprised by this reaction. The primary way the British public engages with the Royal family now is to consume them as digital content. You can follow the plotlines of the various family members through news items in the Daily Mail, or you can go straight to the source and listen to their podcasts. You can put together conspiracy-adjacent theories about Meghan Markle through cryptic posts or you can simply watch her interviews with Oprah.
To an extent, this has been the case throughout Elizabeth’s reign: tabloid photographs and televised Christmas Day missives have long provided talking points for the public. But the difference now is that the content comes as a constant livestream, viewed even by those without interest in or support for the monarchy. Consumption doesn’t mean political alignment, and you needn’t be a royalist to do this — I know plenty of die-hard republicans who binged the latest season of The Crown. The content is good, entertaining, and delivered in dribs and drabs that make us feel like it’s an on-going story that we’re all part of.
Plus, we’ve been prepared for this moment. Another piece of content, the 2017 Guardian long read written by Sam Knight, titled 'London Bridge is down': the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death, provided a deep dive into what would happen when the Queen did eventually die. A thorough piece of investigative reporting, the article also doubled as a kind of monarchical pseudo-psy-op. By giving us a supposedly inside look at what will unfold at an inevitable time of national significance, it meant we would feel comfortable with the mechanics of Royal death management — an inoculation, perhaps, by teasing it in advance. Because when it comes to the transition of power, the last thing you’d want is a confused populace. Knight’s article remained in the Guardian’s most-read column for most of Thursday while we waited for what came next.
This is what the endless flood of contemporary Royal content does. It gives us the illusion of secret, behind-the-scenes knowledge while always propping up the institution itself. It endlessly makes the existence of the Royal family in public life feel more relevant through the prism of the screen. Accompanied by mainstream media manufacturing broader consent for the monarchy, small-screen Royal content helps to position the individuals themselves as relatable and sympathetic as your favorite podcaster or Real Housewife.
But in reality, despite how much I enjoyed The Crown, the Royals’ existence has nothing to do with me, and the minutiae of who is on the throne and who has wronged who in the family along the way has no impact on the material existence of my daily life. Olivia Colman’s depiction of the Queen struggling with the right response over the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster made for great television. But after the episode ended, the sympathy I had for her on screen dissipated when I read another news story about her latest missed opportunity to apologize for the slavery at the heart of the British Empire. Just like any reality series, once you switch it off, the drama fades and becomes irrelevant in comparison with our actual reality.
Much talk, in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death, has been of how she provided stability for a nation in flux throughout her long reign. But the reality is that Britain, and the world at large, has undergone profound change in those years. Now there is a new monarch on the throne and already there are questions of what might happen to Scottish independence, as well as to the parts of the Commonwealth where the King of England remains the head of state. Australia and Jamaica have both explicitly said they’d like to follow Barbados on the road to becoming a republic. For many around the world, the Windsors are no longer welcome to play the role they themselves might long to play. More questions will likely follow: the succession of King Charles III will shed light on the parts of the monarchy that can seem ridiculous or irrelevant. The glamor and intrigue will seem less glamorous and intriguing without Queen Elizabeth to hold it together. At the same time, the Royal content mills will continue to churn to convince us of their role in our lives. But there’s plenty else worth watching. Perhaps it’s now time that the rest of us changed the channel. — Ana Kinsella
The Dirt: Monarchy is just another content stream.
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