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On being in London during the Royal Wedding

roayl wedding

The best view of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was ours. Because the couple decided to host their ceremony in St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor — rather than the traditional venue, Westminster Abbey — there was little to no activity in the city of London concerning the wedding. To the extent that I paid attention at all, the most I noticed was a single, sad t-shirt booth selling clothes with “I was in London during the Royal Wedding!” printed across the chest. To be in London during the wedding, as we were, is indeed the best view because it is no view at all.

To be my wedding-watching grandmother, or any average American, is to have a worse view. Why do Americans, in particular, have such a fascination with the Royal Family? I assert that the British Monarchy is a mediating image, propelled by a larger culture rooted in Spectacle — to draw from Guy Debord’s 1967 seminal work The Society of the Spectacle. To live vicariously through the social images of another culture is to experience, in an even more American sense than normal, the malaise of modern industrialized life.

So, the wedding. While I thankfully cannot describe it firsthand, I find from other sources that the total cost was around 32 million pounds sterling. Meghan Markle’s dress was a “double- bonded silk cady cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza,” not to mention the 16-foot long veil, the gold jewlery, a diamond tiara, etc. William wore military attire to reflect his membership in the British Army, and his time served in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury — whose parents met while serving as personal secretaries to Winston Churchill during the war — presided over the ceremony.

In the 1980’s, the wedding of Princes Diana and Prince Charles was a superbowl-level event for television; after Diana’s tragic death in 1997, her funeral was similarly publicized. Tabloids have for decades sprung upon the Royal Family’s youngest new additions, the birth of royal babies, as was the case in 2013 with Prince George and in 2015 with Princess Charlotte. We can expect the same for the forthcoming child in early 2019. One professor of history in a CNN interview even claimed that the American fascination with British royalty “has been alive pretty much since 1776,” and that almost “as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated — captivated really — by the royal family.”

Such events as the recent royal wedding image the good life for American audiences in a different way than British audiences. The key difference is the American folk narrative where anybody could wind up at the top of society. While this was not confirmed by the recent wedding, where Meghan Markle, though of mixed race, was raised in an upper-class Los Angeles family… it was confirmed in 2013 with Kate Middleton’s entrance into the family, who was essentially a social nobody before accidentally and unwittingly beginning to date Prince William. I remember at the time hearing the comparison made all day between Kate Middleton and “any of us that it could have happened to!” though of course that is nonsense. Where the British from their youth understand the strong role that socioeconomic Class plays in deciding your ultimate role in this world, Americans pretend that Class does not exist and so fantasize of elaborate weddings, grand receptions, life in a fairy castle, and so on.

The fascination with British royalty does not begin or end with the American Dream. Though propelled by The Dream, it exists in another social space divorced from The Dream by the malaise of everyday under- and middle-class life in America. This is the space where, as Debord claimed, “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity” because our relations to one another are mediated by images rather than just existing in their own right. In this transition, which is only possible after the rise of a nation-wide media culture, nothing is authentic and everything that we consider real is a symbolic representation of what lies behind it. Famous actors become sex symbols, important musicians attain cult-status, Royal Family members are stars of a soap opera, and politicians are reduced to boogeymen.

This smokescreen effect extends not just to politicians, but even to politics itself, where no true debates happen in the 21st century, only minor tinkering among policy wonks. True change is impossible in a system where R&D does not mean research and development but rather Republican and Democrat, parties with major incentives to race to the center and thereby eliminate any possibility for radical change of the system that they sustain and which in turn sustains them. In a world where we are defined by our relationship to brands, to parties, to celebrities and generally to symbols, we all have a bad view to the Royal Wedding.

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