The American media’s largely uncritical treatment of the British monarchy’s legacy following the death of Queen Elizabeth II has been consistent with the fascination Americans have with royalty, and with British royalty in particular. This fascination, also evident in the popularity of television shows like Bridgerton and The Crown, generally registers as both a dance with our colonial origins and a curious site of contrast between our own constitutional republic and the lingering romance of a monarchy (even as Great Britain has long since abandoned monarchy as a system of governance). Thus, the royals are a repository for fantasy, but also mark the mother country as different from our self-proclaimed democracy.
On social media, the reaction to the fantasy and history of the monarchy has been much more complex and vexed than in our televisual media. From many sectors of the world once colonized by Great Britain, a bitter—or, at best, bittersweet—reaction to the Queen’s death has been apparent. “Irish Twitter,” as posts from the Republic of Ireland are colloquially termed, has been irreverent; “Black Twitter” has as well. On the latter, there is an especially strong message from Anglophone African and Caribbean people who have felt the political and cultural impact of the monarchy. There has been a great deal of banter about these various contingencies “joining forces” to decry the monarchy, including “South Asian Twitter” as well. (This common ground of colonized people is not, of course, universal. Writers like the Black British Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo and the Jamaican Lorna Goodison have spoken sympathetically on social media and in writing about the symbolic power of the Queen, notwithstanding the royals’ central role in both the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.)
What interests me, from an American perspective, is the collision at this moment between fantasy and reality. It isn’t common for Americans to describe our country as an empire (we are more likely, I’ve observed, to describe ourselves as the democratic offspring of an empire), but it certainly is one. At the turn to the 20th century there was a second age of empire, and the wealth produced by the United States due to the unfree labor of enslaved Black people, in the antebellum period, allowed it to achieve a global power comparable to the mother country’s. The colonial acquisition of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the interventions in Haiti, and the building of U.S. military bases around the world was the version of empire that the United States pursued, and it coincided with the establishment of Jim Crow domestically. Racism and imperialism have always been twinned.
In Europe, too, the second age of empire included colonialism away from the mother countries. It’s worth recalling that Western Europe’s Scramble for Africa followed the 1884 Berlin Conference, in which Europe carved up a continent to be legally (and not just economically) dominated. The American accounting of our inheritance from the “mother country” conveniently leaves out just how much we learned from it.
We, as Americans, consume the romance of shows like Bridgerton without often considering how this royal wealth—reimagined for our entertainment as multiracial, genteel, and innocent—was built, and how it had to do with an ideology of empire and racial hierarchy. Similarly, we adopt a posture of quaint naivete vis-à-vis the royals, as though imperial sensibilities are something far afield of who and what we are. It is a projection and a romance at the same time.
In that way, social media’s disruption of the royal fascination has been meaningful, if jarring to some. We are socialized to be sensitive around death, even if the departed are people to whom we attribute great wrongdoing. Some of the naked honesty about the dealings of the British empire, in light of the Queen’s death, has been subject to both censure and censorship (see, for example, the furor over the Carnegie Mellon professor Uju Anya’s comments about the Queen’s death). Speech, as it turns out, is not as free as we might think in our constitutional republic.
That said, even as the conversation has been robust, I also can’t help but notice that social media is another place where fantasies abound. Just as one section of Twitter is decrying the royal romance and making history plain, another is decrying the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black woman, in Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. A Black woman being a mermaid is dismissed by legions of tweeters as inaccurate political correctness. These are people who would prefer that a white redhead who looked like the animated character be cast. Likewise, The Rings of Power, a television series based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is being rejected by some for having Black actors play characters who were described by Tolkien as dark-skinned.
Mind you, these are all fictional and fantastical nonhuman (though humanoid) characters whose portrayals by nonwhite actors are being seen as “inaccurate.” And the outcry, as has been noted by a number of critics, is telling: There are people who don’t want their fantasy worlds to be multiracial. And, in fact, it seems that some of these people like fantasy worlds precisely because they are places that have previously been all-white in our media history, as though the heroic imagination should be the province of white people alone.
And this, I think, is part of the trouble at the root of the romance with British royals. Queen Elizabeth was not singular. She was part of a large architecture of European modernity, an inheritor of a large pan-European imperial project that distributed suffering unequally and created hierarchies among human populations that are enduring. However, the fantasy that she represents is hard to disentangle from an ideology of white supremacy that many people continue to find appealing. This is the fantasy that marks some people superior to others as a result of the accidents of birth; that adheres to the fiction that one is born to a particular “station” in life. It is the fantasy that a person inherits value, as opposed to value being measured by principles, deeds, and integrity.
Whether one directs their attention toward the $400 million South African diamond that the Queen wore, which was looted from a land where the majority of today’s inhabitants are poor, or on the United States’ dominance of global politics in recent generations, it is clear that across the globe we live with the legacies of the age of empire and colonialism. The lessons of the moment are about how fantasy reveals what we think matters. Perhaps we ought to concentrate our attention on how we might imagine worlds—populated both by fictional characters and by today’s political actors—in which valuing the labor of everyday people, and meeting the basic needs of all in our midst, is the romantic ideal we find most intoxicating.
Some of my colleagues will be in conversation with several of today’s biggest names in business, culture, politics, and health next week at The Atlantic Festival. For a limited time, use the code TAFFRIEND for 50% off in-person registration. Learn more here.