Weddings, babies, Instagram! How the new generation of royals inspired a fresh wave of affection for the British Royal Family in the social media age.
T wenty years ago, the British Royal Family was mired in scandal. The 1990s had proven to be a decade of darkness, despair and dirty laundry for The Firm, as the monarchy is known; Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated and then divorced, Windsor Castle was partially destroyed by fire, and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s marriage ended in a flurry of estrangement, infidelity, and toe-sucking.
There were more twists and turns than a soap opera. The damage culminated in the death of Princess Diana in August 1997, an event that inspired an incredible display of public mourning, and public fury towards the Queen for failing to understand the grief felt around the world.
But time has been kind to the Royal Family. It is a new era and a new generation of royals have breathed life back into the thousand-year-old monarchy. Which begs the question: what does the monarchy stand for in the modern age? And how did the Royal Family manage to claw its way back to a position, once again, of adoration and affection, not just from the British public but also around the world?
A Royal History
Dr Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, a Senior Lecturer in History based in the University of Wollongong’s School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, has researched the role of feminism, imperialism and nationalism in Britain, the United States, and Australia. She says the role of the British Royal Family has changed over the past century, to the point where the institution is now symbolic. They wield no real power but exist as a beacon of virtue and stability in times of trouble.
“England curtailed the power of its monarchy by becoming a constitutional monarchy relatively early. The British Parliament and Government exercise their power through Royal Prerogative, but the monarchy hasn’t had any real power for a long time. Its role is largely ceremonial,” Dr Crozier-De Rosa explains. “In the 19th century, under Queen Victoria’s rule, the power of the monarchy was significantly eroded and it came to be much more symbolic. The Royal Family began to be seen as the first family of the empire. They were regarded more and more as the glue that held an increasingly troublesome and diverse empire together.”
Dr Crozier-De Rosa believes the Royal Family represents heritage, duty, tradition, a steadying force in troubled waters, led by Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch and arguably one of the most recognisable figures in the world.
“I think when the British Empire still existed, the Royal Family represented a racial ideal, the purity of Anglo Saxon bloodlines that connected the white colonies. That’s an uncomfortable thought now, but that’s what it was,” Dr Crozier-De Rosa says. “There was also a real sense of Victorian morals and values about them. They certainly evoked the class system, elitism, and paternalism.
“For Australians, the Royal Family represents the nostalgia of aristocracy and our link to the glorious past of the empire. The Royal Family wasn’t very popular in the 18th century, but then they started to go on tours around the world, including Australia. Between 1860 and the 1950s, there were seven royal tours here, and with each one the Royal Family became more popular. Those tours kept the lonely colony in the south in touch with its ‘mother country’ in the north.”
The 20th century was not kind to monarchies around the world. The First and Second World Wars, in particular, hastened the end of monarchies in Russia and Spain, and as the century progressed, Britain’s subjects diminished as more and more nations fought for independence.
Then there was the Royal Family itself. Marriage breakdowns, affairs, love children, all set against the backdrop of intensifying media attention. There were far too many scandals than we have the space to detail. Suffice to say, it was the worst of times for The Firm. The public’s affection towards the monarchy had taken a serious, and seemingly irreversible, hit. But that all changed when two young prices came of age.
The Royal Family 2.0
The revival of the monarchy was captured in all its glory with the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. On May 19, they tied the knot at Windsor Castle, in a ceremony that contained equal parts royal prestige and Hollywood glamour. While it was clearly a love match, it was also a public relations coup for the ages. The wedding between a cheeky prince and an actress (a divorced, biracial, feminist, no less) seemed to cement the Royal Family’s second wave of adoration and affection.
But the resurgence really began with Prince William and Kate Middleton, who began dating in 2003. It was a modern fairy-tale. Boy meets girl at university. Boy just happens to be a prince. She was a commoner who won his heart. After much to and fro – and a break up – they married in 2011 (in a ceremony watched by hundreds of millions around the globe) and have three adorable children.
And then there’s The Crown. The Netflix series provides a peek into the (somewhat fictional) world of Queen Elizabeth II, reviving her popularity and paying tribute to her reserved, stoic manner. It seems people can’t get enough of the royals; it is a monarchy for modern times. This is true of not only Australia and Britain, but also the United States, a nation that long ago threw off the shackles of their royal overlords and threw their tea into Boston Harbour.
Professor Gregory Melleuish, a political scientist and historian in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, says Princes William and Harry are endearing themselves to the public, throughout the world, through their sense of duty and wholesome personas.
“There has been a resurgence in affection for the Royal Family as a new generation of royals who are much more appealing have emerged,” he says. “Prince William is much less controversial than his father, Prince Charles, and seems to have a much better public persona and capacity to appeal to a younger generation.
“William and Kate, in particular, generate great publicity as they are free of scandal and seem to be loving parents with delightful children.”
Dr Crozier-De Rosa sums up the appeal of the new generation of royals in one word: “celebrity.”
“I don’t think they necessarily represent morality anymore,” she says with a laugh. “There are people who are concerned about the opening up of the monarchy. Diana was seen as the ‘people’s princess’. It was the little girl’s fairy-tale, even though it all went very sour. Since William and Kate, the possibility of the commoner marrying into the Royal Family has captivated people, and that is what people are now massively buying into with Meghan Markle.
“Lady Diana popularised the Royal Family in recent history. Kate Middleton’s marriage to William continued that. For Harry, marrying someone from the New Republic [the United States], from the other side of the Atlantic, who may even be the descendant of a slave, who is also a divorced woman, that is radically different.
“The public watched Prince William and Prince Harry at the funeral of Princess Diana, they’ve seen them grow up, so I think there’s an attachment there, too.”
Just like us, only more Royal
Dr Crozier-De Rosa may question the relevancy of the Royal Family in the 21st century but she concedes that the Royals have been very successful at (re)branding themselves over the decades. She believes the Royal Family has perfected the art of managing to seem relatable without giving away much at all. They are a brand, one that has proved tremendously successful. Royals: they’re just like us (except they’re actually nothing like us).
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex would like to thank everyone who took part in the celebrations of their wedding on Saturday. They feel so lucky to have been able to share their day with all those gathered in Windsor and also all those who watched the wedding on television across the UK, Commonwealth, and around the world #RoyalWedding
“Matt Smith, who played Prince Phillip in The Crown, said in an interview that it’s the element of mystery that draws people to the Royal Family and there’s truth in that. If you put out a TV show that pretends to have a backdoor into one of the most notoriously private yet public families in the world, it makes them relatable and that’s why it’s such a success,” she says.
“One of the reasons Queen Elizabeth is believed to have had such longevity is because she is so uncontroversial and boring, really,” Dr Crozier-De Rosa says. As for whether the Queen is a feminist icon, her answer is short and simple: “No”. Queen Elizabeth achieved her status through entitlement not merit.
For his part, Professor Melleuish believes it is much more admirable for nations to look to the British royals for inspiration – and indeed, the British royals seem to have become the world’s royals in a way that royal families from other monarchies have not – rather than run-of-the-mill celebrities.
“Australia, the US, and Canada all have a deep fascination with the Royal Family. There is a human need for individuals to be able to look up to special people who they can respect and who are special. It is far better for those people to be royals who devote their lives to the public good than celebrities who merely seek the limelight, or politicians,” Professor Melleuish says. “This generation of royals seem to have thrown off some of the more questionable qualities of the previous generations.”
Changing of the guard
So what does the future look like for the Royal Family? With Meghan Markle now officially in the fold and Kate and William firmly ensconced in domestic bliss, will the new generation continue to captivate the public’s love and affection?
Here in Australia, have the young royals, or Royal Family 2.0, frustrated the push for a republic?
“The Royal Family puts out products and products for them are weddings, babies, coronations, and funerals, so I think that is what continues to draw people to them,” Dr Crozier-De Rosa says.
“In the 19th century, Wedgewood [the fine china company] released a range of crockery that was the same as that used by the Royal Family. So members of the British aristocracy and upper middle class, those who desired to emulate the monarchy, could use the same china as the Royal Family. They’ve always thought about the brand. Now, they have their own YouTube channel, their own Twitter and social media accounts. They are working to make themselves socially relevant. As they marry into the more common families, it makes them relevant, but it scares the conservatives, who are worried, where does the tradition go?
“I think the reason Americans love the monarchy so much is because it combines celebrity with centuries-old tradition, a centuries-old tradition that a settler-colonial United States does not have.”
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have released three official photographs from their Wedding day. This photograph was taken by photographer @alexilubomirski in The Green Drawing Room of Windsor Castle, following the carriage procession #RoyalWedding
A post shared by Kensington Palace (@kensingtonroyal) on
Asked if the Republican movement was to succeed in Australia, would it have a negative impact on the popularity of the British Royal Family in the country, Dr Crozier-De Rosa replies: “Not if the ongoing obsession with the British Royal Family in the United States of America, a former British colony then major Republican State, is anything to go by!”
For his part, Professor Melleuish says the Royal Family’s relevance will depend upon its ability to rise above scandal, but he believes remaining a constitutional monarchy is the best path for Australia.
“Politicians are always seeking political advantage; monarchs and their representatives are only interested in the wider public interest. What really worries me is the way in which prime ministers in recent times have tried to usurp the role of the Governor General. Heads of State need to be impartial so that they can play their important symbolic role,” he says. “Can this happen, for example, if we were to have an elected president, as so many of Australians would want if the country became a republic?
“Going forward, the Royal Family will continue to have a symbolic role and be important at a cultural level. It will need to avoid scandal and to play an exemplary role as a good example. Being a royal involves discipline; despite the glamour, it is a lifestyle which is much more difficult to live than appears on the surface.”