Why Americans are obsessed with the British royal family

There are plenty of folks in the United States who are excited about Prince Harry's upcoming wedding to actress Megha...

Posted: Mar 29, 2018 1:35 PM
Updated: Mar 29, 2018 1:35 PM

There are plenty of folks in the United States who are excited about Prince Harry's upcoming wedding to actress Meghan Markle.

Of course, she's not the first American to marry into the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II's uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1939 to marry American divorc-e Wallis Simpson -- something unheard of at the time.

The fact that so many in the US already know this shows that America's fascination with the British royal family started long before Harry met Meghan.

The popularity of TV shows like "The Crown" in the United States backs this up. British actor Matt Smith, who plays Prince Philip on the show, said he was surprised by the fascination the royals inspire in the United States.

"I had no idea they were so popular here ... until I did this show," Smith said. "They've managed to maintain an air of mystery and celebrity somehow, which I think has allowed them to endure, and that sort of mystery is always appealing on some level."

Across the pond, the royal family is seen as a massive soap opera, replete with love and loss, pomp and circumstance and British accents (Americans love those too).

Sandro Monetti, a British journalist now living in Los Angeles, covered the royal family for five years. He believes that Americans love the royal family more than British people do. "To much of the world, Britain is the royal family," he said. "They are a great PR boon for the United Kingdom."

Former US President Barack Obama acknowledged this when Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, visited the White House in 2015. "The American people are quite fond of the royal family," the President said to Charles. "They like them much better than their own politicians."

Part of the draw is the pageantry and centuries-old tradition, which is unlike anything the US has. The Kennedys are perhaps the closest thing to American royalty but, as a deeply Democratic family, the fanfare may be divided; the constitutional role of British monarchs is to steer clear of politics.

Arianne Chernock, an associate professor in the history department at Boston University, said Americans' interest in the royal family has been apparent since the younger nation was formed.

"It has been alive pretty much since 1776," she said. "Pretty much as soon as we severed ties, we were back to being fascinated -- captivated really -- by the royal family."

Much of this makes sense in light of the special relationship maintained by the two nations. Politically, Chernock said, the bond deepened in the post-World War II era.

"That stems, I think, from our shared paths and this sense that to some extent Americans were part of this narrative, part of this story," Chernock said. On top of that, for some Americans, the ties that bind are British blood relatives.

Nevertheless, Chernock said, the interest isn't constant but peaks around important events like royal visits, weddings, births and coronations. So, no surprise these milestones grab plenty of American eyeballs.

In 2011, close to 23 million Americans woke up early to watch the wedding of Prince William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, according to Nielsen.

In 1981, before cable TV, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, was one of the most-watched televised events of the 1980s in the United States.

"For the first time, in front of a mass global television audience was the idea of a fairytale princess wedding: Someone who was one of us marrying into the royal family. Everyone could relate to that around the world," Monetti said.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997, about 30 million Americans watched the funeral.

The image of a then 12-year-old Harry and 15-year-old William walking solemnly behind their mother's casket lingered on in the collective American psyche. Like much of the world, Americans want a happy ending for the princes -- especially after watching them endure such pain.

Over the years, Americans have remained curious about the sons of the so-called People's Princess as they grew into their philanthropy, went off to college, served in the military, began dating and, ultimately, left the realm of "eligible bachelor" behind.

Princess dreams

And so, we have to address the tiara in some American girls' bedrooms. Many girls in the United States grow up watching cartoons about royalty and dressing up as princesses for Halloween.

While the messaging about princesses has changed over the years to one that's more about female empowerment and less about a prince whisking a lady off into the sunset, being royalty is romanticized from an early age in American pop culture.

"I think Walt Disney had a lot to do with that," Monetti said. "All those ideas in films and books, the princess was the ultimate dream."

You don't have to look further than Immaculate Heart, Markle's high school in Hollywood, to see the excitement of that princess dream in living color -- even though Markle will have a title other than princess. Many of the students at the all-girls' school plan to get up in the middle of the night to watch one of their own marry into the royal family.

"It's just super cool that she came from here, like L.A., and just spread out all over the place," said senior Becky Doyle. "And, you know, who doesn't love a good love story?"

And perhaps it's safe to say a bit of that infatuation goes both ways. After all, Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth II on "The Crown," said many Brits are thrilled Harry is marrying the American actress.

"We're like, 'Thank God! Open the doors!' She's so beautiful, and I just think she says all the right things," Foy said. "She makes the English royal family look ever so slightly ..." As Foy looked for the right word, her "Crown" co-star Smith interjected: "Staged."

Foy agreed, "Yeah, because she's just so relaxed."

After the arrival of Prince George and Princess Charlotte, and with another baby on the way for William and Kate, Americans' fascination with the British monarchy will likely only grow to include this new cast of royals.

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