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The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture
By Cele C. Otnes, Pauline Maclaran
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Magnetism of the Monarchy
It is a typical cool, slightly rainy mid-May week in London, 2012. Seemingly out of nowhere, hundreds of images begin to appear of an eighty-six-year-old great-grandmother whose sartorial choices tend toward colorful dyed-to-match ensembles from hat to hem, her ubiquitous Launer leather handbag on her arm. Under British law, she exceeded the legal retirement age for women over two decades earlier, but this octogenarian-in-overdrive still spends many of her days cutting ceremonial ribbons, shaking hands, hosting large garden parties for people she has never met, or entertaining dignitaries from around the world.
Regardless of how people feel about her or her family, they would be hard-pressed to avoid her image in London — and in much of the world — during the late spring of 2012. From an optician's window on Kensington High Street, she appears encased in an ornate gold frame and surrounded by signs proclaiming a £50 discount, adorned by a bright silver tiara and sporting an oversized pair of baby-blue-rimmed sunglasses, pink lipstick, and a satisfied smile (figure 2). She also stands in cardboard-cutout form in a dress-shop window on Regent Street, next to a pouty mannequin in Union Jack leggings.
A few hundred feet away, on Piccadilly Circus, she beams at window shoppers from a seemingly endless mélange of photos taken at different stages of her life that adorn souvenir shortbread tins, coffee mugs, tea towels, and miscellaneous tchotchkes. In high-end department stores like Peter Jones and Liberty, discerning collectors can choose more elegant representations of her visage, forgoing items that bear "happy snaps."* Yet the pervasive references to this matriarch are not always blatantly linked to commercial gains; many appear as indicators of respect, reverence, or restraint. Across the street from the Russell Square tube station, a sidewalk sandwich board sponsored by the quick-casual chain Au Bon Pain reminds passengers to "Keep it Clean" for her.
Six weeks later, she spectacularly trumps her own triumphant turnaround in popular opinion, in what seems destined to become her most beloved and blogged-about consumer-culture cameo. In a teleskit embedded in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, watched live by 900 million people around the world, she plays herself delivering secret orders to the British spy James Bond (Daniel Craig), then proceeds to "parachute jump" with him, via a stunt double, into Olympic Stadium. But even had she never participated in that event, and could only savor the official four-day celebration of her sixty years on the throne, the outcome would still have been the same. For in 2012 — during the "Summer of London" — Britain's Queen Elizabeth II became an icon of cool. For a tweed-skirted persona whose image serves as cultural shorthand for conservative and correct manner and mode, and whose younger relatives often have done her image no favors in recent decades, such a turnaround in public sentiment was nothing short of miraculous.
Yet even when some members of the Royal Family are criticized and even skewered for their decidedly unregal actions, their foibles and failings nonetheless still attract the interest of many people around the world. Tabloid-fueled British society and the increasing international outreach of online and social media mean royal missteps and debacles often are dispensed with gleeful immediacy around the globe and prove as or more compelling than their triumphs. In fact, contrary to Oscar Wilde's observation that "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," at times the risk to the monarchy of becoming laughingstocks, scapegoats, or cultural afterthoughts seems quite high.
Of course, since oral and written forms of cultural expression originated, depictions of rulers have ranged from fawning and flattering to borderline traitorous to outright seditious. But as more sophisticated mass media forms developed over the centuries, some modes — political cartoons, for example — became expected and accepted forms of (often devastating) commentary, especially in Britain. Furthermore, in recent years, other types of media offerings, such as opinion polls, have contributed to perceptions that the Royal Family's appeal to the British populace was becoming more and more tenuous. After Prince Charles and Princess Diana divorced in 1996, one newspaper survey reported that "46 percent of respondents believed Charles was unfit to be king, an increase of 13 percent in two years."
Certainly the Royal Family has not been alone among monarchies in its vulnerability. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the world has seen a marked decline in the number of crowned heads, especially in Europe. In 1900, for example, monarchs ruled over almost every country on the continent. But by 2012, only ten of fifty European countries featured hereditary monarchs recognized as legitimate by their governing bodies. As we note in our introduction, at the end of the twentieth century, a prorepublican discourse seemed to be gaining strength in Britain, with public commentary increasingly expressing apathy, anger, and downright nastiness toward the Royal Family. One result of this outcry was that the Queen agreed to pay income taxes (as had some of her forbearers), give up some historic entitlements, and even relinquish her beloved royal yacht, the HMY Britannia. (Supposedly, one of the few times she has cried in public was at its decommissioning ceremony in 1997). Furthermore, the outcry over the diminishing relevance of the monarchy has resulted in "the Firm" mounting a continuous and controlled campaign of image management from within. Margaret Tyler, known as an über-fan of the Royal Family, observes, "The Royals now know they have to win us over. They're not daft."
This campaign for people's attention and interest around the world has certainly been spurred by global gains in consumer culture, media saturation, and a heightened interest in luxury and aesthetics. Given how these phenomena dovetail with perceptions of royal lifestyles, plenty of people continue to vote with their credit cards and valorize past, present, and even future aspects of the British monarchy. To some extent, the institution has become an entity that people can purchase and possess in some fashion, producing enjoyable benefits in the process.
Of course, over its lifespan, the British monarchy often has proved contentious for a variety of reasons — especially when rulers still wielded political power. Indeed, the early warrior kings often habitually and irrevocably uprooted the lives of ordinary citizens within and beyond the boundaries of the British Isles. Furthermore, some monarchs' decisions to defy powerful cultural institutions and place their personal goals above their subjects' welfare often led to shattering and irrevocable social and cultural changes. Consider, for example, Henry VIII's decision in 1534 to effectively dissolve the Catholic Church in England and appoint himself head of the Anglican Church, so he could divorce his first wife and eventually enter into a quintet of future marriages.
In this book, we explore how and why the Royal Family maintains the level of fascination they do for many people around the world, given that scholars and subjects alike typify some British monarchs (and their heirs apparent) in the lineage as bloodthirsty, extravagant, foppish, immoral, reactionary, selfish, and even (often justifiably) criminal. Furthermore, given the numerous price points of entry into the world of royal consumption, and the choices of how best to tangibilize these representations, people are able to deftly customize their experiences while shielding themselves from aspects they find less desirable. For example, they might choose to immerse themselves solely in royal "dark tourism," such as the lore and gore associated with the Tower of London or, more recently, with the tragic events surrounding Princess Diana's death. Regardless of people's particular proclivities, we address these general questions: What do consumers gain by consuming the British Royal Family? What factors contribute to the viability and vividness of royal consumption experiences?
Before we focus on these questions in more contemporary times, it is worthwhile to remember that "royal-watching" has historically compelled much of the citizenry in what is now known as Great Britain. Until the broad-scale development of mass media in the late nineteenth century, people typically learned about activities through proclamations "nailed on the market cross, read aloud by a sheriff or other local official, or circulated and reported in village or alehouse." Until recently, many royal rituals were regarded as private and sometimes secretive affairs of state rather than occasions for public cultural celebration. But as more citizens migrated to London and its environs, they created chronicles of their increasing presence at the processionals that preceded coronations, funerals, and triumphal civic pageants celebrating victories over enemies on the battlefield, such as that described below:
When Henry V returned from Agincourt in 1415 he saw two gigantic figures ... upon the entrance to London Bridge; on the bridge itself were "innumerable boys representing the angelic host, arrayed in white, with glittering wings." ... On the King's approach ... "sparrows and other small birds" were set free ... an image of the Sun, "which glittered above all things," was placed on the throne and around it ... angels [sang and played] all kinds of musical instruments." ... "The city of London might, at that time, have been termed a stage."
Yet the concept of royal-watching has not always referred to adopting the presumably pleasurable stance known as the "tourist gaze." From 1066 until 1743, when George II was the last king to fight in battle, the British were involved in over fifty wars. During much of this "warrior king" era (aptly named since all English monarchs after William the Conqueror were male until 1553), royal watching often meant watching out for monarchs or, in particular, their armies. Kings and queens were under constant pressure to replenish their royal treasuries and to rouse and replace lost troops, equipment, and transportation. Citizens resigned themselves to sacrificing crops, livestock, mounts, sons, and other resources to their authoritarian rulers to serve as militia and materiel for battle. Often these requests took the form of seizures and even midnight raids, with compensation coming only in the "satisfaction" of fulfilling one's duty to the Crown. Of course, failure to offer up these resources could result in punishments as severe as those rained down onto the enemy.
With warrior kings often as likely to plunder their own subjects as to protect them, the notion of engaging in any kind of royal-themed touristic experiences, or of collecting souvenirs or traveling to seek royal encounters, would have been unfathomable to both rural and urban folk. As we discuss later in this book, the British economy was primarily based on agrarian and cottage-based industries until the Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the late eighteenth century and completely changed the socioeconomic structure of the nation, and then the world. Before that seismic occurrence, royal commemorative items were limited in type and number — although during the Tudor era, monarchs did leverage seals, medals, coins, paintings, and even illustrations in best-selling books (including the Bible) to perpetuate and promote their own images. Coins bearing royal visages were actually issued for kings ruling various sections of Britannia before William the Conqueror united the regions, and began to appear regularly by 800 a.d. But until the rise of an industrialized and urbanized Britain, "for many people, the king's image on coins was the only likeness of the monarch which they were likely to see in their lifetimes."
After 1688, the British Parliament began to abate the power of the monarchy through increasing constitutional restrictions. At the same time, two other key factors reshaped the nature of "royal watching." First, the role of the warrior king waned by the end of the eighteenth century; the metaphor was displaced by the decidedly more passive role of the monarch as diplomat (if the monarchs took much interest in ruling at all). Second, a structured and stable class system arose. Its most distinctive characteristic was the aristocratic class or landed gentry throughout England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, which reached its heyday prior to World War I.
Throughout the reigns of most of Britain's monarchs, royal-watching for the lower classes who lived outside of London typically involved lining the hedgerows along Britain's village roads, where proclamations (and later, newspapers) reported that monarchs and their entourages would be traveling. Within the aristocracy, however, a more formal and demanding type of interaction, which involved extravagant consumption, emerged. During the nineteenth and part of the twentieth centuries, the peak era of Britain's great country houses, the most important families in society were expected to extend invitations to elaborate weekend parties and resign themselves to members of royalty inviting themselves as well. Of course, most families regarded snaring members of the ruling class for their country weekends, or even overnight, as a great social coup. In probably one of the most expensive examples of anticipatory consumption, many owners of Britain's great houses even commissioned the building of ornate "royal beds." These cost thousands of pounds and were created to the aesthetic standards fit for the monarch, although most aristocrats never even knew if a royal visit would come to pass. Sometimes, however, the situation evolved into a classic example of being careful what one wished for. In the late nineteenth century, Prince Albert Edward's (later Edward VII) lavish tastes meant entertaining him during a house party often cost his hosts £5,000 – £10,000 per weekend.* It was rumored that Lord Suffield was so desperate to be relieved of the duty and expense that he burned down his own home, Gunton Park. Later, when Edward VII's daughter-in-law became Queen Mary, she was known for admiring treasures at people's homes until her host and hostess got the hint and offered her the items as gifts. As a result, she acquired a reputation for winding "her way round the country houses of England vacuuming up the Meissen."
Between the two world wars, the British aristocracy was gradually but irrevocably felled by the perfect storm of a global depression, a decline in demand for British goods around the world, the battlefield deaths and horrific injuries incurred during World War I by many sons and heirs of the great houses, and crippling changes in estate taxation laws. As a result, many of the finest families were forced to sell not only their country homes but their city residences as well — often complete with priceless works of art, jewels, and furnishings. Liquidating these assets also meant curtailing weekend house parties or eliminating them completely. Consequently, by World War II large weekend house parties had died out, shifting the sites of the Royal Family's entertainment to their own palaces and to events such as the annual presentation of upper-class debutantes at court.
The decline of the aristocracy also meant that the British upper class began to interact with the Royal Family at events that members of the lower social classes could also attend. At significant sporting events, such as Wimbledon and Royal Ascot, for example, tickets are available to the general public. Distinctions in the ways the social classes interact are still maintained even at these more democratically accessible events, but sometimes class boundaries disappear completely around their fringes. In 2005, after the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in Windsor, many wedding guests in their tails, top hats, and "fascinators" dined at the bistro chain Café Rouge in Windsor & Eton Central train station at tables alongside more plebian spectators who had stood behind the barricades, waving as the couple's limousine sped off after the ceremony.
Excerpted from Royal Fever by Cele C. Otnes, Pauline Maclaran. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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