The Royal Baby & American Culture
Turn on your television, visit a major media news website and you will see the news about the impending royal birth in Britain. We felt it only fitting to ask University at Buffalo Professor David Schmid (who we interviewed in our 2011 American Summer issue), a British expatriate and American Culture critic his thoughts. –Todd Natti
Americans woke up this morning to their media being buried under a torrent of news about Kate Middleton going into labor. As both a culture critic and a British expat, I felt you were the best one to ask: is America, or perhaps simply the American media, more obsessed with this birth than your home nation?
I don’t think that Americans are any more obsessed with the upcoming royal birth than Brits, and we should of course note that millions of people in both countries either don’t care about the Royal family at all or are hostile toward them. With that said, I do think the nature of the interest is different in the US. In the UK, the interest is largely compensatory. By that I mean that a large part of the British attachment to the royal family in the 21st century comes from the (more or less subconscious) awareness that the UK is a post-imperial nation that is no longer a world power in any meaningful sense. Given this fact, the British attachment to the things that set us apart from the rest of the world, such as the royal family, intensifies as a way of compensating for our lack of world influence. This is why you will often hear Brits say some version of the following: “There might be a lot wrong with our country, but we can still put on a Royal spectacle better than anyone else!” Americans obviously don’t have that kind of investment in ‘owning the spectacle,’ as it were; for Americans, the spectacle is simply to be enjoyed as something that is simultaneously traditional and exotic, both a vestige of times past and a reminder of how ‘quaint’ Britain still is when compared to the ‘bang up to date’ US of A! In this respect, there is obviously a strong family resemblance between American interest in the British royal family and the popularity of shows such as the execrable Downton Abbey in the US. To put it another way, the arrival of a royal baby is a familiar and welcome story to an American audience because we’ve already seen it on Masterpiece Theater!
I saw a question posed this morning on Fox news as I was flipping through the channels about why we are obsessed with this story and the reporter suggested that it was because we are obsessed with Kate Middleton in particular. So this led me to wonder: do we have a fetish for the British royals, Kate, or simply any woman that marries into that family?
There may be some additional interest generated by the fact that the center of this particular story is a woman who has married into this family/institution, rather than a figure ‘internal’ to it, as it were (although this distinction gets murkier every day in Kate Middleton’s case). In this sense (and not only in this sense) the ghost of Diana hovers around this event, generating a potentially gruesome post-mortem aura to this birth. My sense, though, is that Middleton is simply the icing on the cake, as it were, rather than the main reason for the interest. The royal bride is the classic example of an individual simply occupying a structural position as a placeholder for public identification, rather than someone who exists as an interesting or three-dimensional person in her own right.
You had a lovely tweet this morning regarding the impending news, do you think Americans enjoy news of “royal bullshit” because they are essentially fluff pieces that have no effect on life here or is it something more?
Yes, part of the interest comes from the ‘fluffiness’ of such items and the way in which they provide a welcome relief from the grimness of 24-hour coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder, the rolling back of voting rights, restrictions on women’s rights, the discovery of the remains of murdered women in Ohio and all the other items that make up the phantasmagoria of American media. More than that, however, the appeal of royal bullshit to Americans comes from the fact that there’s nothing at stake for them in the royal family; after all, it’s not their taxes that will be supporting this baby and the other members of the royal family for the rest of their lives–that’s the ‘privilege’ of British taxpayers.
Have we become a culture that appreciates speculation more than actualization? What I mean is: once this baby is born, will anyone care?
We absolutely prefer speculation over actualization. After all, how many of those Americans who call themselves pro-life actually care about kids once they’re born, especially if they’re living in poverty, abused and/or hungry? Symbols are always more attractive and enjoyable to interact with than real people. In this sense, American and British interest in the royal baby will obviously last longer than interest in the baby of a woman essentially forced to give birth because contraceptive or abortion coverage was unavailable (interest in the latter can scarcely be said to exist at all). To put it another way, the symbolic status of the royal baby will last beyond its birth and therefore guarantee a certain level of continuing public interest in it.
Any coverage of the British monarchy always brings to mind that the UK has had the most films and television shows made about its royals than any other nation that comes to mind. Do you think there’s something that sets this line of royals apart from other nations?
The ‘special status’ of the British royal family in the media and popular culture is an extension of the perception (especially common in the US) that only Britain has a class system. As the apotheosis of that class system, the British royal family has an iconic status that other royal families do not have, particularly with American audiences. They are similar enough in terms of ethnicity and appearance to be both familiar and ‘legitimate’ objects of interest to white Americans and yet also different enough to be objects of pseudo-anthropological fascination and/or fantasy.
According to most headlines, the entire world is apparently awaiting the birth announcement, so I felt this was a fitting final question: in the long run, or even in the short, does this matter on any level?
Ideology always matters! Or to put it another way, any claim that a very diverse group of people (in this case, the world!) is unified by a common interest should be regarded with great suspicion. The assertion of unity could easily be dismissed as journalistic hyperbole, which of course it is, but we should also recognize the implied message of this hyperbole: “Forget your differences, forget reality, and focus instead on the fantasmatic, on the illusion of wholeness.” So yes, this specious assertion of unity matters and should be rejected by insisting on a renewed embrace of the complex contradictions and injustices of the real world. Or as Public Enemy once said, “Don’t Believe the Hype!”Close