“I didn’t get a picture of her. I was so mesmerized.”

When I stood in the street outside Westminster Abbey in 2011, stuck in a crowd watching the arrivals and departures at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, smartphones and digital cameras were everywhere. People held them up to take pictures of anything, anything. Horses, carriages, other people and waving Will and Kate pennants. They struggled to position their cameras so they weren’t blocked by other people’s cameras. Were they tall enough, could they bend enough, could they reach far enough to shoot?

But the gray-haired woman next to me who had been handing out snacks and chatting enthusiastically the whole time missed the photo she wanted most: she didn’t take a photo of the queen passing by in her carriage. And it wasn’t because she wasn’t ready. It wasn’t because she wasn’t looking.

A little shocked and a little discouraged, she admitted that it was simply that she was “hypnotized”.

The most important caveat about royalty-related emotions that I saw that day is that sure that’s not how all Londoners or all English people – let alone all of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects – felt about her. But that’s how a particular segment of the population reacted to it. He felt type of similar in magnitude to how some Americans talk about celebrities they admire, such as actors and musicians. But there’s a degree of tradition associated with that reverence, and a degree of formality and distance, which isn’t like devotion to Beyoncé or Chris Evans or whoever. You don’t see the queen dancing on TikTok or selling a new activewear line on Instagram.

For many, Elizabeth has been the monarchy

The US really has no such thing, maybe that’s why some Londoners will complain about how Americans are more impressed and obsessed with the British royal family than the British. After all, Americans aren’t burdened with the costs, political problems, and other worries of maintaining a monarchy; they can watch princes and princesses in real life as they would on TV – like an aesthetic and a story. That’s part of why Queen Elizabeth II’s positioning in pop culture is so important to how Americans saw her.

Elizabeth II became queen in 1952, almost 20 years before I was born. She has not only been queen all my life; she was queen since my parents were teenagers. By the time I became pop culture aware, Queen Elizabeth II has been the British monarchy. There are fewer and fewer living memories of the monarchy before it, without it. How popular culture engaged with her was a big part of how she engaged with the whole idea of a queen – an English queen or any other.

Elizabeth herself, in American and non-American cultural depictions, was a figure who could be stern or kind, tragic or comic, opaque or transparent. A lot of The crown dedicated herself to unfolding her life to explore her humanity, how the woman she was from the moment of her surprisingly young rise to power informed the monarch that she was. This is why her portrait has been transmitted from actress to actress, from Claire Foy to Olivia Colman via Imelda Staunton.

But there were also other performances. In The Queen, Helen Mirren cast her as a woman so concerned with protecting her family and the institution of the monarchy, and so estranged from her subjects, that she could not initially understand the public reaction to the death. of Princess Diana. Mirren’s portrayal, for which she won an Oscar, was both sympathetic and damning. He postulated that Elizabeth was, through her training and the sense of duty that defined her life, simply unprepared for the depth of feelings she encountered and surrounded by people who could help her navigate them. His only help comes from Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who in the film is his savior precisely because he learned to seek popularity outside the monarchy.

The emphasis on the intrigue of the palace in most of these constructed images of her meant, among other things, that they rarely viewed her from the point of view of ordinary people in England, let alone, for example, those who have been harmed by the monarchy’s long history of colonization. . Reactions to the news of her death highlighted how startlingly different her story can seem if she is seen less as the head of a family stricken by tragedy and more as the figure who still represented what had been the Empire. British.

Elizabeth, compared to Diana

Chez Pablo Larrain spencer, Elizabeth was a menacing presence hanging over the entire film that pierced with cryptic words of wisdom for Kristen Stewart’s Diana, but only in a single scene. For the most part, she is silent, foreboding, the embodiment of the institution Diana dreads, in which she feels trapped.

In fact, the popular view of Diana had such gravitational pull that it changed the shape of Elizabeth’s cultural orbit, even long after Diana herself was gone. Magazines, newspapers, television – they were all obsessed with Diana, from her emergence to her marriage through her divorce and her death. Since then, the British monarchy has often been portrayed through lenses that focus on how it treated, damaged and misunderstood Diana: The Queen, The crown, spencereven the recent Diana: the musicalin which Elizabeth is a tragicomic grandmother whose fixation on duty overwhelms a fundamentally kind nature, much to Diana’s detriment.

Although the real Elizabeth might have hoped to walk away from this concern, it echoed in the stories of Diana’s sons and their agony over the manner of her death. Over time, the two princes have taken two different paths, and their closeness or estrangement from popular culture shows it: There is William, who will in all likelihood become king, who has remained largely on the path of distance and formalism that his father and grandmother set for him. Then there’s Harry, who didn’t.

Harry, who hung out with James Corden, who married an American actress, who got candid about mental health and strained relationships with some family members in a chat with Oprah – one of the few women whose influence on popular culture in the last 30 years can rival those of his mother. And so now much of the pop culture interest in Elizabeth focuses on her interactions with Harry and Meghan. Time and time again, film and TV have seen Elizabeth as, in some way, Diana’s antagonist, whether that’s true or not.

For his part, Harry has apparently tried to separate his grandmother as such from “the business”, the institution of the monarchy that operates alongside him. But nonetheless, Diana’s embrace of a public image that included dancing and fashion and friendship with Elton John had a profound effect on pop culture’s portrayal of Elizabeth herself – and certainly on the depictions of Prince Charles. Otherwise, she could have remained a figure of a certain distance, without a hook of contemporary history to lead a film like The Queen or a series like The crown.

It is perhaps ironic that pop culture is still a deeply incomplete way of viewing someone like Elizabeth, whose 1953 coronation the BBC calls “the event that did more than any other to make television a mainstream medium.” Television may have brought her into homes in a new way, but the media would struggle to capture her for decades, even if they never stopped trying. Pop culture may never have been quite successful, but it has always been mesmerized.

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