Queen Elizabeth II at 90: Why the royal family enchants Americans so much
As events gather pace in Britain to celebrate another birthday of their beloved monarch, Americans, too, are mesmerized. What lies behind the US fascination with the British royal family?
As Queen Elizabeth II prepares to celebrate her 90th birthday Thursday, commemorative events are already underway, with Prince William speaking to the BBC about his grandmother, the four generations of the royal family lining up for a photo-shoot to adorn a new stamp collection, and 1,000 bonfires being prepared across the land, the first to be lit by the queen herself.
But Britain will not be alone in celebrating another milestone in the life of their longest-serving monarch, with perhaps no country more intrigued than the United States.
Indeed, President Obama will sit down to dinner Friday with the queen, Prince William and others, perhaps prompting the question, why does the royal family hold such appeal for its former subjects on the other side of the Atlantic?
"Generally, Americans tend to be quite nationalistic, and we don't think as much as we should about events outside our borders, so it's fascinating that the royal family is so popular," Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview.
In part, Dr. Towns attributes this to the explosion of social media and the Internet, providing people with a window to the world that never before existed, but she concedes that the fascination with the royal family on this side of the pond is nothing new.
It all began in 1860, as Erik Goldstein of Boston University explains in a telephone interview: the year Queen Victoria's 18-year-old son, Edward VII, made a visit to the US, taking in Niagara Falls, and then making his first stop in Detroit.
The visit was supposed to be low-key, but 30,000 people waited to greet him. In New York City, a crowd of 100,000 – the biggest yet seen there – thronged the streets to see this British prince. Washington, D.C. celebrated with fireworks.
"It was the first time Brits realized their royal family had popular value," says Dr. Goldstein, a professor of international relations and history. "It was a spontaneous reaction, which in many ways surprised people at the time."
But this reaction, and the attention garnered by subsequent visits, ensured that such engagements became a regular part of the royal calendar.
The royal family is a well-oiled public relations machine, a prime example of British "soft power," as Goldstein puts it, representing "continuity" and leadership.
Brands try to sell us things, and politicians have an agenda, but the royal family is burdened with none of this, Towns explains: They can engage in acts of philanthropy with no other objectives, free to perform an ambassadorial role for Britain without the baggage of "trying to get things done."
"There is also a fascination with celebrity," says Towns, "and the royal family presents a perfected image, free of the typical flaws and foibles of movie stars and other celebrities."
At a time when so many families seem to be falling apart, this image of a perfect family unit is alluring. Moreover, when you consider how some of the "princesses are plucked from everyday life," it approaches something of a rags-to-riches story, perhaps not so far from the American dream itself.
But what of the history? Was there not a war between the two countries, as the US was born and threw off the yoke of its colonial masters? In fact, was it not the rule of this very royal family to which the young Americans objected?
"We won," Towns points out, so "there are no hard feelings."
More than that, so much time has passed. The relationship between the two countries has evolved so deeply in the intervening decades – centuries, even – that it is now often characterized by solidarity, common purpose, and a sense that the two countries have always "had each other's backs."
"The royal family has played an important role in keeping the British-American relationship a special relationship," says Goldstein. "It's one of the symbolic bonds that has been useful in representing the complex historical links between the two countries."
So it seems as though the affinity felt by so many Americans for the British royal family is set to endure – so long as the monarchy itself survives, that is.
There are occasional murmurings in Britain – questions about the relevance, the expediency, of retaining a royal family – but one truth is hard to deny: In times of turmoil, the royals often represent something solid and dependable, tradition that harks back to the heady days of the empire.
And when celebrations roll around, like the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, they often provide a rallying point, a beacon of light when other issues threaten gloomier skies: divisive debates such as whether to stay in the European Union or embrace the so-called Brexit.
"The royal family is still relevant because it provides a point of unity," says Goldstein. "They would have to do something deeply unpopular to risk their position because nobody has proposed a viable alternative for the country."