America's Love Affair with the British Royals is Exiting its Honeymoon Phase

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Queen Elizabeth, wearing a lilac and green suit and hat, stands beside Meghan Markle, who's wearing a navy dress and matching fascinator.
Queen Elizabeth II and Meghan Markle on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 2018, before Markle and her husband Prince Harry's much-publicized split from the British monarchy. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

When I moved from the U.K. to San Francisco in 2002, I quickly grew accustomed to answering random questions about the royal family from curious Americans. Most of them were either about the family tree (“Who’s Harry and William’s dad again?”), the power structure (“Can the queen make laws?”) and the culture (“Do British people actually like them?”). But since The Crown premiered in 2016 and Harry and Meghan tied the knot in 2018, I’ve noticed the American appetite for royal gossip has increased to a degree that feels—to me at least—rather unprecedented.

No royal spouse has ever so swiftly or smoothly called the royal family out on their BS the way Markle recently did. And no TV show (or book for that matter) has ever highlighted the deep dysfunctions within the British royal family quite so effectively or succinctly as The Crown. Crucially, what both have done so successfully in tandem, is to expose the rot that lies beneath what was previously perceived by many Americans to be a dignified institution.

While aspects of the show are fictionalized, The Crown alone has, in short shrift, made Americans aware of scandals long known to the British people. Storylines include King Edward VIII and Prince Philip’s ties to Nazi Germany; Prince Charles’ appalling treatment of Princess Diana; Princess Diana’s prolonged attempts at self-destruction; Queen Elizabeth’s secret cousins, hidden away because they were developmentally disabled; Princess Margaret’s husband’s secret child with another woman.

Running in tandem with all of this retroactive tea-spilling is a real-time horror story involving the queen’s middle son, Prince Andrew. He is currently being sued in a federal court by Virginia Roberts Giuffre over sexual assault allegations. Giuffre says that when she was 17, she met Andrew (41 at the time) through Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell is currently awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges in the same Brooklyn prison where Epstein died in 2019.

Giuffre—who is only four years older than Andrew’s eldest daughter—has spent the last decade publicly asserting that she was abused and trafficked by Epstein and Maxwell. She says this led to her being sexually assaulted by the prince on three separate occasions in 2001. Prince Andrew has denied any and all knowledge of Giuffre, despite photographic evidence proving that the two at least met in Maxwell’s London apartment that year.

Prince Andrew with his arm around Virginia Giuffre in 2001, inside Ghislaine Maxwell's London apartment, when Giuffre was 17. (YouTube/ NBC News)

Between those allegations, The Crown’s exposés, and Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview in March, the questions I get asked about the royal family have recently taken quite the turn. Now, they’re less about the family structure and the royal duties, and more about whether or not the family is a racist institution that gets away with whatever the hell it likes. Indeed, the family is now seen as messy enough over here to garner comparisons by my American friends to the Kardashians. I keep having to dejectedly point out that the analogy only works if all of the Kardashians’ homes, vehicles, bank balances and bodyguards were funded by American taxpayers.

Sponsored

The new American understanding of just how much drama the royal family produces means an increasing amount of American interest in content about the Windsors. Season 2 of The Crown directly inspired Margaret: The Rebel Princess, a PBS series about the queen’s sister, which is also available on Amazon Prime. Netflix offered up The Royal House of Windsor, a documentary series that rehashes storylines from The Crown through a purely factual lens. In 2017, to mark the 20th anniversary of her death, National Geographic released Diana: In Her Own Words—a documentary about William and Harry’s mother that also lived on Netflix for a while. That same year, the brothers presented their own film about her—Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, on HBO.

HBO’s most recent royal offering, The Prince—an animated series that presents Prince George as a tyrant, a la Stewie from Family Guy—demonstrates that the cracks in the royals’ overseas image are beginning to show. The cartoon drew ire for its satirical focus on the real-life prince—George is 8 years old, the oldest son of Prince William and Kate, and third in line to the throne. But the entire family is presented as over-privileged, insular and grossly out of touch with the real world—arguments that have been made about them for decades in the U.K.

Still, pop culture has more royal content coming to feed the appetites of American audiences. On Sept. 6, Lifetime is releasing its third (third!) Harry and Meghan drama—Escaping the Palace. On Nov. 5, we’ll get Spencer—a dramatization of the week in 1992 that Princess Diana decided to leave Prince Charles, starring Kristen Stewart. Social media blew up last week after the first trailer was released.

Season 5 of The Crown doesn’t even drop until late-2022, but photos of the new cast also trended on Twitter in August, after Netflix released them with some fanfare. The new season will probably be the juiciest yet, given the fact that the conduct of the queen’s children—and their spouses—throughout the ’90s was mortifying for all concerned.

The Crown will have its work cut out choosing from potential storylines from that decade. After all, that was the period in which three out of four of the queen’s children broke up with their spouses, even though divorce was a royal taboo. To make matters worse, a cringeworthy, sexually explicit phone conversation between Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles—recorded when he was still married to Diana—leaked to the public in 1993. Around that same time, Princess Diana’s 1986 affair with Major James Hewitt was exposed. Then Prince Andrew’s wife, Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson was photographed poolside, having her feet kissed by a new boyfriend. And, of course, there was the national outcry that Queen Elizabeth faced when she and the royal household took five days to publicly respond to the death of Princess Diana. That miserable week in 1997 was well dramatized in 2006’s The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar.

I assumed for many years that Americans asked me about the royal family because they thought the institution was glamorous. That idea certainly seemed to be at the forefront of conversations when Markle joined their ranks. Now, I wonder if the American fascination with the Windsors has quickly turned into something else—relief to be from a country founded on democratic principles instead of regal bloodlines. Just as Markle was rudely awoken to the inner workings, protocols and messes of the royal family, so too was America. And, as Prince Andrew’s legal troubles unfurl, stateside perceptions of the royal family are bound to get worse.

A YouGov survey this year about which royals are most popular with Americans is revealing. Prince Charles (the next king) and Prince Andrew are already regarded as the least popular, with, respectively, 47% and 43% of respondents viewing them as “very/somewhat unfavorable.” Their lesser-known siblings, Princess Anne and Prince Edward, scored only 12% and 19% in the same category.

Sponsored

While the queen remains a popular figure on both sides of the Atlantic (68% of surveyed Americans viewed her as “very/somewhat favorable”), it would be foolish to assume that such reverence extends to the rest of her family. America is merely in the middle of getting a crash course in what the royal family is all about. And what will soon become evident is what has been obvious on British soil for much longer—when it comes to the royal family, the more you know about them, the less likable they become.