Why do Americans care about Will and Kate?

December 8, 2013 

Think about it. Isn’t it a bit strange to see the pictures of the young British royals on our tabloid magazines at the supermarket checkout? Will and Kate aren’t Americans, nor are they even movie or rock stars.

In a lot of ways, they are a typical modern couple: recently married late in their 20s, after living together and quickly producing a baby. The father is the grandson of Queen Elizabeth, whom Americans have followed for at least 60 years.

But why, considering the fact that our founders rebelled against her predecessor, would we even care about the British monarchy? The obvious answer is because we don’t have our own. Presidents come and go and are annoyingly divisive; even political dynasties lose their glamour or die out. Where are the Washingtons or even Roosevelts these days? The royals offer a public and lasting symbol of family and of a people that we don’t have.

But there is more to it than royal envy. Sure, many of us enjoyed the pomp of the wedding at Westminster and even got up early to see it live on TV. And others who followed the royal birth watched more closely than they did the delivery of their relatives’ babies. But, while being royal may bring us to them, what holds our attention is the personal details of their very public lives and their glamorous ordinariness.

This odd combination of exalted status and approachable intimacy defines our attraction, and in this, the royals share much with celebrities that come from America out of modern media.

As a historian, I look for origins. And the cults of British royalty and American celebrity seem to have common roots. The mass production of photographs of Queen Victoria coincides with the sales of images of American actors in the 1850s. Victoria helped to launch the modern American obsession with the “white wedding” and, by example, promoted the intimacy of family life.

The American movie star and the celebrity magazine appeared about the same time (early 1910s), and Americans both idolized and “befriended” these stars and followed every detail of their lives. This set the stage for a curious need of many today to identify with people “above” us and thus shared by all of us, but yet who are “like” us. It is a desire to find a “friend” in our often lonely mass culture.

The fact that Will and Kate are so approachably modern, so different from Will’s father and his disjointed marriage to Diana, make them all the more attractive. So maybe it isn’t so strange that we may want to see pictures of their baby’s christening.

Gary Cross, distinguished professor of modern history at Penn State, is teaching the OLLI course, “Loving the Royals and the American Obsession with Celebrity” 1 to 2 p.m. Jan. 8. Registration begins Dec. 9. Register online at www.olli.psu.edu. OLLI courses are open to all adults who love to learn. There are no grades or tests.

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