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Comments (7) Posted 04.29.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

The Royal Tweet




Long criticized for not being relevant in contemporary culture, the British royal family announces the engagement of the future King of England in 144 characters, including a hyphen.

Today, the wedding will be watched by millions on television screens all over the world. It is the stuff of movies and fairy tales: Princes marrying Princesses, horse-drawn carriages, castles and churches and Pageantry — yes, with a Capital P. It is outdated and irrelevant and costly and elitist, a spectacle that fuels a level of prurient spectatorship like nothing else.

And it's nothing new.

The summer after I graduated from Yale, I was walking through Notting Hill one evening when the church bells suddenly rang out: every bell in the city, it seemed, was ringing forth. Pub doors sprang open, people were shouting and singing, and suddenly, there was this kind of mad, tsunami-like sweep of celebratory joy. 

Princess Diana had given birth to her first child: a boy, who they named William.

I was a recently-minted college graduate with no job, loitering in London, putting off my return home to the United States and the reality of my imminent unemployment while Diana, then about my age, had produced an heir to the British throne. 

But reality is not always kind, and fairy tales don't always persist. Like most of the planet, I followed along as the most-watched branch of the monarchy grew, as the marriage crumbled, as the “People's Princess” crawled through the muck of it all, only to soar briefly and then meet an untimely, tragic death. William was by then a fledgling adolescent, and my next indelible recollection is of watching him walk, with his father and brother, behind his mother's casket. He was tall now, and suddenly, by the force of circumstance, more visibly mature.

My memory fast-forwards here through a lot of toothy grins and pictures of polo-playing, some helicopter patrol duty, and suddenly, the talk of prospective brides for the Prince of Wales — most of whom had enviable great British names (Jecca! Arabella!) and hyphenated surnames (Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe!)  

And then there was Catherine Middleton, improbably called Kate but not Cate. Talk about photogenic. And a commoner! If ever there was a chance to make the elite, irrelevant monarchy come a bit closer to reality, Ms. Middleton was the ticket.

They date in college. Then break up. Then reunite once more. (Mark one point each for normal relationship woes.)

She shops at civilian stores! They wash their own dishes! (Check. Check.) 

And then, the big day: they get engaged!  

Kate/Cate wears the famous, massive blue ring originally worn by the long-ago and far-away bashful Diana. The following weeks show Kate in various ensembles (mark another point for tasteful) many of which seem to feature the royal blue of The Ring. Here in the monarchy-free United States, it bears saying that this is a color most often seen during the televised State of the Union, when it is worn by those female members of Congress who choose not to wear bright red. (And let me say right here that I don't now nor have I ever known anyone who actually owned anything in either shade.) 

But I digress.

Will the new couple reinvent Royal behavior and re-engage a more down-to-earth demographic? Can they play both sides of the fence, here — the rarified, to-the-manor-born platform of exalted nobility as well as the more normalized, human levels of engagement that characterize most peoples' lives? Can we have our wedding cake and eat it, too? Will Kate/Cate Middleton-Windsor be the new People's Princess? 


Jonathan Barnbrook.
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Comments (7)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I believe Kate/Catherine might not actually want to be the People's Princess, as it's too much pressure and too much of a legacy to carry your husband's most-famous-woman-in-the-world mother's nickname... but she already is the People's Princess, really.
jkrau
04.29.11 at 06:43

quote: "the British royal family announces the engagement of the future King of England"

and those of us in Scotland are asked why we want independence...
robfmac
04.29.11 at 07:28

Someone needs to tell this chump what the word parasite means.
Elizabeth II
04.29.11 at 08:16

Let's look at the bright side. At least William and Cate/Kate are not cousins.
steven heller
04.29.11 at 09:48

interesting someone so anti-elite makes the irrelevant point of telling us he went to Yale...
commoner
04.29.11 at 12:55

Interesting that (a) you're so insecure that you have to mention it and (b) you're so inept that you didn't realize the author is a she
commoner 2
04.29.11 at 09:43

ok I get the issue of the ridiculous cost and how it rightly calls out for critique, (probably it's something that sticks in the craw of British citizens even more than we long-distance observers); also, I understand the absurdity of an essentially lame-duck monarchy in the 21st century and the layers (centuries really) of inequity it all represents; and yet -- isn't it all kind of amazing (dare I say fun?) that certain rituals have held fast over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years? With everything else on the planet feeling so very very new, I have to admit I find some comfort in this and other large- and small-scale rituals. And also, isn't it, really, kind of necessary?

Here in the states we have our own modes of ritual. Two that involve a similar spectacle come to mind: one of them a bit more home grown, but still state and federally funded, and the other, also eminently American, but privately funded.

I am referring to July 4th celebrations (fireworks displays, barbeques, parties, etc.); and of course to Hollywood's own royal "wedding": The Oscars.

Nearly every single town in America buys and shoots off fireworks on the 4th. A fiery, noisy, ritualized declaration of independence from the monarchy, paid for by state, federal, and local governments. All over the country people gather together, eat, buy and ignite explosives, don the colors of the US flag, and declare their americanness. It's a strange ritual, really, but it's similar to yesterday's wedding in the way that it pulls people outside, bringing together people from all political, economic, racial and religious camps. It brings folks out into the streets where they can rub shoulders with each other for one night a year in celebration of one fairly singular idea. Some of us go just for the display of light and fire while others are there waving the flag. But we all feel comfortable together, for once, in one place, and feel the power of being a citizen of this country.

And then there is the spectacle and pagentry of Hollywood's inimitable event where literally billions are spent to produce an often ridiculous but nevertheless compelling media celebration, with *our* version of royalty, dressed to the nines, drawing out the masses. But we are drawn out safely, to our sofas, rather than to the gates of a royal palace. And patiently, millions of americans watch the wasteful, expensive, over-the-top production unfold as our county's storytellers, the moviemakers, are feted and honored. They too (like the queen) have no real power but still, in a way, represent all that is American.

These three spectacles, the royal wedding, the 4th of July, and the Oscars, are all in their own ways important parts of a singular cultural story: the crown, where it all started, the spectacle of light and noise that declares our separation, and the Movies: America's art form and America's royalty all rolled into a single industry.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to give up any of these crazy over-the-top reminders of who we are and where we come from. Now don't get me started on the super bowl. That's a whole other story...


L Hitchcock
04.30.11 at 10:23



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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

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