It’s been nearly 228 years since the day American revolutionaries proclaimed that no king would ever again rule the United States. We declared that the new American nation would never have any titular nobility and would hold true to the principles of a democracy. While the American democracy has lasted, there is yet a strong and persistent cultural trend within modern American society: we are obsessed with royalty. We may live in an age where democracy has “triumphed” the world over and there is universal praise for equality and justice, but we, as a culture, are still morbidly fascinated by the glittering ancient regimes of the world’s past. The truth of the matter is that the United States is dependent on the idea of royalty. Traditional imperial systems of rule may have long since faded from the world political stage, but the remaining and vestigial royal families left behind have not lost all their prestige or clout. Still among the world’s richest people, royals — both those with and without thrones — have become the ultimate celebrities and even thoroughly democratic countries, like the United States, have been caught up in a new cult of royalty.
Open the April issue of Vanity Fair to see examples of this phenomenon. The chief headline on the cover and the prominent back of the issue belong to the 2004 International Best-Dressed List and the Best-Dressed List’s Hall of Fame. Scan the Hall of Fame and you will see an amazing list of some of the 20th century’s richest and most famous names: everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Cary Grant and Peter Jennings. But if you carefully examine the list, you see that an enormous proportion of the fashion-savvy honorees are of significant royal or noble title: the Contessa Donatella Asta, H.R.H. Princess Marie-Chantal Pavlos of Greece, H.S.H. Princess Edouard de Lobkowicz (the former Francoise de Bourbon-Parme)–the list goes on and on. Overall, on a list of around 360 people, there are 62 people with royal titles — including 19 princes and princesses, three queens, one king, and two empresses. For a list only established in the second-half of the 20th century by an American publication, one sixth of its honorees are of royal or noble title. Even four of the 21 honorees for this year possess a title.
Not to accuse Vanity Fair (who only inherited the rights to decide the list this year) of any particular snobbishness, but doesn’t that seem a little high? Aren’t there dozens of other beautifully-styled, groomed and dressed commoners of means, from Hollywood actors and actresses to international business and political leaders who could be considered just as well-dressed as the Baroness van Zuylen or Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia? Why, after all these decades of egalitarian preaching and praising of democracy, are Americans still showering our attention on those born with their claim to fame? Why is it still praise-worthy to celebrate a list of people whose career labels include: “international social figure,” “socialite,” “hostess,” “philanthropist,” and “landowner?” Even in our post-post-modern, democratic American culture, an inherited title still automatically confers dignity and respect.
For a title-free society, the United States produces tons of movies like “The Princess Diaries” or “The Prince and Me” where girls achieve their unspoken and subconscious longings to be royalty. Why are Princess Grace and Queen Noor — two Americans who happened to marry royalty — unquestionably famous and revered by our society? Why is it that countless numbers of American families have strings of sons like Thomas Jones III and Robert Smith IV? Does the American cultural sub-conscious yearn to impose an elite crust upon our society?
Our nearly maniacal obsession with celebrities would say yes. Here, we have crowned Madonna and Britney and Beyonce our queens — at least to the point where they only need one name to be recognized. The American royalty of celebrities is privileged before the law, granted remarkable political favors (can we talk about ambassadorships?), and now given ridiculous tax breaks. Even politically, we are being dominated by a single family for the highest office in the land. In the same current issue of Vanity Fair, Yale Professor Harold Bloom has written a satirical faux-Shakespearean history titled “Macbush.” As if lifted straight from Henry IV or Richard III, Bloom styles the current American president: “King-Emperor Dubya the Great, who is thought to have reigned from 2001 to 2009, and to have presided over the transition from the American Plutocracy to the Oceanic Empire, which appears to have taken place in November 2004, 20 years after the date set by the prophet Orwellius.” Bloom hits upon a real royalty developing in our midst.
From our houndish obsession with reigning royals like the British royal family to the newer ranks of the American rich and famous, the attraction of royalty and nobility is alive and well here in America. Perhaps the exotic and alien nature of royalty is our secret fascination, a concept anathema to our system that is alluring nonetheless.
Peter Hamilton is a freshman in Berkeley College.