After seven decades of a long reign—one bearing witness to changing social tides, familial conflicts, and representative prestige—Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. With the longest reign of any British monarch, she leaves a monarchical tradition symbolic of national unity. For Gen Z Americans, how we assess that legacy is important.
Over the pond and two-to-three generations from her passing, America’s Gen Z finds itself in an indirect relationship with the queen. Now over two centuries out of British control, Americans neither directly contribute to nor benefit from her royal status. This context places us in a unique position: how do we interact with the queen and the monarchy?
Among Gen Zers, knowledge often results from interactions with her as a pop cultural figure. An obsession with her as a royal icon cemented her as a Reddit-thread meme with a Kardashian-era resemblant fanbase. Her Hollywood-paralleled celebrity status romanticized her reign and treated her life with an abundance of dreamy depictions. Football, one of the most American pastimes, could not even escape the news of her passing. A game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Buffalo Bills held a moment of silence before the game. It’s not odd to pay respect to passed people, but it is rare for Americans to do so for someone who is not of their own.
But this tech-media American fascination is not all glowing and affirmative.
And it’s not just the queen. The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton garnered millions of followers from the U.S., as did the funeral of Princess Diana.
But this tech-media American fascination is not all glowing and affirmative. Netflix’s historical drama The Crown earned immediate acclaim for its depiction of the monarchy through the years of the queen’s rule. While reflecting many of her most well-known traits, it also brought-to-light portrayals that cast negative attention on members of the royal family. For example, the depiction of Diana, Princess of Wales’ fragile marriage to now King Charles III outlines toxic family conduct that resulted from marital pressures to remain among aristocratic families. The fourth season shows Diana’s struggles with renunciation from her partner and the royal family, and the harmful consequences these had on her.
The show’s fourth season also underwent scrutiny for lacking historical accuracy. For many, it was a key source of insight into the lives of the royals. It left Gen Z with similar forms of dramatized records to typecast the legacy of the monarchy and its relevance to America.
It’s a stark contrast to the generations preceding us. Middle-aged Americans, those who regaled Princess Diana’s tour of New York in 1989, had a more personal connection to those of the royal family—or Diana, at least. Her tour of hospitals and engagement with everyday people seemed to bridge a gap that removed the typical pedestal upon which the traditional royal sits. Perhaps it is this history that gives these generations an adoration for the queen and her institution, or that it foundationally gives not only older Americans but all Americans the sense that they know the royals personally.
But whether through history or Twitter, the unfortunate reality of the queen and the monarchy is that very few people—especially Gen Z Americans—know much about them at all. While seemingly harmless, the implications of knowing the queen, her legacy, and her surrounding institution through a romanticized or untrue lens threaten to blind our generation from what counts: the legacy of the queen in the world.
The queen’s passing has brought forth a global reckoning of history that has sparked extensive debate. Her extension as a figure of British power also roots her in connection to the British Empire, whose history of violence and exploitation in trying to uphold its colonies has been largely unspoken. For example, Kenya’s anticolonial movement after World War II saw nearly 1.5 million people placed in detention camps. This lack of discussion and reckoning for imperialist harm is often attributed to power—power that Queen Elizabeth symbolically represented. That’s not to say Queen Elizabeth is responsible for the violence committed in Britain’s colonial past, nor does it imply she was aware of them at all.
There is no Jamaican rejection of William and Kate’s Tour of their island without the realization that they are both in a system that once profited off of the island’s people.
What it does say, however, is that understanding the complete legacy of the monarchy in and out of its relationship to British history is necessary to have a full understanding of how the Queen and her institution impact the world. As Gen Zers tasked with the continued improvement of our world, it fills in gaps where we may otherwise make ill assumptions. There is no Jamaican rejection of William and Kate’s Tour of their island without the realization that they are both in a system that once profited off of the island’s people. There are no Commonwealth referendums to remove King Charles III as head of state, such as in Antigua and Barbuda, without the realization that the monarchy is an extension of a painful British history.
The insularity of monarchy is not something Gen Z Americans can change, but it certainly is something that we can try to understand. An understanding of the queen, the British monarchy, and history, in general, is foundational to our ability to make fair judgments of the world around us and understand the contexts in which people present themselves. Knowing the queen in her fullness doesn’t invalidate dabbling in her pop cultural limelight either; instead, it only strengthens the institutional story in full.
The interconnectedness of our digital lives and a royal manifestation in pop culture remind us why the Queen’s legacy is so important. In seeking beyond the Insta-meme, you do us all a service.