Why the royal wedding fascinates Americans

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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Over the last few days, there have been about seven million news stories per day about the royal wedding. Blog posts about the wedding have gone viral, with at least 102.9 million to date this month. Two billion people are set to tune in to what promises to be the wedding of the decade. And American media outlets are all over it, with CNN sending eight times more reporters to London this week than it did to Japan when the terror and tragedy of an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear catastrophe brought that country to its knees.

Why all this inquisitive buzz? Why would so many Americans get the tingles over a royal wedding?

“Didn’t we fight a war so we wouldn’t have to pay attention to this sort of thing?” John Avlon of The Daily Beast asks, noting the media’s obsessive coverage of the royals. The American media, in particular, has been covering the nuptials aggressively. “There’s just nothing less American than monarchy,” he continues. “We are the land of meritocracy, rugged individualism and equal opportunity.”

And so we are — an ocean away, living it up in the land of the free. Ours is not an aristocratic society. Monarchical is a pejorative over here. And politically, that is something, I suppose, to celebrate without even a hint of aristocratic envy.

But there is an underside to our distant fascination that has nothing to do with our politics and a lot to do with our culture. Here in the States, the popular culture has little to glorify beyond the numerous antics — sex, drugs, decadence — of Bradgelina, Lady Gaga and The Donald. No wonder we live in an age where relationships, especially among the young, boil down to discrete sexual encounters, convenient hook-ups, and on-line chats. No wonder one in four Americans think that marriage, which once gave meaning to all our other institutions, is old-fashioned.

Well, of course it is.

But as our society loses its grasp on this oldest of institutions — the bedrock of civil society — the royal wedding stands before us as an event that makes even the cynic give marriage a wink and a nod. That is why people are tuning in — blogging and tweeting about it, and setting up the DVR for 6:00 am, April 29th.

The whole point of a wedding, of course, is to publicly testify and affirm that two people are coming together as one, a family. For most people, the community that gathers at a wedding extends to family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. For the royals, that community encompasses the whole world. That is why the royal wedding is the most public celebration of a wedding imaginable. So the media — and its curious audience — cannot help but watch with wonder. What a stage? What a commitment? A romantic and spiritual leap of faith. An ancient ceremony, live on television. This is nothing like “friends with benefits.”

In an age of no-fault divorce, civil unions, and gay marriage, our ideas about the family are not only changing, they are challenged. But like all weddings, the royal wedding affirms the most elemental and timeless fact of social existence — that society, like families, takes effort and work, no matter how delightful or idealized that work might be.

And so, I suspect that the reason so many of us are enthralled by this is that it tweaks our archaic sense of devotion and laying it all on the line in front of what amounts to a wide assortment of societal stakeholders. Scary and irresistible. The wedding ceremony appeals to a libertine the way the afterlife still appeals to an atheist. Just consider the detailed coverage that the ceremonial aspects of the wedding are getting: the guest list, the first song, the flowers, the cake, Kate’s dress . . .

The royal wedding embodies the best aspects of a ceremony — a ceremony that is timeless, regal, and ritualistic, like the monarchy itself. With the crown being one of the oldest institutions in Europe, the royal wedding represents, above all, tradition.

Leila Khalil, a bridal media guru, thinks that the current market of brides and grooms out there are craving the emblems of tradition like never before.

She says, “The British monarchy is rooted in ritual, and the royal wedding will inspire a new generation of brides to follow in their footsteps — with more ceremonies held in churches, incorporating family heirlooms and traditional vow exchanges.” She anticipates that the royal wedding “will return our business to opulence, traditions, and timeless fashions.” It seems Ms. Khalil is an incurable romantic, but here’s hoping!

In part, because marriage, as an institution, seems so frail and down on its luck, the royal wedding stirs us. Because it seems like it’s from another world — a monarchical world of aristocrats and commoners — the royal wedding intrigues us.

John Crowe Ransom, a turn-of-the-century poet and essayist from Tennessee, is also a relic from another world, though he died only thirty-some years ago. Ransom, a Southern idealist through and through, once described culture in this fashion: “In manners, aristocratic; in religion, ritualistic; in art, traditional.”

Aristocratic, ritualistic, and traditional. Isn’t that precisely what the royal wedding is — precisely what American cultural society is not, but from time to time longs to be?

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of Defining Ideas, a journal of the Hoover Institution.