On Royalty

Apparently, a Nigerian singer recorded a very famous song called “African Queen.” I must confess, the only music I hear these days is whatever is blasting from the person seated next to me on the bus. (To be proper, I should say from the instrument owned by the person; however, we live in an i-world, populated by i-people; man and machine are one; and I use the gender purposively.)

There is no royalty in my family. My father was always dad, not king. My mother was mother, not queen. And any royal affectations we may have had were quickly disposed of during our high school years. (Those who know better may disagree with this account. But, it’s my story.)

Despite the ostensible decline of “real” royalty, we seem to be ever more enamored of it. Royal characters and themes are especially popular with young girls; the phrase “Hollywood royalty” is uttered incessantly; and family life is an increasingly royal fair, with parents of all races crowing their little princesses (less so with boy children). To say we inhabit a royal age would be an understatement.

To say the least, there is something troubling in using the class-stratified, blood-segregating notion of royalty as a metaphor for familial relations. Of course, there is also something absolutely revealing about it: the middle-class, far from being the place of access aspires to be exclusive and exclusionary. As readers of E. Franklin Frazier know, this claim is not new.

I am especially troubled by the notion that we honor women when we call them “queens” and “princesses,” as though notions of royalty are bound to positive gender histories. (Try being one of Henry VIII wives!) Paradoxically, in binding positive gender histories to terms like queen and princess, we may evacuate them of whatever lessons they have to teach us about gender and power.

7 thoughts on “On Royalty

  1. 2Face’s song is a decent pop ballad, neither more nor less empty than it needs to be. And, yes, it was huge. I played it for my wife several times. No, the irony wasn’t lost on us.

    I’m with you on royalty and monarchies, and on being bothered by the peculiar American affection for it. Correct me if I’m wrong–and I’m fresh off the boat, so I probably am wrong–but isn’t opposing kings the whole point of America? Weren’t crazy wars fought over this very question? But no, just show up with a British accent, playing a queen (Blanchett, Dench, Mirren, I’m looking at youse) and they practically fling the Oscar at you. And when the “real” queen herself appears, it’s suddenly white tie all over Washington.

    And don’t even get me started on the Kennedys.

    I’d say royalty is a psychological habit–like slavery and theism–that humanity has had for so long that it can’t find ready subsitutes for. We pay lip service to equality, but we can’t escape the idea that some people are genetically superior, and thus worthy of worship.

  2. As you can probably tell, I’m riffing on your comment about royalty. I’m also thinking about the ways teachers on ratemystudents discuss their students as little “princesses” (always gendered) and the way parents keep using royalty to refer to their children. And, of course, in the background, are Afrocentric uses of royalty to frame and esteem African societies.

    Increasingly, I’m interested in how certain frames devalue ones that we can’t afford to devalue: queen devalues woman, metaphors of kinship devalue citizenship. Perhaps I have been reading too much Nietzsche influenced stuff. It is the quotidian, though, that tells us the most about value.

    I wonder if, riffing on Nietzche’s notion of resentissement, the middle-class really is defined by its desire to be exclusionary. No doubt, I’d have a better handle if I actually read the famous Sociologist. Time. And its absence.

  3. I’m keen to retain the pejorative sense of royal, as in “a royal pain in the ass.” When the Israelites decided once and for all that they wanted a king, God shook his head in sorrow and pity. Only very reluctantly did he give them Saul. The Almighty though, finicky as always, warmed to the idea himself and became it’s main champion (once his pet David showed up).

    I’m intrigued by the idea that kinship can devalue citizenship. I see it. Thinking of Nigeria, and the way in which familial bonds can weaken an individual’s claims to her own actions.

    I have a question for you though: you haven’t brought in the rhetoric of the gay man as queen (except, possibly, in the parenthetical aside in your second paragraph). If queen devalues women, does queen devalue gays?

    I’ve tended to use the adjective “queeny” in a non-pejorative sense for men of any sexual orientation. I get the usage from a British friend: we say of a man that he is queeny if he shows flashes of effeminate or campy behavior. We recognize such tendencies in our (ostensibly) straight selves; indeed we recognize them in most men. “That John Edwards, he’s a bit queeny isn’t he?”

    Perhaps its one of those things like “Jew” and “jewish,” where the adjectival form is far less aggressive than the noun? Or perhaps it’s just a clever way of saying, “OMG, that’s so gay!”

  4. Since I was exiled by “the gays,” I actually have a response. I spend as little time as possible thinking about “gay” uses of language. I am, for the most part, uninterested in “gay” culture, history, and politics.

    No doubt some clever person could explain the use of “queen” as a subversive resignification that parodies systems of power, making them available for gay appropriation. (My response when I was in my early 20s). I have, I must confess, little patience with such unthought sophistry, unthought in the sense that it mixes theorist x with theorist y and produces a curdled mess.

    The inter-national implications are more interesting to me, in the sense that, as used in the US and elsewhere, the term “queeny” deriving from an English context before there was a woman on the throne, epitomizes the claim that the English are effeminate (queen being a metonym for the peerage in a restrictive sense and for the English more generally). But, at this point, I’m speculating.

    A final, less combative answer would be: for queen or queeny to devalue gays, they would need to have some “value” in the first place. That remains a contested claim.

  5. And hence the show I saw on TV last night, “the Real Queens of England.” Four men: one bisexual (but married to a woman), two gay, one straight. All united by camp. The straight guy was obsessed with pink, to the extent that he was known as Pink Peter.

    It was a strange, discomfiting, and compulsively watchable program.

    The idea was almost: Queer is a mere quarter of a pen-stroke away from Queen.

    But was it OK because it’s the Brits, because everyone knows Americans don’t do such things? No queens, no queers, don’t ask, don’t tell, God bless the USA.

    But then again, compared to virile hetero America, every country in the world is gay. Except for the Asians who, as every one knows, are asexual. And the Africans, who are all one country, and are hypersexual, but of little discursive interest.

  6. But then again (and apologies for my earlier response, which really was “queeny”), we should be wary of laughing at incontinent men perched next to little red buttons. “Queeny,” may be a term to disparage the English and the peerage, but the taunts of the working and middle-class do not make peers less wealthy.

    And despite “hetero” America’s boasts, its fawning over royalty (notice that every other show on tv has a host who “sounds” English) suggests America is on the DL.

    Only Asian men are asexual. Africans make good copy. Although, there is one vast region of the world called, alternately, over there, Africa, or the third world, which terrifies Americans. You can imagine the conversations I had when teaching Graceland. “We’re so glad to be Americans.” Not to mention the rhetoric when any natural (or not so natural) disaster hits: “it looks like a third-world country.”

    Now, if only writing the dissertation was as easy as a conversation with you.

  7. “And despite ‘hetero’ America’s boasts, its fawning over royalty (notice that every other show on tv has a host who ‘sounds’ English) suggests America is on the DL.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth. America’s obsession with the English accent, check. American closetedness, check. This is why, all media pretence to the contrary, the revelation that some pastor or senator has been having sex with rent boys is so unsuprising as to be banal.

    Anyway my brother, maybe one day, when the heavens open and the light descends on the powers that be, we will no longer privilege academic discourse over real-life conversations like this one. Maybe someone will gather up all your blog comments–which, I must tell you, are unfailingly boundary-testing–and award you a doctorate for it.

    Then I’ll be able to use you as an argument that they should do the same for me. So much better than all the defensive footnoting an actual doctorate requires.

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