The stereotype goes that British people are unemotional. That we’re reserved, self-controlled, and have a “stiff upper lip” in times of crisis. But that is not strictly true: As long as the emotion being expressed is the “correct” one, we’re okay with it. Britain is a nation of emotional cops, curtain twitchers, and snitches who are desperate to scold people for expressing the “wrong” emotion at the “wrong” time.
Full Cop Mode was activated last Thursday, when mourning of Queen Elizabeth II began six hours before her death was confirmed. Buckingham Palace released an ominous statement, saying they were “concerned” for Her Majesty’s health. (If you’ve watched The Crown, you’ll know such wording would only be used in grave circumstances). Almost immediately, Facebook and Instagram — platforms dominated by boomers and geriatric millennials — became overrun with sincere tributes. But on Twitter — the platform of shitposting, cynicism, and conflict — the queen’s death split people into warring factions, each with a different idea of the “right” way to react. (And a different strategy to get maximum social-media engagement from it).
First, we have the truly queen-pilled: people with somber black-and-white profile pictures, posting long threads about Her Majesty’s greatness, cartoons of the queen reuniting with her late husband, marching toward heaven holding hands with Paddington Bear, or images of her beloved corgis wondering where she went. A BBC presenter said that the latter “almost broke” her. (But don’t worry, the dogs are going to Prince Andrew).
Next came the finger-wagging centrists. Ian Dunt, author of riveting reads like How to Be a Liberal, urged his followers to show “restraint” — with a principal-like tone that suggested dissenters would be put on a correction list. Writer Ben Judah put out a similar warning, because “millions feel the Queen is their spiritual grandmother” and it’s like “the passing of the chief saint of a still felt British religion.” (You can imagine how well that went down).
Finally, there was comedy — because being told not to laugh at something often makes it much funnier. As brands, from Birdseye (makers of fish fingers) to Ann Summers (makers of thirsty lingerie), put out comically mournful tributes, the memeification of the queen’s death kicked up a notch. With safety in numbers, people got braver: jokes moved from Circles — a semi-private feature handily rolled out the previous week — to “the main feed.” Sincere outpourings of emotion were challenged by irreverence, making light of the pomp, ceremony, and hypocrisy of it all.
Technology has given us increased access to the monarchy and more outlets to critique them. During the queen’s reign, there was a drive to make her a less “distant” figure. The Royal Palaces were regularly opened up to her subjects and, perhaps begrudgingly, the queen’s yearly Christmas speech moved from radio to television. A television address like the one she delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she assured the nation that “we will meet again,” would have once been unthinkable.
Around the turn of the millennium, our understanding of celebrity was changing drastically. Fame could now be achieved through the process of sharing — something the royal family was uncomfortable with — and the British public were crowning their own celebrity royalty, like David and Victoria Beckham — who sat on thrones at their wedding and lived in a mansion dubbed “Beckingham Palace.” At this moment, the Royals were vulnerable: the aftermath of Princess Diana’s tragic death and her very public, soap-opera-style divorce from Charles had made them afraid of the printed press, particularly the notoriously brutal British tabloids. To ensure their survival, they forged a quid pro quo relationship with them (or an “invisible contract,” as Prince Harry described it to Oprah Winfrey), where access was exchanged for favorable coverage.
This arrangement was going well — until social media came along, and, suddenly, the power of the now-friendly printed press was curtailed. Sensing this shift, the royals have tentatively embraced these new platforms: many have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. The last decade’s royal weddings were live-streamed on YouTube to millions of viewers. But social media has also been difficult territory for a family who have been notoriously controlling over the narrative. The queen passed away following a string of controversies which made it abundantly clear the royal institution was out of step with how narratives take shape in the new media landscape. William and Kate’s disastrous 2022 tour of the Caribbean, where photos of the pair greeting Black children through a cagelike fence went viral. Prince Andrew’s car-crash Newsnight interview in 2019 spawned millions of tweets and culminated in him stepping aside as a working royal before paying a financial settlement to his accuser in March 2022. Harry and Meghan’s growing rift with the family, amid allegations of racism, has put the institution front and center in the so-called “culture war.”
All this might sound strange to Americans. Why should royalty care who is dragging them on Twitter? But it matters: If you were only watching mainstream media outlets this week, you would have no idea that there is anyone who doesn’t feel consumed by grief right now, or that the monarchy remains controversial in parts of the U.K. The crowds and commentary we’re seeing on TV obscure the fact that less than half of the people in Scotland, where the queen died and still rests as I write this, support the monarchy with four in ten saying the queen’s death would be the right time to become a republic. As the power of traditional media declines, social media is awash with this sentiment and narratives the Firm can’t control.
British people love to look down on Americans. Our desire to be different from them is partly why the “stiff upper lip” stereotype endures. Defenses of the monarchy are often rooted in an undercurrent of “We don’t want to end up like America.” But the truth is that our countries are similar: both have Establishments that are obsessed with a nostalgic, fuzzy image of our past. A worldview in which we are solely liberators, the “good guys.” We describe things we don’t like as “un-American” or “un-British” — even when they are intrinsically so.
When Main Characters of this Establishment fanfiction die, things can get weird. We saw this in 2020, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. Whether it was Ginsburg’s trainer doing push-ups next to her coffin, or genuinely concerning tweets like the much-memed “#Ruthkanda forever!,” the mourning was chaotic and tailor-made for maximum impact on social media.
When Prince Philip died in 2021, the vibe was similar. The U.K. media force fed us with disproportionate tributes, while anyone who dared mention his history of racist remarks or question the colonial institution he was a part of was either ignored or condemned. (Black Twitter users even tentatively changed their profile pictures and names en masse — to include Union Jacks and royalist buzz-words — suspecting a reporter at the “anti–cancel culture” Daily Mail had been tasked with finding people to doxx).
Philip’s death felt like a social media “dress rehearsal” for what’s happening now, so I was braced for a whole other level of performative mourning when the queen passed. I expected unhinged posts of “#QueenKanda Forever!” caliber: people filming each other throwing themselves on her coffin, or posting clips of their children pledging allegiance to the new king. But on Twitter, at least, the mourning has so far fallen short of that. In fact, the most over-the-top posts I’ve seen have come from Americans. As the media coalesces around unflinching adoration of the monarchy and even McDonald’s self-service machines become (respectful) specters of Her Majesty, Twitter has remained an outlet for people who see the funny side of the spectacle.
The last week has shown us that British people are emotional. In fact, the queen’s death has tapped into the most British emotion of all: superiority. We happily subscribe to “everyone grieves differently” as a mantra in normal times, but Twitter has been a circle-jerk of people who feel superior in this moment — to the people who can’t just shut up and mourn respectfully, or to the people who are grieving someone they didn’t know, who symbolizes so much that is unequal and unjust.
Only one of these sides is being reflected in most news coverage, though. And as the days pass, some people are growing weary of hearing about the queen’s “wicked sense of humor” and her love of horses for the 1,000th time, or letting the very political idea that she is “apolitical” go unchallenged. As hospital appointments and funerals are canceled out of “respect,” and even food banks prepare to close, Twitter’s response is becoming more angry than jovial.
Today, when the central figures in undemocratic institutions like the monarchy pass away, their legacies are unpacked by the masses on social media. On Twitter — a platform that has democratized criticism and debate more than any other — many people are genuinely mourning Queen Elizabeth, but a lot of people aren’t. It reflects a kingdom that is not entirely united in grief.