Making sense of America’s obsession with Diana and Kate

Why this former colony loves all news about the British monarchy

Few individuals are capable of giving a detailed account of the complications their mother went through while pregnant with them; few even have interest in acquiring this information. However, millions of people are now acquainted with the term “hyperemesis gravidarum,” the acute morning sickness from which Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, suffered.

The condition first received attention when Kate — wife of Prince William, second in line for the throne — became pregnant with their eldest child Prince George, and has returned to the spotlight now as the world follows her third pregnancy.

The princess need not have any physical ailments to garner this kind of attention; boldly colored dresses and parenting choices have nearly the same effect. So why do we care so deeply about a woman and a family we are almost certain never to meet, particularly the royal family of a country in which we may never even step foot?

That we are fascinated — not only by Kate, but by the entire British nobility — is obvious. In 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was attended by eight thousand guests and viewed on live television by millions more. When Princess Diana passed away in 1997, her funeral inspired a similar, though less celebratory, shockwave, as thousands flocked to memorials with candles and flowers. The wedding of her eldest son, Prince William, to Kate Middleton in 2011 generated coverage splashed across magazines, newspapers and TV channels around the world. Today, updates on the status of Kate’s pregnancy intermingle with information we seem to consider equally important, from the latest North Korean nuclear advance to whichever hurricane is nearest to making landfall. The royal family fascinates us in a way few other entities do, inspiring headlines with ubiquitous milestones like birth, marriage, death and even the children’s first days of school.

The reigning British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, holds almost no real political power, performing a largely ceremonial role. While, for example, she is in theory able to refuse a bill from Parliament becoming law, this power has not been exercised by a monarch since Queen Anne in 1708. Similarly, the queen’s so-called “power” to declare war against other nations is now a role carried out by the prime minister and Parliament. The only real judicial power regularly exercised by the monarchy of the modern day is the royal pardon, used in December 2013 to posthumously pardon Alan Turing, a codebreaker in World War II convicted of homosexual activity.

All this is to say that our fascination with the royal family is not a result of any awesome legislative capability; the comings and goings of the first family of the United States typically inspire less media attention, even within the United States and the president plays a far more vital role in government. But, while the president may be able to veto bills and to convene Congress, what the president cannot do is convince us that, just for a moment, the fairy tales of our childhoods could be real.

Following the seemingly commonplace happenings of the royal family is not only more socially acceptable than screening a Disney princess movie on repeat, but they are far more tangible. Though we have no chance of holding the newborn royal to be born this spring and received no invitation to the wedding between Kate and William, these events, like so many others in the much-hyped family, are real.

The lace of Kate’s gown may not impact the lives and deaths of Americans in a hurricane’s path or project the likelihood of war with a foreign nation, but it does provide an escape from the ceaseless bombardment of fear, violence and hatred we see so often in the news today.

The more recent peeling back of the haze of glamour surrounding the family has served only to make us more attached to them. This phenomenon is well showcased by the late Diana as she is mourned on the twenty-year anniversary of her death. As she made news not only with her fashion savvy, but also with marriage struggles made public and by advocating for causes like AIDS, Diana transformed her role from one of a story book heroine to that of the People’s Princess. This legacy, one that made the people feel closer than ever before to the royals, is one that has been carried on by her family and her sons in particular. Today, the prince and princess raise their children with far more involvement than countless generations before them as both William and Harry continue to interact personally with charities on which Diana shone a spotlight.

We may never enter Buckingham Palace or dine with the queen, but this has had little effect on the number of articles written on the descendants of rulers such as King Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. Among headline after headline of our imminent doom, a baby is born, a woman not so different from ourselves wears a designer gown to be married in Westminster Abbey and a British prinwce dates an American actress. If Kate, a mere mortal suffering from severe morning sickness, can become a queen-to-be, then perhaps there is some hope for magic in our own lives.