End of the second Elizabethan era

Social media and the sensationalization of celebrity death

This past week our phones were blown up with headlines, videos, broadcasts and podcasts of a certain royal someone’s death. Queen Elizabeth II, if you’ve managed not to hear, died on Sept. 8.
Just so we’re clear, this article isn’t an obituary. It’s an observation of how social media can sensationalize and celebrate the lives of modern historical figures—while at the same time, force us to recognize the faults of our hero worship.

Objectively, Elizabeth was a good queen. A dedicated monarch, she devoted herself to roles and duties of the title, visiting each commonwealth country at least once in her lifetime and frequently attending public events. She was a symbol of leadership and optimism for the British people. Upon the announcement of her death, many offered their sympathies on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Some users applauded the monarch’s legacy, honoring her seventy-year reign. Photos of mourning Brits and commonwealth citizens flooded news feeds. Nations across the globe—including the U.S.—have lowered flags in respect of the fallen royal, and most people have supported such a reaction. Others, however, have faced vicious backlash for celebrating not the Queen’s life, but the end of it.

For example, Dr. Uju Anya, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, tweeted: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
New York Magazine senior writer Tirhakah Love also had no qualms condemning the queen: “For 96 years, that colonizer has been sucking up the Earth’s resources,” he wrote in his newsletter. “We all have our methods of mourning friends; doing the electric slide on a colonizer’s grave just happens to be mine.” Harsh words about an old lady who loved corgis, huh?

To the uninformed, the words of some Black men and women may seem unwarranted. But by taking a look at Britain’s long, bloody history of colonizing and controlling African countries (as well as Australia, India and America, among others), we may begin to understand their beliefs.

In any case, as Love put it, “You can’t be a literal oppressor and not expect the people you’ve oppressed not to rejoice on news of your death.”

It’s clear that the death of Queen Elizabeth II has brought people together and broken them apart. That’s a cliche line, because this exact scenario has unfolded so many other times in the context of mass media and celebrity death. Particularly when it comes to political figures (Fidel Castro, for example), we pick a side: condemnation or celebration. But does this have to be so polarizing? In choosing one end of an extreme, are we losing sight of who that person really was?

In our interconnected world, it’s easy to lose our sense of what is real and what is not. Public figures become emblems, not people. Our icons are turned into literal icons. Social media has the power to strip celebrities of their humanity, and all too often, this notion causes us to create our own version of who that person is supposed to be.

Is it right to romanticize Elizabeth’s reign? To place her high on a shiny pedestal? On the flipside, should we hold her solely responsible for the strife, struggle and suffering faced by today’s families and their ancestors?

The answer to all these questions is probably no. But it’s important that we ask them. If we don’t, we lose the connections that aren’t online—the ones that make us human.