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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

All Hail Charles, the Unmemeable King

Maybe it’s the sourpuss attitude. Maybe it’s the sincerity with which he campaigns for the countryside, rather than just shouting “cows” joyfully when confronted by them. Maybe it’s a general diminishment of interest in British royalty. Maybe it’s the gold state coach and cloak at a time when millions of UK adults are unable to afford essential hygiene products.

But today, as King Charles III is crowned in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London, the response of the internet’s meme-makers will feel muted in comparison to the one enjoyed by his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who was a meme queen we all stanned.

On the face of it, King Charles should be an ideal candidate for memedom. He has unnervingly red, rotund, sausage fingers. He has a cartoonish visage, lampooned for years by cartoonists and eBay sellers, with jug-handle ears and a hangdog, sullen expression. He has an unnerving, innocent, naive approach to life that leads him to say outlandish things, which often come back to bite him. He once, reportedly, shrieked when he first saw plastic wrap.

Charles’ 1989 declaration that he was so infatuated with Camilla, who will become queen this Saturday, that he wanted to be reincarnated as a tampon so he could forever live inside her, has big dril energy.

Yet none of that has cut through to make Charles a perennial internet fave. Even attempts at internet traffic-catching roundups of the best King Charles memes are … underwhelming, and often not really about the man himself.

“He's not publicly weird enough to be endearing, but he’s also not like a patriarch because he's too weird to give off being normal,” says Hussein Kesvani, a journalist and podcaster specializing in digital culture. “When it comes to being popular online, especially cross-audiences, you need to have a malleable weirdness that makes you endearing as a subject or a feature.”

Perhaps the tally of “good-weird” when it comes to evaluating Charles’s suitability for memedom is outweighed by the tally of “bad-weird.” He has always been portrayed as problematic compared to his ex-wife, Princess Diana, who died in a 1997 car crash. He has been willing to intervene in politics in a way that unelected members of the royal family have tried to avoid. He has an unfortunate habit of accepting cash donations in suitcases and grocery bags from Middle Eastern sheikhs.

And perhaps he’s suffering from the problem likely to blight his reign: He spent much of his life playing second fiddle to Queen Elizabeth, living in her shadow and being unable to develop much of a kingly standing of his own in the public’s eyes. “The queen was around for a very long time,” says Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor in computer science at Binghamton University and cofounder of the iDRAMA Lab, which looks at memes on the web. “So there was a long history that people had to draw from there.”

While Queen Elizabeth II was seen as a grandmother figure to the world, an innocent, sweet old lady, like Angela Lansbury but with palaces, Charles has long been seen—likely incorrectly—as waiting for his mother to give him his time to shine.

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To be memeable, royals have to be likable, which is where the previous queen excelled—mostly. “Usually, they have to do something [to become a meme],” says Blackburn. “What is Charles known for? He’s known for the Diana thing. That’s not a positive meme. Then he was in the background for a lot of time. His kids are around now and seem to be more likable and interesting than him. The guy is not an interesting fellow. And the country’s not in good shape.”

The public knew the queen—at least the concept of her. She was canny enough not to give much away about her views in public, allowing the world to project onto her whatever they wanted, sometimes literally, which made her ripe for internet ribbing. Part of her success was that she was an older woman who sometimes was quirky.

The problem is that the public knows Charles—or at least think they do—based on his years of waiting in the wings. While the queen came fully formed as monarch at age 25, Charles is trying to adopt the role of king after decades spent as a comparatively outspoken campaigner. We know what he likes and definitely know what he doesn’t, which makes it harder for people to accept him as a blank canvas. “I don’t think the new guy is very endearing,” says Blackburn. “What are you going to say about him? His mom was queen for basically as long as everybody was alive, and now he’s prancing around like he [has been king for just as long].”

Gender also likely plays a role. That he’s a man hinders people’s ability to think of him positively in the same way they did the queen, says Alex Turvy, a meme researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans. “He's a reminder of the literal patriarchy,” he says. “Seeing that face, for some reason, sort of reminds you of the ugliness of colonialism, and the state hoarding all of this wealth.”

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