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Laurie Penny on the Windsors: Who needs Fox’s fake royal reality show “I Wanna Marry Harry”?

The British royal family is already the longest-running and most successful reality television series on the planet.

Southampton University graduate Matthew Hicks plays "Prince Harry" in the show. Photo: Daniel Smith/Fox
Matthew Hicks plays "Prince Harry" in the show. Photo: Daniel Smith/Fox

“Power is sexy!” Entire academic treatises could be written on the words of Meghan Ramsey Jones of Dallas, Texas, a young contestant on the Fox show I Wanna Marry “Harry”, making her case for being a princess to Inside Edition. The reality TV series, which began on 20 May in the US and will soon be broadcast in the UK, is a light-hearted romp through every possible contortion of Anglo-American pop feudalism. We have seen the face of hegemony and it has a camera-ready grin and is asking us to dance.

The idea is simple. Twelve impressionable, classically attractive and heavily made-up young women are flown to a stately home in Berkshire and introduced to a young toff. He has a security detail and looks a lot like Prince Harry, known to the world as one of its most eligible bachelors by virtue of being fourth in line to the British throne, and the contestants are left to draw their own conclusions. They are encouraged to compete for the affections of “Harry” in the age-old North American mating ritual: a series of humiliating rounds of hazing in which each contestant’s emotional journey is edited for maximum Schadenfreude and broadcast to an audience of millions.

Now, some might argue that the concept for this series is not only the worst thing Fox has done since cancelling Firefly in 2002 but one of the worst things ever to happen in the history of television. Those people would be dead wrong. This is a cultural triumph, a magisterial montage of brash American competitiveness and oily British class deference, our two great nations brought together in a glorious pageant of crass misogyny that somehow manages to make you lose more hope in the future of humanity than either could have achieved by itself.

It’s all supposed to be a joke, of course. Much like its predecessor Joe Millionaire, the punchline is that these young women have been conned into thinking they were attempting to date a “real” prince. We are meant to laugh at the stupid, silly, desperate women for actually falling for the fairy tale they’ve been flogged all their lives. The TV toff is a lookalike, an environmental consultant from Exeter, whose participation in the show suggests that he doesn’t feel sorry for the girls because they were silly enough to believe the con. The question posed is whether the contestants on the show are going to fall for the fake prince’s fake money and fake power or for his “real heart”, which seems unlikely, unless the said heart was ripped from his body in a moment of clear and dreadful vengeance.

I’m sure the fake prince of Berkshire is a decent chap. Indeed, in the publicity clips, he comes across as one, in the proud tradition of nice, young, middle-class British men down the centuries haplessly agreeing to be meat puppets for empire in all its forms in return for a paycheque and promotion. Advertorials for the programme remind American audiences that British men – all British men – are attractive and charming and will probably make you a tweed breakfast and apologise to a cup of tea as
you snuggle up together to laugh at the less fortunate. This is a delusion that seems to be shared by approximately half the US population, as well as many Brits who should know better.

American women everywhere, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: real British men are like men everywhere. Which is to say that they vary enormously in terms of personality, are usually not expected to inherit large parts of the Midlands and are generally trying hard to be decent human beings despite a considerable amount of social and cultural pressure to act like twazzocks. They are not all paid con artists, although I’d recommend that, given the option, you go for one of those over the real Prince Harry, should he ever offer to whisk you away in his Apache battle-copter.

The real Prince Harry is distinctly uncharming, though power and money have a charm all their own. I’m not hating on the hair: I actually have a bit of a thing for gingers, which is the only thing I have in common with Princess Diana. It’s just that the real Prince Harry used the word “Paki” to describe an Asian friend and talked about flying helicopters in Afghanistan as “a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox” (this was in an interview in which he admitted to killing insurgents). Then there are the crass Vegas romps, the wildly dysfunctional family, the spoilt gaffe-wizardry and the Nazi fancy-dress costumes.

The real Harry is terrible marriage material – but a perfect supporting cast member in the longest-running and most successful reality television series on the planet. The British royal family is reality TV incarnate. I mean that literally: the coronation of the current monarch coincided with the emergence of TV culture as postwar austerity drew to an end and was the occasion for which many British families purchased their first television set.

The subsequent six decades have been an industry lesson in how the ideology of power adapts in adversity. The royal family remains, despite setbacks, Britain’s biggest celebrity brand, as useful for distracting the native population from the economic turbulence at home as it is in persuading the rest of the world that British class hierarchy is not only benign but adorable.

This spring, after three years of toadying by the broadcast media over the mating, breeding and ageing of the Windsor clan, we were treated to interminable pictures of Baby George being introduced to various Commonwealth leaders and this will be the case until the next time Harry does something newsworthily foolish. At a time of social crisis and growing inequality, we are still gawping and swooning over the pageantry of power. The joke is on all of us.

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