Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Royal Watchers

Wedding of Queen Elizabeth II, 1947.

Fans ritualize entertainment. This is, in fact, one of the basic attributes of popular culture fandom: instead of simply enjoying a temporary experience of leisure (through the purchase of a product or a ticket), fans go beyond the limited expectations of commercial producers and seek to imbue their purchases with lasting personal connection and depth of feeling. Fans refuse to leave the concert hall or the stadium, or put down their favorite novel, but instead try to keep those encounters alive in everyday life. They engage in devotional activities, like collecting and interpretation; they sustain a reverence for significant places and sites, through pilgrimages; and they share narratives amongst themselves about their fandom, at conventions, in fanzines, and on websites.

But what does it mean when people entertain themselves with ritual? I've been thinking about this question lately, particularly with reference to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. A wedding is a sacred ritual, of course, and this wedding will also be a national celebration. But it will also be a major source of entertainment for the public and a significant boost for the television, travel, and souvenir industries. The royal wedding is projected to have a massive audience of enthusiasts who will be taking time off from work and other daily obligations to watch the ceremony on television or to participate in the pageantry of the moment in London, on its streets and parks and bridges; in pubs and halls, and before the large television screens that will be set up around the city. Fans are already camping out, and even after the ceremony is over, people will be able to purchase commemorative items like coins, posters, Kate masks (!), mugs, and hats. An audio version of the entire ceremony, produced by Decca Records, will be up on iTunes by next week.

Many people prefer ritual and entertainment to remain separate, with ritual affirming deeply-held beliefs and entertainment offering temporary amusement. This was at the core of debates in American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century, for example, when some critics warned that services were being perverted by congregants who were too-enamored of choirs' "bewitching jingles." But, as scholars like Richard Schechner have shown us, ritual and entertainment are connected poles of performance. And throughout history, the difference between the two has often blurred. Perhaps, in fact, intentional blurring is at the center of fandom: not only do fans apply feelings of devotion to entertainment, but they also apply feelings of pleasure to ritual. Normally, this transgression of established categories takes place privately or in relative isolation: individuals in front of their computers, or people in small communities, acting "inappropriately." But in the case of the royal wedding on Friday, millions will blend the sacred and the secular, and, in doing so, enact fandom on a global scale.

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