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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Colonial Coattails: The Death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Monastic Rule
by Thomas J. Overstreet, Jr.

In a small way, I think we're all monarchists at heart--as long as we pick the monarchy and can change it at whim. It's when we lose control that we start to panic.The recent death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. started me thinking about who the Associated Press and A&E have called "an American prince." Why does this need to have someone to idolize exist? Where does it come from?

Most of us, if we trace back far enough in our family trees, came from countries ruled by a king and queen. For centuries, those dreams of the glamorous royalty lingered in our collective unconscious. Little girls often grew up dreaming about being a princess. Prince William, especially after Princess Diana's death, has become a common pin-up in middle school lockers everywhere, right alongside the Backstreet Boys and 'N-Sync.

Surely capitalism and dreams of wealth and status are only a part of the equation. Perhaps instead it's slightly masochistic: we all want to be ruled in some way. We want to be told what to do: it makes life easier. This desire to remain passive conflicts with what we also crave--freedom. At least for us Americans, we cannot simply yield the power our ancestors fought for.

Without kings and queens, we have instead found other people to idolize and, without being explicit, they tell us what to do. Instead of the threat of incarceration or death, if we refuse to follow these mandates, we’re simply unpopular--a fate, according to some teens, worse than or equal to death. Millions of women adopted the "Rachel" haircut because Jennifer Aniston had it. A desire to "be like Mike" led to a sports marketing craze: for a while, I could not find a single neighborhood pickup game without someone in a Jordan jersey. Is this that radically different than Peter the Great coming back from France and commanding the men to shave their beards? Well, our adherence to celebrity suggestions is, as we Americans like it, largely voluntary. But the fact that we volunteer to follow someone else is significant.

If there's one thing Americans can relate to, it's personal stories of their celebrities. National Enquirer is not an invention of today's society, but a continuation of Walter Winchell and Hollywood Confidential. John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one of the first to be broadcast on television--remember Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television--and combined the immediacy of life with visual cues. For the first time, by seeing Mrs. Kennedy in her blood-stained wool dress, by seeing her hold her children--alone now--at the funeral procession, and by seeing the assassination itself thanks to Zapruder's infamous 8mm film, America instantly felt related to a whole family the way usually only monarchies work. Without that unmistakable human tragic level, pathos, I do not know if we would have so fallen in love with the Kennedys.

The worldwide coverage of JFK, Jr.'s disappearance surprised me. I figured the Kennedys were now simply an American pastime. But perhaps the Kennedy mythology has been exported just like Levis, Coca-Cola, and Baywatch. The media frenzy reminded me of Princess Diana's death. JFK, Jr. was not a prince of America: I doubt he would ever have been a political leader. He did little to change the way we view establishments, unlike Princess Diana, who brought her casual air and anti-stoicism to the monarchy. JFK, Jr. ran a glossy magazine with supermodels dressed up as historical heroes and asked stimulating questions, like what would comedian Chevy Chase do if he were president. At least Princess Diana tried to get rid of land mines and help the sick. (Of course, all of this becomes silly when we consider our real lives. A family of six may die in a fire and they’re never memorialized on television because they weren’t wealthy and Ivy League-attractive.)

I maintain that our fascination with the Kennedys is tied to Britain’s fascination with the House of Windsor. Both countries share a fascination for the private lives of their rulers, but America has created a monarchy of sorts to make up for the lack of consistent rule. Who actually holds the power (officially or otherwise) in Britain is rarely as interesting as Prince So-and-so who might be gay, or the Princess and Duchess of Eating Disorders. Luckily, our lives have been made easier with the Clinton administration. Before that, we had to rely on Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra rumors to entertain us while Ronald Reagan usually remained (drooling) in his chair undisturbed. We have this need to affirm that our leaders, emotional and political, are real people, just like us, who occasionally throw up on Japanese prime ministers and fall asleep at the opera.

Between England's mockery of a royal family and America's creation of a dynasty out of a bootlegging fortune, perhaps we aren't that different. We need these images, these people endowed with fame, wealth, and beauty, to give us hope for the future. JFK, Jr. and Princess Diana were the fountains of youth in their respective dynasties. When these cult heroes die, we don't know how to act. It is as if someone has shut the door on tomorrow.