By: C Icart, Staff Writer
Content warning: mentions of colonialism, genocide, and sexual assualt
Queen Elizabeth Ⅱ is dead and I feel like I’m one of the only people who didn’t find out through a meme. On the morning of September 8, almost immediately after the news broke the monarch died, the memes started filling my social media timelines.
I’m not talking about the confusing ways brands like McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Heinz chose to post about her. I’m referring to the slew of celebratory memes: Princess Diana fighting the Queen when they meet again in the afterlife or the Queen in hell with Prince Phillip. Even the hashtags “SHE DIED” and “RIP BOZO” quickly started trending on Twitter after the announcement.
The memefication of Elizabeth II
Are these memes just disrespectful celebrations? Or do they point to something more? The increased usage of political memes on social media is the continuation of long-standing traditions of humour and satire in politics. Scholars like Marina Bulatovic have found that memes on social media have made political humour accessible to more people than ever before. They’re participatory and even those who aren’t creating them can participate by liking, sharing, and commenting.
Some memes were simply celebrations of her death while others were critical commentary about her reign and the people it harmed.
The memes offer funny and accessible insight to the experiences of many marginalized communities. They are an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to find common ground over their dislike for the monarchy. The violence provokes this animosity that their families have experienced at the hands of the British Empire. Specifically, “Black Twitter” and “Irish Twitter” trended during this time. The memefication of the Queen’s death was likely not meant to be an educational moment but it exposed millions of people to criticisms of the monarchy. This is important because there is a stark contrast between the way mainstream media reported on her death and the way many chose to talk about it online.
The memes are funny, the history they refer to is not
For so many people, the queen was not a “spiritual grandmother.” She was a colonizer, in a very literal sense. After WWI, the British Empire which started as “an island smaller than Kansas,” ruled a quarter of the globe. How does this happen? Professor Kehinde Andrews offers the answer: “it was genocide, slavery, and colonialism that propelled a small island nation into a global leader.”
As of September 2022, the Queen was still the head of state in 14 countries of the Commonwealth of Nations. Canada is one of those countries. Most of the countries in the Commonwealth are former British colonies.
The story of colonialism perpetuated by Britain cannot only be told in past tense. On top of the ongoing effects of colonialism, former colonies around the world have not received reparations. Economist Utsa Patnaik “calculated that Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.” There are only 22 countries today that have not been invaded by Britain. As a result, many of us are the children and grandchildren of people the British Empire could not kill or enslave. Our family histories are deeply impacted by war and occupation caused by the British. Even conservative estimates say that millions of people died at the hands of the British Empire.
For many, the queen was “the number one symbol of white supremacy.” Many of the artefacts stolen by the British empire have not been returned. This includes the Koh-i-Noor diamond that British Prime Minister David Cameron said could not be returned to India because “if you say yes to one [request], you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty.”
Here in so-called Canada, Justin Trudeau has announced a national day of mourning on September 19. That is just 11 days before National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a holiday to honour “the children, survivors, families and communities affected by residential schools.” Those schools were part of the systemic abuse and genocide sanctioned by the monarchy. What does that mean when it comes to us as settlers truly addressing the harms of colonialism against Indigenous nations across Turtle Island?
All you can do is laugh
People are free to say anything on social media, but some are still off limits. For instance, Twitter removed the following tweet about the Queen from professor Uja Anya for “abusive behaviour:” “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping, genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Her anger was specifically about the role the queen played in the Nigerian civil war. Despite the backlash, Anya has reiterated multiple times that she is not sorry. Lack of remorse is something she has in common with the Queen, who has never apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, nor many of the Monarch’s other crimes against humanity.
Despite Anya’s wishes, the queen did not have an “excruciating” death. She lived a long life and died peacefully surrounded by her loved ones. She has not suffered any consequences for the harm she caused globally. In light of this, the memefication of her death may be embarrassing for the royal family on a PR level, but it’s not the worst possible outcome.
“Political humour often flourishes in oppressive political regimes as a form of morale boost. Memes become outlets for expressing frustration with the political situation.”
Creating and sharing memes, for many, was a way to express themselves and connect. Watching the world mourn her brought up painful feelings of anger and sadness for a lot of people. And whether the meme creators were aware of this or not, it was a way to avoid having their posts taken down for the sentiment they were expressing. In a world where the consequences of colonialism are felt worldwide, being able to laugh can feel like a revolutionary act. Are folks choosing to laugh after her passing nearly as violent as what she has done and sanctioned?
It is not to say that no one truly used the September 19 holiday to mourn the late Queen but many of us did not. As uncomfortable as it may be for some, many did the exact opposite: “It was about celebration: That resistance will outlive colonialism and the British Empire, just as we’ve been doing.” The queen is dead, but unfortunately the monarchy’s violent legacy lives on. However, if the memefication of her death teaches us anything, it’s that those who have resisted and survived her colonial efforts are determined to have the last laugh.