Teen queens: How an anti-monarchist generation became obsessed with fictional royals

‘The Prince & Me’, ‘Young Royals’, and ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ are just some of the projects Gen Z readers and viewers are hooked on ( Shutterstock/iStock/Getty/Netflix/Prime Video )
‘The Prince & Me’, ‘Young Royals’, and ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ are just some of the projects Gen Z readers and viewers are hooked on ( Shutterstock/iStock/Getty/Netflix/Prime Video )

Move over, The Crown. While certain corners of the press have been getting het up about the exact ratio of fact to fabrication in Peter Morgan’s lavish evocation of Windsor life, a new wave of novels and TV shows have been getting Gen Z readers and viewers hooked on the antics of (fictional) royal dynasties.

Over on Netflix, the home of Morgan’s drama, you can stick the subtitles on to watch Young Royals, a Swedish teen drama that chronicles Prince Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding)’s romance with fellow student Simon Eriksson (Omar Rudberg). Or you can try Norwegian movie Royalteen, about Lena, an ordinary girl who falls for a “party prince” when she starts at a new school. See a theme emerging? Head to the romance section of a high-street bookshop and you’ll find more of the same.

Top of the faux-palace pecking order is Red, White & Royal Blue, the 2019 novel by Casey McQuiston, which has inspired a glossy film adaptation from Prime Video, out this week. Instead of going down the time-honoured royal-falls-for-a-civilian route, McQuiston tells the enemies-to-lovers story of a transatlantic power couple: Alex Claremont-Diaz (played in the movie by Taylor Zakhar Perez) is the quippy son of the first female President of the United States; he’s convinced that the British Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) has “the personality of a cabbage”.

After an incident at Henry’s brother’s nuptials, which leaves them both covered in wedding cake, these two genetically blessed nepo babies are forced to pretend to be pals in order to avoid jeopardising the “special relationship”. But spending time together under duress allows them to see one another in a different light. They become friends, then friends with benefits, then an actual couple.

McQuiston’s book is the kind of word-of-mouth success story that most authors would kill for. As an influence, they’ve cited The Royal We, a romance written by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan back in 2015 (which uncannily predicted a royal falling in love with an American), as well as fast-talking political TV shows such as Veep and The West Wing.

In lieu of a major promotional campaign or a shoutout from a celebrity book club, it rode a wave of social media recommendations all the way to a spot on The New York Times bestseller list; three months after its release, The Wall Street Journal reported that the novel had already gone through seven print runs. The film’s launch will almost certainly give those already solid sales a further bump; over on TikTok, #redwhiteandroyalblue had 527.7 million views at the time of writing (and featured plenty of fan edits set to Taylor Swift tracks, including unofficial transatlantic love anthem “London Boy”).

Royal romcom books allow you to escape from reality into a world of glamour, luxury and opulence, which are unobtainable lifestyles for many of us

Louisa Smith

The pomp and ceremony of royalty, real or otherwise, has long proved fertile material for authors. A character falling for someone who turns out to have blue blood, or discovering they are themselves the heirs to a distant throne, is a time-honoured trope, especially in stories for young adults. As a pre-teen in the Noughties, I worked my way through Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, in which high school student Mia Thermopolis learns that her dad is the prince of Genovia, a tiny European nation. Thanks to the 2001 film adaptation starring Anne Hathaway as Mia and Julie Andrews as her grandmother, who is essentially Mary Poppins in a Hermes scarf, I could probably still sing you their catchy national anthem from memory. A few years later came The Prince & Me, about a young Danish royal who goes undercover as a commoner at an American university and starts dating Julia Stiles’ medical student, Paige.

For Falling Hard for the Royal Guard author Megan Clawson, whose novel is rooted in her experience of living in the Tower of London and dating a King’s Guard, these stories are almost an extension of royal gossip, past and present. “Your ancestors would have had the gossip of ‘Oh, is the King going to marry this woman?’” she says. “And now we write stories and fictionalise it.” Much like The Crown, these creations try to give us “an insider’s look” into “a world that we wouldn’t ever see” otherwise, she adds.

What’s striking about this current royal boom, though, is that it comes at a time when, for the most part, Gen Z couldn’t really care less about the institution of monarchy (in the UK, at least). In April, a YouGov poll commissioned by BBC Panorama found that 38 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds would prefer an elected head of state instead of a king or queen, while only 32 per cent, just under one-third, said they supported the monarchy; 75 per cent of the same age group said they didn’t care “very much” or “at all” about King Charles’ coronation in May. So why this fondness for fictional royals amid the apathy?

Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo and Anne Hathaway in ‘The Princess Diaries’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo and Anne Hathaway in ‘The Princess Diaries’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Romance, a genre that literary tastemakers have often brushed off as a guilty pleasure at best, is enjoying a real resurgence right now. It’s increasingly popular with younger readers, too, in part thanks to BookTok, the TikTok sub-community dedicated to all things literary. “There’s a recognition now that romance isn’t just for a particular age group, it’s for all age groups,” says Katie Fraser, staff writer at The Bookseller, who compiles the publishing magazine’s weekly Books on BookTok column. “The genre is having a renaissance with younger readers, which is really great to hear, and it’s getting the recognition it deserves.”

According to industry data provider Nielsen BookScan, romance has grown 115 per cent in volume and 160 per cent in value as a category since 2019 (pre-BookTok). “Romance fiction, full stop, is all about escapism”, Clawson says; with dating apps making real-life romantic introductions much rarer, it’s not surprising the genre is making waves, presenting us with a fantasy world where “you can still find love organically”.

That sense of fantasy only amps up when you throw palaces, money and royal titles into the equation. “Royal romcom books, in particular, allow you to escape from reality into a world of glamour, luxury and opulence, which are unobtainable lifestyles for many of us,” agrees Louisa Smith, founder of book site Epic Book Society and a huge fan of Red, White & Royal Blue (straight after finishing McQuiston’s novel, she moved on to Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins, “about an American who moves to Scotland to attend boarding school, where she falls in love with roommate… who also happens to be a princess”). It’s also worth noting that much of Red, White & Royal Blue’s escapism is of a more political bent, set in an alternate reality where a female Democrat is elected in 2016.

The formality and intricate etiquettes involved in many of these romances might play a part in the appeal, too, just as they might be in a period drama like Bridgerton; they almost have a distancing effect, Clawson suggests. “If you have a romcom with regular people, it feels more realistic – to the point where actually sometimes it hurts a little bit! Add that element of separation with royalty, then it’s got the excitement of romance, while reminding yourself, ‘OK, this isn’t me, this isn’t happening.” In other words, it’s thrilling enough to keep you reading (or watching), but it probably won’t cut too close to the bone.

But Red, White & Royal Blue also isn’t pro-royal propaganda. Told from Alex’s insider-outsider perspective as an American confronted with the inner workings of palace life, the book is filled with snarky asides about just how objectively bizarre the collective obsession with all things regal really is. A royal wedding becomes, in Alex’s view, “as sexy as a business transaction”; it is “insane to him” that millions of people “follow the intensely dull dating lives of the royal siblings” in gossip magazines.

Elli Müller Osborne in Netflix’s ‘Royalteen’ (Johan Bergmark)
Elli Müller Osborne in Netflix’s ‘Royalteen’ (Johan Bergmark)

McQuiston has previously confirmed that “despite what you may assume from my body of work, I’ve never been a royal fanatic”, although they do confess to a fondness for royal rebels Diana and Meghan. Some readers have, inevitably, noted echoes of the Sussexes’ real-life romance (although McQuiston stresses that the idea pre-dates H&M’s relationship reveal). Alex and Henry, Smith says, “come from two different cultures and backgrounds, and have faced adversities, but still hold on to each other and support each other”. Written and filmed post-Megxit, the film doubles down on those parallels in broad strokes. “They love the idea of me and now they must face the reality,” Henry sighs at one point, in a line that could have been plucked from Spare.

Perhaps it’s a little easier for American authors to write about the royals (even fake versions) without having to grapple with their thoughts about the institution on a deeper level – or without being accused of forelock-tugging. “My taxes don’t go to pay for them,” The Royal We author Morgan said in a 2020 interview, before summing up their transatlantic appeal. “We are taught as consumers of culture in America to view them as a soap opera, and they are pretty dramatic.”

In a sense, of course, these stories are having their (£75,000 royal wedding) cake and eating it, too – they can play with all the telegenic trappings of royalty, the big set pieces at balls and in high-ceilinged palace rooms, the handsome leads in formal dress, while throwing in the odd critique to balance things out. But what is genuinely radical about the likes of Red, White & Royal Blue and Young Royals is that they’re bringing queer romance into the genre’s mainstream. Royalty, with its focus on bloodlines and heirs, is one of the most heteronormative institutions there is.

Although their parallel universe is a tad more liberal, McQuiston doesn’t sugar-coat the challenges Alex and Henry face as a high-profile gay couple on the world stage: in the film, when relationship is leaked to the press, Henry’s family don’t exactly welcome the “unseemly reports” as King Stephen Fry (of course they cast Stephen Fry as king) puts it. “Your primary responsibility is not to your heart but to your country!” he adds. Another one for the Spare bingo card.

McQuiston’s book “provided a romance story that loads of people needed and wanted to see on the page”, Fraser says. “It was broadening the possibility of romantic comedies and asserting the existence of joy and love in all forms.” The real-life institution might struggle to move with the times, but stories like McQuiston’s are taking the royal romcom to a more inclusive place. And you don’t need to be a flag-waving monarchist to embrace that.

‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ is on Prime Video