Why Paddington Bear Is the Perfect Symbol for Queen Elizabeth II
Absurd and hilarious news greets the world from London, the capital city of Insania, whose inhabitants have taken to leaving Paddington figurines and marmalade sandwiches at Buckingham Palace following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. In what should in no way be construed as a metaphor for modern Britain, rats have taken to eating the sandwiches. Officials from the Royal Parks have now asked the great British public to stop leaving Paddington memorabilia. If that weren’t enough, the BBC announced a “special broadcast” of Paddington 2 following coverage of the queen’s funeral on Monday.
How did all of this come about? To get to the root of it, one needs to examine the iconography of Paddington Bear in 2022, and what, if anything, he says to the world.
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Paddington, the bear who loves marmalade, didn’t become the all-conquering icon we now know (and, in some cases, love) until the second film of his adventures got picked up by U.S. critics and bandied about as the second coming of cinema. Paddington, the first film, had fared well in reviews and at the box office, but not particularly ignited the web or hearts and minds; it was nominated for a BAFTA and a light smattering of other awards. But Paddington 2, for some reason (it’s a better film than Paddington, but not by miles) lit up American reviewery: the movie was nominated for end-of-year awards by every critic association from Los Angeles to Florida. An ecstatic review by Indiewire’s influential critic David Ehrlich was followed by an article in which he perceptively aligned the film with a movement of “radical kindness”: around the time that #MeToo was at its height, it may be that audiences were hungry for what Ehrlich termed “nicecore” movies, unproblematic movies, of which Paddington 2 was the epitome.
The film was taken up by the internet, on Twitter and Letterboxd. Much was made, last year, of Paddington 2 supposedly dethroning Citizen Kane on Rotten Tomatoes as the “best” film of all time. This year’s meta Nicolas Cage-starring film The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent features a scene in which Cage, playing himself, is made to sit down by Pedro Pascal’s terrifying gangster type and watch Paddington 2, which Pascal pronounces to be the third-best film of all time. In a clearly meme-ready scene, wiping away tears, Cage exclaims, “Paddington 2 is incredible.” “I fucking told you,” replies Pascal. The joke here is that these are two grown men, two embodiments of a certain type of masculinity, owning up to crying to the film. Enjoying the warm treacle of Paddington 2 is now not just acceptable but laudable.
Before that, Paddington had been an always visible but not particularly all-conquering mainstay of British culture: people knew about the lovable, clumsy bear who lived with the Brown family and had mildly frolicsome adventures (the Paddington Bear in the books tends to mess up a picnic or fall into some bushes rather than foil a villain and save the day). Now, with the new, more zippy, more lovable Paddington Bear in action, there could exist a dual Paddington Bear—one for the oldies who loved the more parochial and genteel Paddington, and one for the urbane Twitter-dwelling newbies who want to cuddle Ben Whishaw’s voice.
All of this made Paddington the perfect icon of Britishness for the Crown to align itself with when Elizabeth made a surprise appearance alongside the bear in a skit released to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee earlier this year. In the sketch, the pair eat marmalade sandwiches and share an anodyne joke about something or other (this video resurfaced and went viral in the wake of the queen’s death). Somebody on the Palace’s marketing team must have been either very crafty or terminally online, because Paddington, the character, occupies a very particular space in the public conscience, and it was a stroke of genius for a royal family in great need of public support to use him as a crutch.
To understand how the sketch came to be, though, it’s necessary to go back to 2012, scene of the Palace’s last PR triumph, when the queen assented to be in a sketch featuring James Bond for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, which has since been considered by many liberal commentators to represent the last high watermark of British culture—a hallowed time when the country was last truly united, before being torn apart by austerity politics, Brexit, COVID, and young people suddenly wanting to respect people’s chosen gender identity. The 2012 Olympics was pro-immigration, pro-workers and the NHS, and—taking its cue from Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium—harked back to a halcyon pre-industrial Britain, allowing nationalists of all stripes to project their own vision of the country onto the ceremony.
Foremost in this modern, all-embracing smorgasbord of Britain’s Greatest Hits (Shakespeare! Pearly Kings and Queens! Peter Pan!) was a skit in which Daniel Craig’s James Bond—an icon of modern Britishness on a par with the queen herself—arrived at Buckingham Palace and was greeted by Her Majesty (for it was really her! The real Queen of England herself!) with the words, “Good evening, Mr. Bond.” Then some stuff happened, and they jumped from a helicopter into the stadium, etc. The nation rose to its feet as one and cheered. This, this was it! Self-effacing Britishness, tick; two mega-legends together in one scene, a bit like when one of the Avengers hangs out with another, tick; two old, rich, white people standing for a bygone era when Britannia ruled the waves, tick tick tick. The queen had been seamlessly integrated into a popular narrative about progressive, multicultural Britain.
James Bond, like Paddington, is a character first created in the 1950s—incidentally the decade of the queen’s accession to the throne. She got the job in 1952, the first Bond book came out the following year, and the first Paddington book only five years after that, in 1958. Both Paddington and Bond have changed over the years, particularly in the transition from books to film. The James Bond of the books is a racist, misogynist, homophobic, alcoholic, nihilistic, borderline psychopath—more of a Prince Philip kind of guy, if you will. The screen Bond has consistently refined this character, to the point of evaporating all his time-specific particularity, so that now anybody at all could be considered to play 007. Previously a very precise embodiment of Cold War-era cynicism, upper-class entitlement, machismo, and Imperial Britain, the character now stands, merely, for a kind of diffuse international “Britishness”—an icon because of cars and drinks and catchphrases.
Paddington, similarly, is now only distantly related to the bear of the books and has been rid of any notable identity. The internet loves the bear because it can graft any sort of politics, any kind of ideas onto it. When the U.K. government began its mission to send refugees to Rwanda, Home Office staff put up deportation notices on internal noticeboards in protest. James O’Brien, a prominent journalist, tweeted: “I hope Paddington likes it in Rwanda.” (Paddington is, of course, an immigrant to Britain from “deepest, darkest Peru”—but, I would argue, the crucial element setting him apart from other immigrants in Britain is that he is made up, and also a bear.)
The Paddington films are set in a relatively modern London—a London of immigrants, in which the lone wicked racist is chastised—but again its politics are pretty woolly. That’s fine: it’s, you know, for kids. But this diffuse quality means that the film is perfect for being latched onto by anybody; the character of Paddington stands for almost nothing, and means nothing, apart from a sort of hopeful nationalism and loving tea and marmalade. You can project anything onto this bear.
Thank you Ma’am, for everything.
— Paddington (@paddingtonbear) September 8, 2022
In this, Bond and Paddington are like Queen Elizabeth, who was very careful over the years to rid her public image of anything approaching a character, and who must at all times be seen to be apolitical (although of course she was a Tory). The functional emptiness of the queen, the reduction of her being to iconography (hats, gloves, Rolls-Royces, the wave, etc.), allowed the public to project any meaning at all onto her—such as that she was sending a message of support to Ukraine with a bunch of flowers in a photo opp with Justin Trudeau; or that she was secretly shading Donald Trump with her choice of brooches during his state visit.
Of course, the queen does stand for many things—such as white supremacy, or systemic inequality—but the key thing was always to fudge those elements from her public image, leaving only an icon of vague, internationally acceptable Britishness. That iconhood (a child would recognize the queen from a silhouette, as they would Paddington and Bond) has served the monarchy well, but it spells trouble for her successor, the now King Charles III, who has no particular iconography of his own to call on in order to generate familiarity and love. Looking at him performing public duties, now, is absurd—he’s clearly just some guy in a suit. The challenge of his reign, quite aside from constitutional problems that may arise, may be in finding cultural markers with which to bolster his image and, thereby, his perceived legitimacy as Britain’s ruler on high.
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