Prince Philip, who died Friday at 99 years old, has been a figure on the world stage for arguably his whole life. He was born a grandson of Greece’s King George I as well as a member of the Danish royal family (though his family lost power in Greece and he was, at age 1, smuggled out of the country in a box of oranges). In 1947, he secured a more stable royal perch when he married the future queen of England. He witnessed, and participated in, a lot of history during his century on Earth, and his obituaries reflect that, painting a picture of his itinerant childhood, his years in the navy, his storybook romance with his wife, his subsequent difficulties adjusting to a role that was subservient to her, and his attempts to preside over both his family and the institution of the monarchy. But an odd thing happened in the last few years of Philip’s life: The success of Netflix’s The Crown made him famous, depicting him as a kind of loveable jerk, to a generation that might otherwise not have paid much attention to him, while at the same time the royal family’s very public struggles, crossed with the internet and modern media’s mercilessness, transformed him into a symbol of the monarchy’s decline. The New York Times obituary’s gloss on this was to say Philip “re-emerged as a kind of pop-culture figure,” but a more accurate way to put it might be to say he became a meme.
If you spent any time online on Friday, you may have detected a certain, shall we say, gallows humor surrounding Prince Philip’s death. This attitude is exemplified by a piece that ran on Reductress, the feminist satire site: “How to Cope When Royalty Dies Tragically and Way Too Young.” This headline was paired with a photo of Prince Philip looking like Methuselah himself, all wrinkles, white hair, yellowing teeth, and sun-spotted skin. The implication was that Prince Philip was very, very old, and had looked very, very old. Almost incomprehensibly old. Hysterically old?
It’s likely that that article was not the first time many Reductress readers had encountered this sort of joke. The Onion, for example, has done some work in a similar register, and that’s on top of the versions, untethered to editorial standards and therefore completely unconcerned with manners, you may have come across on your personal Tiktok, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Making fun of the fact that Prince Philip frequently looked frail and unhealthy—and it was an undeniable fact—became fairly common in the years leading up to his death. It’s strange to write that sentence as if it’s normal for the world to mock someone for committing the sin of having aged. But that’s more or less what was happening, wasn’t it?
There was this particularly striking photo of Philip leaving the hospital in late 2019, with a slack jawed expression and worryingly red eyes, that maybe set it off. This guy is leaving the hospital?—that was the sentiment, a little bit. I also recall a lot of tittering when the prince got into a car accident while driving earlier that year. He, 97 at the time, put two women in the hospital (they were fine eventually), but miraculously sustained no injuries himself. For more examples of the niche photography genre that is Prince Philip in Decline, see Ashley Feinberg’s latest newsletter, where she has assembled some greatest hits.
The jokes about Prince Philip’s decrepitude have been an internet gag for a while now, emerging at a time when Prince Harry and Meghan’s whirlwind engagement, marriage, and separation from the royal family—along with Prince Andrew’s ties to the Jeffrey Epstein scandal—garnered a new wave of interest in the Windsors. But they gained steam again last month, during the frenzy that surrounded the disastrous (for the monarchy) Meghan and Harry Oprah interview, which happened to coincide with Prince Philip being hospitalized for an infection and a heart procedure. Upon his release, Defector ran a blog post with the headline, “What’s The Least Flavorful Food Item That Would Nonetheless Instantly Vaporize Prince Philip?” Its suggestions ranged from “[a] tin of anchovies, not consumed but opened in the same room as him” to “[a] single drop of hot honey.” It was far from the only Philip-is-ancient content circulating at the time: Also that month, no less than Cher posted a Philip meme that had been going around: It featured a photo of him, looking, well, bad, labeled “Prince Philip at 99,” juxtaposed next to a photo of present-day Cher labeled “Cher at 134.” I’m not sure exactly what was being said here, but I know that even Cher was saying it.
I wrang my hands over these jokes when I began to notice a confluence of them. To be clear, I thought they were funny, so what I was wringing my hands over was that I was pretty sure that this made me a bad person. But making fun of Philip had always been, vaguely, a political commentary, and in the wake of the Oprah interview, this intensified: To post a picture of a feeble Prince Philip seemed to carry an implicit critique of the decaying institution of the monarchy. This was true even though Meghan and Harry had explicitly tried to shield the prince from the worst of the blowback by telling Oprah that he hadn’t been one of the people inside the palace who expressed “concerns” over their son’s skin color, in spite of his established history of racist and off-color remarks.
We learn in kindergarten that’s it’s rude to make fun of someone’s looks. That doesn’t stop it from happening all the time, particularly in the service of fatphobia, misogyny, and racism. I don’t know when we learn that it’s rude to make fun of someone who has just died, but that’s another pretty elementary lesson that can quickly fall by the wayside, especially when the person in question is famous and the argument can be made that he or she made the world a worse place—when Rush Limbaugh died earlier this year, many of the people I follow had no compunctions about letting it rip. But all this made Philip a somewhat atypical target: Once a classically handsome white man, he’d simply gotten older. He looked a little funny, but so do all our family members when they get old, which is actually the best-case scenario, when you think about it.
What really rankled people about Philip’s wrinkles couldn’t have been completely about the wrinkles themselves. Here was a man who benefited more from privilege than almost anyone else on the planet, showing yet more of it by enduring, year after year. You wouldn’t be able to find consensus if you tried to say that he was flat-out evil—even Meghan Markle didn’t seem to think so (or at least not admit it), and The Crown’s royalist propaganda had even given some of us a soft spot for the guy. Maybe he was like the monarchy itself: There were arguments in favor of it, certainly it wasn’t all bad, but many of my fellow liberal-minded Gen X, millennial, and Gen Z adults can’t really shake the argument that it simply should not exist in the year 2021. The main problem with the royal family is that it exists, and craggy, fossilized, zombie Prince Philip became the ultimate emblem of its unfair persistence. He’s gone now, and it’s going to be hard to find such a neat metaphor to replace him.