Now that the royal wedding is over, one thread connects all commentary: Seeing Prince Harry wed Meghan Markle represented a seismic cultural shift. And among the many, many reasons why this wedding mattered was that it signaled the end of “lad culture” as we know it. While many in the United States have a stereotype of English men as polite, proper, and occasionally befuddled (see Eddie Redmayne, Ed Sheeran), they likely have never been out to a pub in England on a Saturday night. Lad culture in the UK is the “boys will be boys” ethos, where nothing bad ever happens to the elite beyond a raised eyebrow. This ethos was long echoed in media, chronicled in books by Nick Hornby and David Nicholls, and rooted in the homogeneity of British society. Lad culture, like it’s US cousin, frat bro culture, involved drinking too much, engaging in dubious activities that would likely get you in trouble on social media, and reveling in male privilege as birthright.
And one of the key poster children for lad culture? Prince Harry. There was the infamous incident when Prince Harry went to a costume party in Nazi regalia. There was a 2004 scandal in which he fought with photographers in a nightclub and the 2012 naked pictures of him at a debaucherous pool party. He made some bad decisions. He probably wasn’t always the best friend or the best boyfriend. He didn’t represent the royal family the way he should have. With his good looks, penchant for pints, and group of similarly good-looking, rich, and drunk twentysomethings surrounding him, Prince Harry was part of a group identity that has been simultaneously popular and problematic in the UK for the last two decades.
While lad culture got its name from the ‘90s Britpop era, its embrace of unapologetic, mischievous maleness became a source of identification for scores of millennial men growing up in England. I’m half British and spent some of my 20s living in London, and I remember recognizing lad culture as distinctive from frat-boy culture while out for drinks with my friend’s law-office coworkers. One of them came with a broken foot, proudly telling anyone who would listen that he injured it jumping off a roof while wasted. This wasn’t the type of story my American friends would have widely shared; college-type exploits tended to be kept under wraps post-college. But in the UK, “lad culture” was one many men embraced throughout their 20s, often with only a knowing smile from bosses. “Lad magazines,” like Zoo, FHM, Nuts, Loaded, and Indeed, rose to prominence, their cover lines suggesting much more in-your-face sexism than American counterparts, touting contests that offered readers the chance to win boob jobs for their girlfriends. The British lad’s bad behavior was brushed aside as part of his oafish charm.
Lad culture may have adopted its name from Britpop, but it seems that the type was pretty ingrained in UK society for eons. Look at Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who acts like an idiot for most of parts one and two of Henry IV. And while Prince Hal eventually grows up and becomes an esteemed leader in Henry V, many contemporary British lads did not seem to need to do so to have brilliant political careers. For example, Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and one of the leaders of the Brexit movement, once said “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” In 2005, after Prince Harry’s Nazi costume debacle, he was castigated by media but in actuality barely received a slap on the wrist. A then senior Army official at the prestigious Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where Harry was enrolled, explained at the time, “He is most emphatically not a liability … I am quite sure there are plenty of cadets who display a lack of judgment, but we don’t hear about them because they do not end up in The Sun [newspaper.]”
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Lad culture was sexist, racist reveling in privilege that was born, not earned. The Prince was both part of it and a victim of it; for many millennial men in England, being a lad was synonymous with being a man.
Except, of course, it isn’t. As the 7/7 London subway bombings in 2005, the 2008 economic crisis, the 2015 London riots, and the 2016 Brexit crisis showed, being a lad wasn’t enough in an increasingly uncertain, tense, and unstable world. And in a post-#MeToo world, being a lad isn’t just not enough, it’s not acceptable. The misogynist, ethnocentric worldview is out of step with the England of today, where the current mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is the son of Pakistani immigrants; where British superstars—David Oyelowo, Riz Ahmed, Skepta, Idris Elba—make it clear “British” is not synonymous with “caucasian”; and where even LadBible.com, one of the most popular sites in the UK, runs headlines like “Royal Wedding 2018: Bishop Curry Stole the Show For His Next Level Speech.” In 2015, a Vice article announced the death of British lad culture. But Prince Harry, unmarried, unattached, always surrounded by his privileged pals—Tom “Skippy” Inskip, Hugh Grosvenor, Thomas van Straubenzee, Guy Pelly, Sam Branson, and Jake Warren—seemed to remain a holdout, the privileged lad who refused to grow up.
Slowly, though, he was also shedding off the lad lifestyle, one element at a time. He was in the army for 10 years, founding the Invictus Games for injured service members in 2014. Like the wayward Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Prince Harry has gradually taken on the mantle of responsibility and come to recognize the enormous power of his privilege. In a 2016 interview with the BBC and the Sunday Times, Prince Harry revealed himself to be in an awkward in-between of lad lifestyle and being a grown up, both with his existential angst and with his word of choice: “I don’t get any satisfaction from sitting at home on my arse—and that’s a body part by the way, not a swear word … I need to earn more respect from a lot more people. Of course I do.” Later that year, he became public about his relationship with Meghan Markle, speaking out against the implicit racism and sexism in the treatment of Markle by the press.
Not only did the laddiest lad renounce racism and sexism, but his year-and-a-half courtship with Markle led to what was thought by many to be Britain’s most progressive royal wedding, both honoring and evolving British traditions. It was clear on Sunday, watching the goings on at Windsor Palace: The lad had become a man.
I have friends who think Prince Harry was given a pass too easily, that he shouldn’t be lauded the way he has been in the lead up to his wedding. And it’s something I’ve questioned, too. Prince Harry got a million free passes due to his privilege and standing, and he used all of them. He exemplified a cultural moment where casual sexism and racism were par for the course, where getting wasted and rude on a Saturday night was just blowing off steam, where nothing couldn’t be solved by a smile and an “I’m sorry.”
And yet, at least his evolution represents a self-awareness. That’s more than can be said for his United States counterparts, the privileged offspring to political dynasties. These men—The Huckabee sons, the Trump sons —have been named in memes and on Twitter as “large adult sons.” In the New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino explores the phenomenon of American men who simply don’t have to grow up.
In growing up and shrug off the trappings of lad culture, Prince Harry may simply be doing what millions of other UK men did when they turned 30 and realized there was more to life than cheap beer and dumb jokes. But I think this evolution represents a hopeful change for the future and exemplifies a societal shift that recognizes childish behavior—especially by privileged people in power—is simply too destructive an urge to indulge in our society. Hopefully, Harry’s US counterparts will take a cue from his playbook (maybe inspired by some light reading on world affairs in LadBible) and evolve as well.