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Paddington Bear’s journey from Latinx icon to Tory mascot

At this point, Paddington Brown is no longer a bear – but a blank canvas onto which we project our anxieties about Britain’s future

A few days ago, a florist in Manchester was robbed. A wooden statue of Paddington Bear was one of the items taken, prompting the owner, 54, to make a plea to the thief to return the wooden animal: “What would the Queen think? He is her best friend, and she wouldn’t have wanted this to happen to him.” 

No, we’re not making this up. Swathes of people in the UK are convinced that the duo were IRL besties, hence the heaps of marmalade sandwiches and stuffed bears left outside the palace by mourners. The situation got so extreme that the Royal Parks of London issued a statement asking people to stop leaving sandwiches (Twitter theorised that the perishables were attracting rodents).

The internet is also flooded with tributes, and one particular illustration of the queen and the little bear walking into the sunset hand in hand – where Paddington, disturbingly, appears to be in the role of the grim reaper – has gone viral. There are innumerable TikToks, too: fancam-style videos overlaying clips of the now-infamous Jubilee sketch with doleful Lana Del Rey songs. Even the BBC are feeding into this narrative: while all regular programming is currently suspended, the network will screen the Paddington movies on the evening before and on the day of the big funeral.

The association between the late monarch and the little bear is only a few months old. As part of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in June, she appeared alongside the anthropomorphic animal in a sketch created especially for the occasion. Nothing really happens in it – the pair have tea together and bond over their shared love of marmalade sandwiches – but it made a lasting impression on viewers. The creators of the sketch explained the collaboration by saying that the Queen and Paddington complement each other, as they both embody politeness and good manners, and are cut from the “same cloth”.

Since the release of the popular film series, Paddington has become a political symbol –seemingly antithetical to the Queen’s consistent insistence on the importance of presenting herself as apolitical. The bear, voiced by Ben Whishaw, graced the silver screen for the first time back in 2014, arriving in London from “Darkest Peru” and concealed in a boat (an undocumented immigrant!) The Brown family’s acceptance and welcoming of the little bear – despite his difficulties understanding the British way of life – is portrayed as Good, while the family’s xenophobic and sceptical neighbour, Mr Curry, is an unambiguous villain. The politicisation of Paddington didn’t go unmissed: one thinkpiece written in response to the movie was titled ‘Why Paddington is anti-UKIP propaganda’ while another saw an immigration lawyer review the film.

The second Paddington film was even more radical. Released in 2017, a time characterised by harsh anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s election, the bear continued to make the case for multiculturalism and immigration. He even highlighted how the criminal justice system is biased against minority groups and strongly advocated for prison reform. The film went on to develop a cult following, and even briefly replaced Citizen Kane as the best movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Paddington had cemented his position as a symbol of liberal values such as acceptance and diversity.

But in recent months, the bear has undergone a bit of a rebrand – with the Queen’s Jubilee catalysing the change. “I think it’s an interesting politically informed decision that they chose Paddington, who is an illegal immigrant, to appear with the Queen over Winnie the Pooh who is British and just as well known,” explains Professor Angela Smith, a Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland, who published an academic study on Paddington’s immigrant status. 

It’s not all down to the Jubilee sketch, though. It’s important to note the kind of immigrant that Paddington represents, even in the films. As James Greig writes in GQ: “Not all migrants speak fluent English in a plummy accent, nor have they spent their lives obsessing over British culture, nor do they readily discard their real name because it’s too difficult for English people to understand.” Perhaps, the fictional bear has been so easily co-opted by pro-establishment conservatives because he’s been the archetypal Good Immigrant all along: he checks all their boxes and lets them believe they’re graciously welcoming an outsider. 

As the left and right tussle over a small fictional bear, deep-seated political divisions in the country are brought to the fore. At this point, he’s less of a bear, and more of a political battleground – we’re in agreement that he represents ‘British values’, but what those values are is more contentious. Is he the kind of Brit who thinks our diversity is our greatest strength, who advocates for ‘multiculturalism’? Or is he the kind who thinks ‘knowing your place’ and respecting your social superiors are the most important virtues a person (or bear) can have? Well – that’s the beauty of a fictional character. He’s both, and neither. Maybe, with their innate political ambiguity and a shared “never explain, never complain” attitude, he and the Queen have more in common after all.