Thursday, 21 February 2013

Kate Middleton, Hilary Mantel and Princess Diana: The Tragic Lives of Female Royalty

"Completely misguided and completely wrong" was what Prime Minister David Cameron said about it all - a phrase which, ironically enough, seems more at home as a critique of the manufactroversy itself than it does Hilary Mantel's essay in the London Review of Books. Of course, both the PM and his would-be successor Ed Milliband's remarks were profoundly stupid if one reads them as addressed towards the substance of the piece itself, which I would guess neither of them have read. Stupid, yes, but politically tonedeaf they were not; Ed and Dave's responses weren't meant to serve as a critique of Mantel's brilliant deconstruction of the public attitudes towards monarchy, but were instead directed towards misled and gullible tabloid readers who believed a snooty, prize-winning intellectual type had just publicly humiliated their beautiful, perfect princess. They needed to know that the politicians were on their side, dammit, and what's a political heavyweight like Dave or Ed meant to do when faced with the bloodlust, the off-with-her-head approach to debate of the tabloid media? Why, they criticise - or, to use the tabloid press' favoured verb, 'slam' the piece itself.

The tabloid media has a post-modern relationship to truth, and when faced with a dichotomy between stretching reality in order to sell papers or a rigorous approach to accuracy, will often prefer the quick sell. Anybody who actually read Mantel's piece will, of course, have found it brimming with satire, sarcasm and, most of all, empathy towards not just Kate, who features as only a minor character in Mantel's examination, but the monarchy as an institution and crucially the human beings confined within its inescapable prison of constant veneer; its requirement of endlessly chipper, dignified, exorbitant celebrity. 

Ironically, but perhaps not unexpectedly, it would fall upon the Daily Mail itself to feature the first genuinely personal criticism of Kate in publishing an 'I agree with Hillary Mantel' piece by Julie Burchill, which had nothing to do with the scope or content of Mantel's original essay, but had everything to do with what the tabloids had allowed - nay - forced it to become. When Mantel observed that Kate had become 'a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung...a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore', it was clear that the blame lay with us, the public, for holding such perceptions - why do we allow ourselves to treat people, royal or not, this way? And what about the institution of monarchy so allows us to dehumanise not just The Royals as celebrities, but ourselves as spectators to that celebrity? Julie Burchill in the Mail, meanwhile, lays the blame not with the public or the press for the dehumanised perception of royalty, but with Kate herself ('she needs to take a leaf out of her own mother-in-law Diana's book') and criticises her career trajectory before she became princess - '[her] dabbling in the family business, Party Pieces, makes us feel that she lacks backbone.'

All this hearkening back to The Time of Diana in which princesses were publicly venerated for their inhuman levels of simplistic humanity is nothing but amnesia. Whilst I was only nine years old when Princess Diana died, I remember the dishonesty of the public and press' about-face not being lost on me. My parents would occasionally read tabloid papers and they were, pre-death of Diana, replete with judgmental stories about her relationship with Dodi Fayed and more often than not treated her humanitarian efforts with patronising scorn rather than humanistic appreciation. In September 1996, less than one year before her death, the Mail on Sunday published a piece by Jessica Davies entitled 'Cunning Queen of Broken Hearts', which begins:
'The woman's a genius! She may be, in her own estimation, 'as thick as a plank', but Princess Diana has an unerring eye for bandwagons...
What a masterstroke it was to time her visit to Washington last week to coincide with the release of First Wives Club - a film about abandoned wives which has taken America by storm.
Just as the misery of dumped wives, and their triumph through revenge, became the talking point among film-goers, who should waft over and present herself as a suitable icon? Why, the brilliant, beautiful Diana - the ultimate Queen of Broken Hearts. For the first time in public she removed her wedding ring. A coincidence? I think not. 
The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, published a piece in June 1997 (two months before Princess Di's death) headlined 'Why Doesn't Di Have a Real Gal Pal?; Men Fall at Her Feet but No Woman Stays Close for Long' that recounts the apparently tempremental, hostile personality of a royal diva unable to make friends for herself:
The fact is that Princess [sic] has a way of behaving and saying things that tends to drive people away.
The large turnover in her staff is evidence enough of that. They just don't stay. Since she married in 1981, I reckon she's got through nearly 100...
For the fact is that to be a friend of Diana is hugely demanding.
You have to be prepared to take calls even at 3am to assure her she is wonderful.
You have to tell her constantly that she looks good and that the papers have been unkind to her. [Enduring England: I wonder why she would think that?]
And, when it is glaringly obvious she has behaved badly or selfishly, you have to tell her that she was quite justified in her actions.
Girlfriends are prepared to do all this up to a point, but they admit that it can become just too exhausting.
And so they walk away.
The brilliance of Mantel's piece was to examine the way royal women are (in Diana's case, literally) sacrificed onto the pyre of tabloid gossip and speculation in a way which has nothing to do with the reality of royal lives, but with the inhuman constraints and demands of monarchical duty. Is it too much to wonder if the strained quest to find perfection in the public spectacle of the Duchess of Cambridge is at least a little bit a desire on the part of the public, ventriloquised by the media, to atone for the oftentimes ghastly treatment of Diana at the hands of the scathing op-ed? The public displays of grief upon Diana's death were surely at least partially an effort at whitewashing history. Now, in Kate, we have a chance to do it all again. Don't mess things up this time, guys.

And yet still this forced love, this required worship, is no less dehumanising and no less degrading than the popular pre-death portrayal of Diana as a histrionic, maneating glory-seeker bouncing from one failed relationship to the next, all the while trying and failing to promote herself as someone who cares about anything but Princess Di. Neither work on the basis of reality, but are stories about stories - in Kate, the fairy-tale princess plucked from a life of common humility (don't laugh) into the dazzling life of royalty - the plot of a particularly unimaginative film, perhaps. In Diana, we had all this, but her narrative inevitably shifted from fairy-tale princess to Disney villain; the self-serving succubus, disruptor of public matrimonial harmony.

The only way to deal with this grotesque subversion of ordinary human decency is to do away with it entirely and such is why any humanistic approach to human compassion warrants - no - requires republicanism. It is only a matter of time, after all, until the public and the media's honeymoon with Kate Middleton ends, and the fickle, cynical whims of capitalist (should that be 'savvy') media transforms this apparently flawless individual into an object of derision, jealousy and scorn. What is the social function of an institution that brings out the worst in us and places at the center of our irrational hatreds individuals who are placed there not out of any desire, or lust for the trappings of 'celebrity experience' but by mere birthright? And woe betide those women, indeed, who happen to catch the eye of the male royals - for they will be loved, hated, publicly defended and denounced in equal measure. With the reaction to Mantel, it seems that anyone who points this out is guilty of an unpardonable sin.

1 comment:

  1. Another good piece Alex, and you're spot-on regarding Burchill's "defence" - it's completely predicated on the tabloid misreading of Mantel's original (sympathetic, nuanced and sensitive) piece.