Wednesday, Feb 20, 2013, 4:36 pm
Princesses and Pandas: Hilary Mantel on Kate Middleton
British novelist Hilary Mantel has been denounced by everyone from Prime Minister David Cameron to the Daily Mail for her criticisms of Kate Middleton’s public persona in the London Review of Books. In her essay, “Royal Bodies,” Mantel complains that Middleton “seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” Middleton’s job is to be pretty, charming, and fertile—and nothing else. Taken as a critique of palace PR, Mantel’s point is unassailable.
Mantel observes that female royals have always been under great pressure to produce heirs. This unremitting pressure has led to all manner of abuse and degradations, from leaked medical reports to beheading. As observations on British history go, this one ranks alongside “Protestants and Catholics haven’t always gotten along” and “the Royal Navy was kind of a big deal.”
What does Mantel expect? It's a hereditary monarchy. If you start from the silly premise of a divine right transferred through royal blood, you come to the absurd but inescapable conclusion that the inner workings of Kate Middleton's uterus are matters of public concern. At least her husband is portrayed as having a real job outside of public appearances and insemination.
That said, nobody forfeits their basic human rights by taking a job, whether it’s mining coal or christening ships. The fact that Middleton’s job is to produce heirs at public expense doesn’t automatically entitle the public to know every nitty gritty detail of the process. Yet, the spectacle of the palace scrambling to keep her ultrasounds off the internet shows that her job has outlived its usefulness.
We all know she’s an ordinary woman, but we’ve been taught to think she’s magic. The dissonance between these two ideas is a never ending source of absurdity. Nobody seems dignified when held to such an impossible standard.
The monarchy seems designed to make its subjects look as ridiculous as the monarchs themselves. People who’d roll their eyes if a friend put her ultrasound on facebook are scrambling for mundane details about Middleton’s pregnancy.
“We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina,” Mantel writes. Indeed. Vagina thrall is a non-negotiable part of a ceremonial hereditary monarchy.
Mantel convincingly argues that royalty degrades both the public and the people we arbitrarily designate as royals, yet she stops short of
calling for abolition:
I used to think that the interesting issue was whether we should have a monarchy or not. But now I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not? Our current royal family doesn’t have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.
With that, Mantel loses the moral high ground. We don’t keep human beings in cages.
Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.