Hilary Mantel Did Not “Diss” Kate Middleton
1:30 pm, February 20th | by Colette McIntyre
If you’ve been a person on the Internet these past two days, presumably you’ve experienced some of the hoopla surrounding British writer Hilary Mantel’s comments about Kate Middleton. Media publications have assailed Mantel for “dissing” Middleton, mischaracterizing her nuanced analysis as “an astonishing and venomous attack,“ “creepy…pot shots,” “snobby, inaccurate, and sexist.” Even the British prime minister, David Cameron, felt the need to address the cause célèbre, calling the author’s remarks “completely misguided and completely wrong.”
These responses have willfully misunderstood the two-time Man Book Prize winner’s comments, turning a sympathetic and thoughtful piece into tabloid fluff. In order to truly understand why Mantel referred to the Duchess of Cambridge as a “jointed doll” and a “shop window mannequin” with “no personality of her own,” we must do the unthinkable — actually read what Mantel wrote. Like, in it’s entirety.
The scandal began when a speech on the royal body that Mantel delivered earlier this month was published in the current issue of The London Review of Books. In it, Mantel explores how the media has objectified Middleton and reduced her to her physicality and fertility:
It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.
Mantel goes on to compare the Duchess to another beloved British royal, Diana, analyzing how constructed and sanitized Middleton’s public image is:
Kate 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. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.
Interestingly much of the furor surrounding Mantel’s analysis further supports the author’s point — comments about the royal family are, more often than not, vacuous; comments about royal women dominated by thoughts on their images and representation:
…that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.
And, as tabloids’ obsession with the Duchess’ baby bump shows, royal women are nothing more than figureheads and breeders, quiet objects to be admired, projected upon, and dissected as one sees fit:
Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs…a royal lady is a royal vagina. Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.
It is worth reading Mantel’s brilliant and compassionate speech in full, especially since her analysis can double as a critique of the United States’ robust celebrity culture. If one goes through the entire piece and replaces “Kate Middleton” with, say, “Beyoncé,” Mantel’s observations (except for the whole interlude about the Tudor family) still hold true. Like the royal women, Beyoncé is an ideal more so than a woman, a symbol shrouded in her own self-mythologizing (Life is But a Dream). One could say that Beyoncé is irreproachable, “without quirks, without oddities,” as well; as New York Magazine’s Nitushc Abebe writes, the “criticism one hears of Beyoncé qua pop star [is] that she is flawless in an empty dutiful way. That beneath the warrior-queen performances and public togetherness, there lies a robot.” And the kerfuffle surrounding the singer’s baby bump should be proof enough that we’re a obsessed with the female celebrity’s body and have a tendency to reduce female celebrities to their biological capabilities. Maybe we should all heed Mantel’s concluding advice: “back off and [don't] be brutes.”
[Photo via Yahoo]