People rarely thank you when you expose the ugly mechanics of their social myths but still, the hypocrisy of British press reaction to critical analysis of the Duchess of Cambridge and her pregnancy is laughable.
The tabloids exploded in outrage Tuesday because, in an honest and intelligent essay in The London Review of Books, author Hilary Mantel dares to make the rather obvious point that the royal body is public property. She describes the Duchess as "becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung…, a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own." The papers called this a scathing attack, manufacturing some outrage to print between dozens of the "baby bump" pictures shot during the Duchess's first public appearance in which her pregnancy, now in its fourth month, shows.
In the 6,000-word piece, delivered as a lecture earlier this month before it was posted on the LRB website, Mantel takes a piercing look at her own reactions to royals in the flesh. The Booker laureate describes attending a reception at Buckingham Palace where she stares at the Queen as "a cannibal views his dinner." Mantel, whose much praised 2009 novel Wolf Hall is a fictionalized biography of the Tudor minister Thomas Cromwell, then gets to the meat of her subject: She reviews new research into the health of the much-married Henry VIII and looks at the fertility problems that produced a reign whose notorious history is "graphically gynecological."
In this context, it is important that the Duchess of Cambridge is young, pretty and now demonstrably fertile, and that is Mantel's introduction. She contrasts Kate's all-important reliability to the tragically unstable egos of Marie Antoinette and Diana, Princess of Wales, writing that the Duchess "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."
Missing the point that this is not a criticism of the Duchess herself, whoever she might be, but rather of the public image the press and Palace thrust on her, the tabs have gone into overdrive, denouncing anyone who would say their perfect Kate lacked personality. Prime Minister David Cameron even weighed in, calling Mantel's remarks "completely misguided and completely wrong," perhaps because the author is questioning the monarchy itself. (She comes to the conclusion that royals are like pandas, fun to look at but unnecessary.)
What is ironic about this artificial controversy is how the press, despite its new, post-Diana, no-more-phone-hacking propriety, is casting the Duchess in exactly the role Mantel has identified. On the papers' websites, you can watch the video of her appearance Tuesday at an addiction-recovery centre that she supports. She emerges from a car in an elegant, form-fitting dress to be greeted by staff, but all you can hear is the clicking of camera shutters and the occasional "Katherine!" as photographers try to get her to look their way. She waves once; otherwise she acts – and what is it except sheer pretense to ignore the immediate proximity of a phalanx of loudly clicking cameras? – as though they aren't there.
The Daily Express described her as wearing "an unseasonally summery Max Mara dress" while the Daily Mail wrote that she "braved a chill morning in London wearing only a grey patterned wrap dress." In other words, after the British press respected the Palace's request not to publish paparazzi shots of her in a bikini that appeared in some U.S. publications last week, the obliging royal showed up at an official event without a coat in a clingy dress so that the photographers could get what they needed.
In the papers, Nick Barton, chief executive of Action on Addiction, describes the Duchess as engaging and filled with intelligent questions, but that is beside the point. The real Kate may have loads of personality, but as Duchess of Cambridge she is the star attraction in a media pageant in which her pregnancy is the next big float. Can she ever lay claim to her private self? Perhaps if, as Mantel urges us "[We] back off and not be brutes," but the faux furor over her essay suggests we are more eager to pounce than retreat.