The prize winning and brilliant author Hilary Mantel was roundly criticised for her comments on Kate Middleton recently. But here’s the thing – having now read the entire article, “Royal Bodies” in the London Review of Books, not only is it clear she was making a profound and interesting point as would be expected from such a writer. But Mantel’s conclusion is actually a plea for us all to behave better when it comes to the royals.
Cheerful curiosity, she writes, can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal in fact, and although we no longer cut off their heads, royal ladies are sacrificed as Princess Diana was just a couple of decades ago. Let’s not repeat the tragedies of history where royal women were seen as all form over content, disposable if they didn’t reproduce on cue or look the part.
No surprise really that her nuanced essay got pillaged and turned into a nasty bitch fight by the tabloid media. How dare a woman – and one not deemed to be attractive enough – write with chilling accuracy about our Kate’s role as a human barbie doll? This is thin ice territory for most (particularly in the UK) but there was an extra layer of ire for a women commenting with such acuity on the vacuousness of the royal female appearance-obsessed society (and one that bears eerie similarities to the preoccupations of the Tudor court and Marie Antoinette).
We like to think we have moved on from some of the ‘superficialities’ and objectifications of the past. But women face double standards which ensure how they look is just as important a what they do or achieve. Despite this reality, there’s a patronising tone in some commentary these days which ticks women off for being overly concerned about their weight and wrinkles, their clothes and hair. The implication is such interest is all about female over-compensation, and a sad inclination towards trivialities, no matter how well educated. We let them vote, have an education and get jobs and they still worry about their lipstick, tut tut.
Mantel makes a good case for closer examination of how far we have really evolved. As the Oscars red carpet parade reminds us, the way our modern movie royalty looks is also the fodder for massive amounts of popular culture, feeding an insatiable media appetite. Women are still expected to dress up for the male gaze whether they are movie stars or not. Society has a long way to go in changing this dynamic and allowing women to feel less pressure to conform to certain standards of appearance where signs of age and character are preferably erased.
Hooray for Hilary, I say. It’s time more women talked and debated and wrote about these issues rather than being castigated for speaking out.