Tuesday, 19 February 2013

"The royal body exists to be looked at" - a response to Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel, award-winning author of historical fiction, elicited raised eyebrows and horrified gasps from the British press on the publication of a speech that she made at the London Review of Books Lecture earlier this month. The comments that sparked the greatest outrage concerned the Duchess of Cambridge. Amongst other observations, Mantel compared Kate to a robot or mannequin, who "appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished". As a self-confessed fan of the Duchess, I admit that there were points in the speech that I strongly disagreed with - I do not believe that the ideal of Kate is a construct to the extent that Mantel suggests. However, after I finished reading, I found this BBC news article in which David Cameron condemns the author's comments.

In many ways, I found this article to be far more disturbing than anything that I read in the speech. Yes, it feels wrong to hear about a fellow human being described as "precision-made, machine-made" - it is a hurtful observation to make about anyone. But is the press' response to Kate any better? Is it any more healthy to put her up on a pedestal, to place her beyond reproach? Either of these arguments can be disproved by the Duchess herself, but at least if Kate were to disprove Mantel's argument, it would only be with a display of what Mantel terms "emergence of character". A fall from a pedestal, however, can only ever be painful.
Source: sarahshistoryblog.wordpress.com
 The funny thing is, the speech wasn't really anything to do with Kate - the real subject was Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's unfortunate second wife who was beheaded when she bore a daughter and not the desired male issue. Mantel argues that (in the case of women especially) "The royal body exists to be looked at". On one hand, it can be said that we have already seen this played out in the case of Prince Harry's notorious naked Las Vegas photographs. But surely we are forgetting that the semi-nude bodies of the most minor celebrities are plastered across our newspapers and websites, and nobody blinks an eye. Celebrity may be forming a new aristocracy, but not in title, and that is what we are concerned with. No, what was so shocking about the Prince Harry photographs, and the topless Kate photographs, was that the royal body is not meant to be seen. The construct of the royal in modern-day society is that they are untouchable, and a display of nudity shatters that illusion. 
Source: vogue.co.uk
Physical presence, however, does appear to be fundamental in the role of royalty. In the Middle Ages, sufferers of scrofula (a swelling of the neck caused by tuberculosis) would flock to the monarchy from miles around, for it was believed that the touch of an English or French king would heal them. Nowadays, meeting the Queen is such an orchestrated and secure occasion that it becomes a near-magical event. The royal family, as ambassadors of our country from birth or marriage, are sent out to promote the United Kingdom. Having been expressly taught to converse with charm and ease, it is probably a preferable option to sending out politicians, who in the eyes of the press, are only too human and full of flaws.
Source: mommyish.co.uk
"We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina."
 Much as I have disagreed with Mantel, this is statement is only too terrifyingly true. From the Royal Wedding Day onwards, rumours flew around with reckless abandon that Kate was pregnant. When, after a year of marriage, the couple were still without foetus, it was whispered that there may never be a child. The sensation that was caused when Kate was admitted to hospital for acute morning sickness was far beyond the excitement caused by any celebrity being pregnant. Why were we so anxious for William and Kate to produce an heir? This sort of language isn't even tied to a relevant notion in society today. Mantel suggests that we, as consumers of press material, "don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them". I would take this argument further. Society displays the royals at first as figures taller than us, in terms of class, money, even morality. But as humans, lords and ladies of our own much smaller worlds, we want them to shrink, we wish them to come into our homes and be dominated by us. And yet in reality, we fail to see that we are all the same size. I think this is what needs to be taken from the Mantel speech. By all means, be outraged by the comments about Kate, but remember to respect her as a person rather than an ideal.

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