The Princess and the Brain

Totally princessy accessories. By Griffindor, via.

Kate Middleton vs. Hilary Mantel. This is the beauty story of the week, or perhaps of my two-week stint here at The Beheld. But by coming to this story as late as I have, the required reading is now beyond daunting. There are now not only Mantel's own well-regarded books, the speech, and tabloid criticism of the speech, but also the reporting on the kerfuffle, the commentary on it, and finally, the commentary on the commentary. There are simply not enough hours in the day.

So, I have read the speech to the best of the ability a cold-plus-cold-medicine allows, read some of the initial criticisms prior to doing so, read Hadley Freeman because she is my idol, and kind of looked at the Jezebel post. I haven't read all of the thousands if not millions of comments, tweets, etc. about this controversy. Nor had I ever read anything else by Mantel, but I now might just have to.

The general outline of this affair is as follows: an accomplished writer gave a speech, reprinted in a highbrow publication, in which she discussed the royal body - as in, the bodies of kings and queens and such. The speech jumped around from historical figures (Henry VIII and his wives) to modern-day royalty, specifically Princess Diana and Kate-née-Middleton, but most specifically Middleton - the passages about Middleton (or Windsor? "Kate" seems odd, and she's not technically a princess, etc.) were what inspired the aggravation.

Out of context, the quotes seemed to be calling Middleton a pretty, vacuous shell of a woman who may or may not read books, this coming from a woman to whom book-reading is of utmost importance. Calling her too thin, too dull. These are, of course, not kind things to say about any individual, particularly a still-living one, no matter what you think of royalty, or of the life choice that is marrying a prince. Not, of course, that this excuses a critique along the lines of, Mantel herself is just jealous because she isn't a pretty pretty princess (which, well, who is? but who wants to be one?). But who knows what Middleton's like in private. That she doesn't seem incredibly interesting is not so different from saying that one would not want to be friends with an actress on account of a dull character she plays on a sitcom. (Jennifer Aniston, perhaps in real life we'd hit it off.) Aren't these royals figureheads who cost British taxpayers however much? If so, why should we care what they think on serious matters of the day? (Along similar lines, I've never understood why it was supposed to be feminist to argue in favor of a larger policy-making role for First Ladies in the States. For women, oh yes, but for women who happen to be married to a man elected president, no.)

In context, we are to understand that Mantel was actually criticizing the way the media portrays Kate, the demands the media as well as the royal family make on the woman who is to have this role. And oh, did I want to be Team Mantel on this. I too have had stuff I've written for a smallish taken out of context on a far greater scale, and while this is something any of us need a thick skin for what with technology, it's no great joy. And I'm a literature grad student/freelance writer here, and not (cue the West Village townhouse I will never own) a princess. And, on a less personal note, Mantel can write. But... I'm not really team anybody here. If you read the speech as a whole, you see that the insults aren't quite the ones the "Daily Mail" and such imagined, but the whole thing is insulting.

"Princess" is, these days, a derogatory word for a woman. For a American Jewish woman, for sure, what with the acronym, but also for a woman, period. A princess is a woman who is ungrateful to feminist accomplishments that permit her to make her own way in the world, one who instead chooses to live off the men in her life - a father, a husband, or a bunch of rich dates. Or not even chooses - she simply doesn't have it together to do anything else. She has the class privilege to do anything, but lacks the ambition to get further than the nail salon. So a woman who goes and becomes a real princess is a bit baffling, in this day and age.

I'm not sure, though, what's to be gained by pointing at Kate Middleton and asking why she isn't more self-actualizing, more audibly opinionated. Do we need to pretend that feminism means all women are professionally ambitious? Are all men? And are we even sure she's not ambitious? Her husband came with a job, and the job is not to serve her husband but to be a royal. And what an odd job it is. Not fun-rich, which as I imagine it means jetting off to Tokyo whenever, or at the very least being able to order the $300 hiking boots one has had one's eye on. (Reasons #402 and #403 why I am not Duchess of Cambridge.) I really don't think we need to concern ourselves with the possibility that Mantel envies Middleton.

A "princess" in the informal sense may lack agency, but a woman who hangs around and persists and then marries a prince perhaps set out to do so. She was not born a princess, nor do we have any reason to believe she was requested against her will to become one. The ones born into it we may pity, or the ones married into it very young, but Middleton? We don't need to find becoming a princess the noblest (pun intended) of goals, we don't need to say that because she has agency, she's a feminist role model. Gosh no. But we need not pity her, refer to her condescendingly, as if this were some fate forced upon her, as if she were some random woman plucked by the media for overanalysis, whose womb had been somehow unilaterally demanded by the Windsors.

And this, I think, is how we avoid the "fourth wave of feminism" or choice feminism Freeman refers to. The point here isn't to celebrate Middleton's choice, but to respect that she presumably made one.

What got to me about the speech - in context - was the way Mantel discusses Middleton as if she were already a historical figure, not a person who no doubt has the intellect needed to get through Mantel's sentences. Also the way Mantel appears to be insisting that Middleton reveal some quirks, if not some burgeoning feminist qualms about her place in the world. Mantel appears to want Middleton to be miserable, and digs for evidence of this misery, coming up with the recent (and notoriously unflattering) official portrait of the princess, in which, claims Mantel, "her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off." I'm not convinced. Middleton could have gone with a private life, and opted for the life she's got. She chose to act in a perma-performance of "princess," artificially grooming herself and monitoring her physique for the role. Or that's just who she is, how could we know. But it doesn't seem necessary to imagine that there's a human-rights lawyer or some such locked inside Kate Middleton, just screaming to get out.