COMMENTARY | There were outraged gasps and shaken fists aplenty this week after double Booker Award-winning author Hilary Mantel made apparently disparaging remarks about Kate Middleton.
True to depressing form, most of the coverage has spectacularly missed the point, casting Mantel as a bitter woman conducting an unwarranted attack on her undeserving target.
For those arriving late, let me explain. In a lecture organised by The London Review of Books earlier this month, Mantel described the Duchess of Cambridge as “plastic”, “gloss-varnished” and “painfully thin”. She added that Kate was “without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” Middleton’s public image, said the author, “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.”
Duchess Kate, opined Mantel, was in the process of becoming a “jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”.
Right on cue (well, two weeks after the lecture was actually delivered), the media pounced. Mantel’s “tirade” (Metro) was “scathing” (The Daily Telegraph) and “vicious” (The Daily Mail). Politicans joined in as well. UK Prime Minister David Cameron described Mantel’s words as “completely misguided and completely wrong.” All the while, a number of oblivious commenters on newspaper websites took it upon themselves to criticize Mantel’s own looks.
Some outlets developed the narrative more insidiously, framing the story as an attack on a pretty princess by a jealous older woman. As part of its reporting, The Daily Mailwrote:
“Ms Mantel’s comments on the Duchess of Cambridge’s appearance comes [sic] shortly after she spoke about having body issues of her own. Ms Mantel went from a size ten to a size 20 in nine months after she was diagnosed with severe endometrosis at the age of 27. The treatment, which included surgery removing her womb leaving her infertile, caused her to gain four stone. The 60-year-old author said she sometimes dream of being thin again.”
(Thank goodness details of Ms Mantel’s infertility have been publicly shared! That’s now made it all clear: this bitter woman is envious of Kate Middleton’s figure and fertility. Because obviously, what else would women have to be concerned about?)
Dragged wildly out of context as they were, Mantel’s remarks obviously seem insulting. Yet the words “out of context” are key here. Any journalist or blogger who could be bothered to look up Mantel’s full speech (it’s available on the London Review of Books site) will understand that this was no attack on Kate Middleton, Duchess of Our Hearts, but a sympathetic take on the unusual pressures endured by the newest royal.
Read in its entirety, it becomes obvious that Mantel’s lecture was an attack on modern media attitudes towards royal females.
Mantel was arguing that Kate has been narrowly cast by the media as little more than a mannequin and a broodmare. For those who sell newspapers and produce TV news, her role is to be looked at, cooed over, and to produce an attractive royal babe. Beyond that, she serves no other purpose to the media. As Mantel said in her full speech (I don’t expect you’ll see this extract being widely reproduced):
“When [Kate's] pregnancy became public she had been visiting her old school, and had picked up a hockey stick and run a few paces for the camera. BBC News devoted a discussion to whether a pregnant woman could safely put on a turn of speed while wearing high heels. It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but 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.”
“In those days [Kate] 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.”
Though you’d never guess it from the lunk-headed coverage, Mantel’s full speech is an elegant and graceful critique of the media’s misogynistic treatment of women and the monarchy’s antiquated view of females in general.
Furthermore, it was subtle. Yet with much of the media all too happy to resort to easy outrage (because, hey, when did subtlety sell newspapers?), it seems Mantel’s true point will remain missed by most.