There’s been something of a royal flush this summer with not one but two of the younger members of our most elite family thrust, nakedly, into the spotlight. From billiards in the buff to the recent announcement that yet more gossip outlets, this time Italian and Swedish, are set to publish photos of Kate Middleton sunbathing topless, apparently we all want to see what our (unclothed) social betters are up to.
Of course, our archaic, expensive and, at times, frankly ridiculous monarchy is a symbol of so much of what is wrong in our unequal society. Bastions of class and race privilege, the royals demonstrate the painfully acute sense that in Britain, as it always has been, it’s not through your own talent or any hard work that you achieve success. Instead, your parent’s money dictates. It goes largely unquestioned that we have tens of individuals born into a life of luxury merely because they had the good fortune to grow in the right womb.
Our aristos are symbols for those who don’t at all mind their continued existence too – of the continuity with an imagined past, or perhaps only that of celebrity – an escapist glimpse of a glamorous, extravagant lifestyle, outside the reaches of the vast majority. The trouble with letting people become symbols, metaphors for all that’s wrong or right, is that this dehumanises them. We grow to feel we have a right over them, and in the case of women in particular, their bodies especially.
This isn’t the normal case of media intrusion coming with the territory that fame inevitably brings. All Kate Middleton did was marry the man she loved. Admittedly we had to pay for it. Nevertheless, the real tragedy of the monarchy is that it denies its members a normal life.
To join the royal family means giving up a part of yourself to become a figurehead, relinquishing your right to your own person. This doesn’t mean we can’t question the actions of the queen and her lot, especially when it’s us paying for it all; it’s never really ok to dress to up as Nazi or travel round the world making endless inappropriate racist comments (if you’re reading, take note Prince Harry and the Duke of Edinburgh), but the hounding of Kate Middleton – guilty of little less than taking a holiday – has been particularly cruel.
As a woman and one who gained recognition only through marrying someone incredibly privileged, Kate Middleton’s only currency is her appearance. The fact that she doesn’t do much else of interest, doesn’t help her being seen by the media explicitly in those terms. She’s essentially a sex icon, except the royal family is the most sexless and unsexy institution we have going for us. So Kate can’t be discussed by the press in those terms. The shaky paradox of a young woman only taking up as much column inches as she does because she dedicates her life to looking attractive, but yet not being able to be talked of explicitly in terms of aesthetics, was shaken apart by a photographer armed with an impossibly long zoom lens, catching our future monarchs sunbathing.
Unsure of how to react, the majority of the British media have boiled over into a jingoistic fervour. To them it’s of little importance that Kate Middleton herself doesn’t want these pictures printed, but that she’s ours, our symbol and our princess, and magazines in other countries best respect that.
They’re missing the mark significantly. This isn’t about press freedom or the even her right to privacy. This is about millions of people feeling they have a right to ogle a young woman. Instead of standing up for her right not to have her body displayed cross nations, for all to see, most anger has been directed at foreign papers for daring to act our monarchy.
That most of our papers, from the Independent to the Mail, have headlines declaring that Prince William, is suing demonstrates yet another layer of this nationalistic, paternalistic outrage – her husband, must act to protect her body on her behalf. Why can’t she do the suing herself? It’s not like she’s got much else to fill her schedule with, after all.
More than Kate Middleton though, women, especially the young and famous, are told that their bodies aren’t their own. They belong to everyone else – photographers hunting them down, anyone with access to the internet who feels they have a right to comment on women’s appearances, media publications looking to make a quick buck.
Kate Middleton is not even allowed to direct the campaign to stop the spread of the photos, at least in the eyes of the nationalistic press. Even if she lucky enough to stop their being printed in any more magazines, in an internet age she’s got no chance at preventing anyone who wants a little stare, popping onto google and looking at her body without her knowledge or permission.
The royals have a right to privacy, that sadly, the continued existence of the hereditary monarchy denies them, and will continue to do so. We’ve seen not only the real tragedy of such inherited privilege – the denial of a normal life (though we mustn’t forget the extreme ease and extravagance of their lifestyle at our expense), but also that patriarchal society feels it has a right to gawp at and expose women’s bodies for its own amusement.