SO HERE is the opening paragraph of glossy magazine Marie Claire’s story on the Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to an Action for Addiction centre in Clapham last week.
“Kate Middleton showed no sign of any distress over Hilary Mantel’s ‘plastic princess’ comments as she showed off her baby bump during an official outing yesterday,” it says, referring to the double Booker Prize winning author’s feminist critique on the way royal women are defined by their figures, their frocks and their fertility.
If you were being charitable; if you credited the writers of such puffery with even a scintilla of self-awareness, you might think they were trying to be witty, that they had carefully crafted a sentence which successfully captured in 26 words what it took Mantel a lengthy essay in the London Review Of Books to express. After all, it’s all in there: the plastic smile masking any hint of character or emotion and, of course, the royal swelling, the first visible sign of fertility and proof that all’s going well with the soon-to-be third in line to the throne.
Other publications, including the Daily Mail, which first stoked the controversy, went further, giving a description of Kate’s outfit, a grey MaxMara dress and a pair of drop pearl earrings, which seemed designed to validate Mantel’s assertion that she is a “jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”. Outside the centre, readers were informed, Kate chatted to wellwishers, who asked her whether she she was nervous about having her baby. “It would be unnatural if I wasn’t,” she answered. “Oh no, Kate’s not a woman reduced to her reproductive organs,” the article seemed to say, with a knowing wink. “Not At All”.
Back in the real world, however, there was no evidence such pieces were self-consciously ironic; unconcerned with issues such as the objectification of women, the Mail seemed oblivious to the fact that even as it fomented outrage against Mantel, it was proving her point, carrying no fewer than 11 photos of a woman with a mound so tiny it looked as if it could be cured with a dose of Actimel, along with a mini-feature on “how to dress your bump like Kate’s”.
Those who were criticising Mantel most vocally – the newspaper and the readers who flooded the author’s Twitter feed with insults – couldn’t have more than skimmed the LRB piece looking for more reasons to be offended. If they had taken more time to savour it, they would have discovered writing which was intelligent, thought-provoking and replete with arresting imagery. Yes, Mantel can be caustic, but boy, is she funny.
As the author of two books charting the fate of Anne Boleyn – a woman whose sole function was to provide a male heir – her thesis is that the history of royal wives is graphically gynaecological. Yet far from condemning Kate, she is asking us to treat her better; “to back off and not be brutes”.
Of course, a corollary of the society’s fascination with beautiful ciphers is its hatred of women with big, don’t-give-a-shit personalities like Mantel’s (particularly ones who won’t, or in Mantel’s case can’t, breed). Overweight, in-your-face-clever and unwilling to be pigeon-holed, the author possesses all the quirks, oddities and character the princess as yet lacks. No wonder the Daily Mail has been chipping away at her reputation ever since she won her second Booker Prize.
It would be bad enough if this negativity was confined to the pages of tabloid newspapers, but it is spreading like a contagion to other walks of life. So it was that David Cameron – an Oxford graduate – paused in the midst of a trade mission to India to express his solidarity with the duchess. He conceded Mantel was a great writer but said her comments on Kate were “misguided and wrong”. Not to be outdone in the hypocrisy stakes, Ed Miliband weighed in too, followed by Louise Mensch, who claimed to have read the whole piece in five minutes before pronouncing it “sexist, sneering nonsense”.
There are women too (ordinary women, not contrarians like Mensch) who see Mantel’s comments as a betrayal of the sisterhood. It can never be right, they maintain, for one woman to criticise another on the basis of physical appearance, but it’s not Kate’s face and figure per se Mantel is railing at, it’s the way she’s treated as public property to be bejewelled, ogled at and photographed. And with the news Kate has already been nominated as Foxy Celebrity Mum of the Year, it’s easy to see what she means when she says “a royal lady is a royal vagina”. At the same time, the revelation in the LRB piece that Mantel once sat behind a sofa during a Buckingham palace function was the justification for a sneering piece about her “weird behaviour”.
On the face of it, they may not seem to have much in common, Kate and Hilary, but they are but two sides of the same coin. One thin, one fat; one passive, one aggressive; one fertile, one barren; they are both constantly viewed through the lens of gender expectation. So now I’ll make the same plea for Mantel that Mantel made for Kate. Can’t we just let women – shop assistants or authors, princesses or proles – be who they are without worshipping them as idols or burning them as witches? Can’t we just back off and not be brutes? «