When Prince George was born, the satirical magazine Private Eye attempted to throw a welcome bucket of cold water over the florid, gushing press coverage that followed with a banner headline unfurnished by pictures: “Woman Has Baby.”
The cover would turn out to be a lone, sane beacon. Another day of the Royal tour Down Under, another 20 pictures of the same stunned, chubby-cheeked infant’s face. Here is Prince George, with his parents Prince William and Kate Middleton in Australia, being carried by his mother down the steps of a plane looking like, well, a baby. And here he is being presented with a cuddly toy wombat, yes, still looking like a baby. And yes, remember his crawl-about at a New Zealand playgroup, meeting other crawling babies (one the child of gay parents, stop the clocks) in a romper suit, and yes, he’s still looking like a baby.
What one says to this—the new images landing relentlessly on websites, including this one, with editorials gurgling just as much as their infant subject—is pretty much the same as one says when excited new parents show you pictures of their baby: “Oh my goodness, yes Prince George looks sweet,” because he does, and it’s lovely, but that’s that. Yet still the pictures come, and you feel obliged to change your joyful facial expression as you struggle for anything to say about a chubby-cheeked baby, beyond, “Yep. Aww. Great.”
The media has gone mad. The poor kid is only 9 months old, he only has one look—that of British World War II Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who himself recognized this: “All babies look like me. But then, I look like all babies.”
Prince George has that surprised, about-to-pass-wind look all babies being carried around have. But apparently there are scoops of great magnitude to be gleaned from these repetitive pictures. As one tabloid glossy wrote of his New Zealand playgroup appearance: “He looked really happy and was kicking his legs,’ an onlooker tells Us Weekly, noting that he was especially enthralled by the toys. (He grabbed a purple tambourine first.)”
Today, the Daily Mail felt able to extrapolate from a picture of Prince George, pictured being held by his nanny for the first time that he was “missing his mummy,” and “less than impressed.”
This was followed by a series of mini-headlines, which included the following earth-shattering revelations: “The infant looked sleepy after three-hour flight from Auckland”; “Was then carried to awaiting car by nanny Maria Teresa Turrion Borrallo”; “Kate is usually seen clutching onto her newborn”; “Kate and William detoured via Opera House while George remained in car; “Trio reunited at Admirality House, where George was given stuffed toy.”
Our fetishization of Prince George has reached a bizarre fever pitch. Australian breakfast television hailed him “Prince George, the Republican Slayer” after a Fairfax-Nielsen poll found that support for a republic had dropped to its lowest level in 30 years: 51 percent of Australians believe the switch to a republic is unnecessary; only 42 percent are in favor of a republic.
It’s doubtful this is solely due to the gurgling infant, but what the headline obscures is the very deliberate move to not only bring Prince George on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour, but also schedule a series of choreographed public appearances for him. The British Commonwealth is shrinking, and anything to shore up the numbers—which is what these flag-waving Royal tours are all about—is welcome. Pretty baby and attractive young parents equals double score.
The emphasis on Prince George corresponds with very deliberate maneuvering on Buckingham Palace’s part, revealed in the documentary Our Queen, which is now focused on something significant, yet cryptically and indefinably known as “the future.” This “future,” the program advanced, was made clear by the presence, on the Buckingham Palace balcony during her Diamond Jubilee, of the Queen alongside not all her children and grandchildren, but instead just Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, William, Kate, and Prince Harry. The core group. The immediate heirs. The box office.
The sudden Prince George Baby Fever is not unplanned, but part of a stealthy game of risk being conducted by the Royals themselves. They want to retain their privacy, while keeping the brand fresh. Of the calculations made by Palace chiefs about the little chap’s carefully controlled public appearances, they know a cute, podgy infant plus attractive young parents is a public relations winner, even though his parents desire to keep the media at greater than arm’s length. Moderate hysteria is welcome, hysteria kept in respectful check.
Still, if they require a kind of balance, the Duke and Duchess can be pleased that at least the latest polls suggest the British public are keener for the crown to pass to Charles (53 percent) after the Queen’s death than straight to William (31 percent). Their hope that this means the spotlight stays off them, however, will be futile: Brutally put, the papers prefer them to Charles.
Despite needing to keep Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand on side with the ideal of continued Royal patronage, it is odd that George’s parents have decided to dedicate so much public appearance time to their son when in Britain he has been sighted very little.
What such tours show most surreally is that both mother and baby share a silent, symbolic, decorative role. Kate speaks rarely, smiles, and wears pretty clothes which—if they are off-the-rack—then sell out. The same happened for George—who not only doesn’t speak, he cannot speak—and his Rachel Riley romper-suit. Now the same magazines who praise the Duchess’ suits and evening gowns are as exhaustingly excitable about his babywear.
For all we are told about a “modern monarchy” the Duchess is—now—a very old-fashioned template of the silent, fantasy princess. When the writer Hilary Mantel wrote an illuminating essay about the strange mechanics and history behind this, she was rounded upon viciously.
Without the Duchess’s words, without her voice, the media maps thoughts and words on to her: In Australia and New Zealand the public at royal walkabouts are more effective reporters than journalists because the Royals talk to them. In the space of two weeks we’ve had pregnancy rumors because the Duchess didn’t drink alcohol at one event, then pregnancy rumors dismissed because she had some wine somewhere else.
Now, as seen in the amount of hyperbole devoted to him during the New Zealand and Australia tour, we can expect the same speculative journalism devoted to Prince George. You just know the tabloids can barely contain their excitement for the first in-public Royal baby tantrum, and what that means about his temperament and the parenting he’s getting. Later on, what if he stays chubby? What if he’s skinny? What if he has lots of hair? No hair? A bald patch? There will be pictures comparing him as an adult to now. No one can envy him these relentless, inevitable headlines, and worse for us, we will have to read the ever-larger mountains of tosh about it.