The Princess Myth

06.04.14

If Kate Middleton’s Butt Could Speak: It’s Time Royal Princesses Led Visible, Voluble Public Lives

Royal families, and the public, seem to want young royal women to be decorative and on-message — we obsess about wardrobe malfunctions, not their words. Let Kate and Letizia speak, and fulfill passionate public roles.

The relief, indeed fevered anticipation, of the world’s media is palpable. Sensible Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and Brit Queen-in-waiting, she of the straight hair and sensible clothes and the wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose sunny smile, has some competition on the Euro-royalty beauty circuit. Enter the soon-to-be Queen Letizia of Spain.

First thought of editors: There’s more than one good-looking princess around. No more waiting to see if a minder can really protect Kate from another accidental bum-reveal. Hot double Princess picture bonanza, which means…

Second thought of editors: Catfight!

There’s nothing the media likes more than women fighting one another, particularly if the media can dictate the terms of that fight because those involved are royal and rarely stirred to comment. Without words, royalty, even royal bums, become symbols. Without commanding, distinguishing words from their mouths, the narrative can be wholly invented for Kate and Letizia. And the pictures will always rock, so let’s frock on. Wey-hey, it’s The Voice, with tiaras! Prepare, then, for the Kate vs Letizia storyline: It will go on for years, and it will be mostly about clothes, weight gain, baby bumps, weight loss, and pixellated interrogations of possible wrinkles when they dare to age. If I were either of them, I’d be lining up the therapists and happy pills now.

The future Queen Letizia of Spain has been called “Kate 2.0”, because obviously any Royal princess following Middleton is literally of a mould like a Stepford robot. She is a “onetime divorcee (pass the smelling salts). She was a journalist. She may have had an abortion. She wears more daring dresses than the Brit when it comes to formal functions, right down to strapless red dresses and, gasp, leather trousers. If Kate Middleton wore leather trousers, what would happen? Big Ben would stop chiming.

Both have had the oddly airless sobriquet of being “a style icon” endowed upon them, on the strength of being very thin and looking nice in pretty clothes probably tailored for them. But they’re not Daphne Guinness, Dame Vivienne Westwood, or Isabella Blow.  

Still, those awaiting glamorous dress-up, skirt malfunctions, and unpredictable stray strands of hair, if say there is, like, wind, are in for double the fun with the sudden emergence on the scene of Letizia. “Move over Kate” begins more than one story about Letizia.

In the Sydney Morning Herald we are told of Letizia’s journalism career: “The Princess reported on the presidential election from Washington DC in 2000, and received an award the same year for most accomplished journalist under 30. She also reported from ground zero, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York.”

But examples of her journalism, or what she was like as a journalist, or her career more generally, are not featured; but rather gallery upon gallery of her fashion looks.

“Her style is often daring and we can be sure she will dress nothing like the Queen of England,” we are told. Restrain yourselves, but she also wears “animal print.” I know, a royal in animal print. On a princess. What next? Last year’s flip-flops?

Meanwhile, at NBC.com—“Move over Duchess Kate, there's a new chic royal hitting the spotlight”—the two women are put in a direct fashion head-to-head death match, and praised for both being able to wear lace and take “maternity wear to a whole other level.”

In this “royal face-off: Spain’s Princess Letizia vs. Duchess Kate,” it sounds pretty nasty already. “Is Kate checking out her competition, or admiring another leather jacket?” one picture-combo of the two particularly asininely states, as the two women aren’t at the same event.

“Here's to some fierce royal competition!” the article concludes, because obviously Kate and Letizia have to be engaged in relentless sartorial combat. The media imagines them already in their ornately appointed dressing rooms, raging, “She wore the lace shift. Now I have to wear the floral wraparound. I wanted to go above the knee today. Damn her!”

But what if, what if, also in those same dressing rooms, the two women were contemplating a life beyond decoration, and their closets of questionable size-zero delights?

It would be unfair to say both do not speak. They are not mute. But their charities are safely channeled around children’s rights and education, activity and disability. Their speeches are prepared. They must not go off-message. They are fashion plates, birthing machines, and yet they are both young women and it’s their institutionalized pliability that sets such a rotten example for young women looking at them—fighting, silently, fashion plate against fashion plate—in magazines. Covering the gust of wind which exposed the Duchess’ cheeks was as near to body-shaming, and overtly sexualizing—that classic one-two—the Duchess as the media can get.

“If Diana's example can teach Kate and Letizia anything, it is the power of having one’s own voice, and of harnessing an institution’s power and status for one’s own activism.”

If the old cliché that every young girl grows up wanting to be a princess is true, what do these two princesses show young girls to emulate? That they should be silent, smiling adjuncts, endlessly smiling actually, prettily attired, doe-eyed and supportive, and to do as they are told. And, of course, to have babies. These two women are assembly-line workers in the ultimate factory of patriarchy.

We see no evidence of independent agency or thought in the Duchess of Cambridge, particularly. This is not to criticize her: being a Royal, or a member of “the Firm” as it’s known, is as patrolled and controlled as it is cosseted. To what extent she is trapped in an eternal royal trope or willing participant is only something she knows.

But even that other haven of princesses, Disney, has gotten with the program of late, in films like Frozen, where the heroine has the adventure, shows bravery, gets things done, has a voice (what a voice) and where, as the New York Times’ Stephen Holden put it, while love saves the day, it is sisterly love that is in the film’s foreground, rather than romantic.

In the UK, the writer Hilary Mantel was pilloried when she pointed out the suffocating role the Duchess of Cambridge had—Mantel’s critics wrongly perceiving a piece she wrote and lecture she gave as an attack on the Duchess, rather than on the system that created such restrictive roles for women to fulfill.

The Queen, all silent, all commanding, is the impressive symbolic apogee of this uncompromising mute sense of duty, but—impressive and awe-inspiring as she is—that model of removed royalty simply cannot sustain itself.

Diana, Princess of Wales, showed how to carve out a distinctive, brave public role early in her marriage around HIV and AIDS, when such issues were far from the glittery red ribbon celeb-fests that they are today. She went onto wards and hugged AIDS patients at a time when the public was suspicious of touching them. After her marriage, land mines became her famous, controversial focus.

Her charisma was too much, too overshadowing for the Royal model as it exists even now. Even after she left its barbed bosom, it did its best to further excommunicate and sideline her. The Diana model is deemed dangerous. Not for nothing did the Queen bow before Diana’s coffin. As it turned out, the Royals needed her, more than she needed them. The monarch, the consummate PR, the head of the nation, had been supremely outplayed on her home territory.

If Diana’s example can teach Kate and Letizia anything, it’s the power of having one’s own voice, the thrilling subversion and effect of using it, of harnessing an institution’s power and status for one’s own activism. For making a stand. Striking out.   

But Diana died, and her sons—understandably, given the ruthless focus on her—innately distrust the media. Perhaps William’s admirable instinct is to protect his wife. The Royals seem more separate than ever, while—with public tours, and photo opportunities—offering an image of greater accessibility. But nothing has changed for the Queens-in-waiting. Duty, both biological and social, is as proscribed as it always was. All Kate and Letizia are left with are carefully curated good causes and perfect hemlines, hand-shaking, polite speeches, healthy larks, and gratefully bending down to receive posies from shy children, mindful of those damn, potentially ass-exposing gusts of wind.

These two women, glossily maintained as they appear, are trapped: lionized or criticized for what they wear, and for anything remotely controversial they may say. The institutions they live within, and the media watching them, have them thoroughly controlled and monitored. Their challenge is to find purpose and a voice, beyond being the well-behaved baubles expected of them.

One hopes that little girls look at these Queens-in-waiting, straight past their shimmering dresses and palaces and dashing princes, to their willed silence and compliance, their grinding duty of playing safe behind imprisoning palace walls and think: No, thanks.