(Illustration by Tom Tian, AB’10)

The princess and the brain

Into the fray over Hilary Mantel’s comments about Kate Middleton.

On February 4, at London’s British Museum, acclaimed novelist Hilary Mantel gave a speech, “Undressing Anne Boleyn,” on a topic generally reserved for less august circumstances: the bodies of British royals. Mantel—author of the 2012 historical novel Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) and many more—offered criticism of these bodies. Not criticism as in, do we detect a hint of cellulite in that countess’s bikini photo? but cultural criticism. Mantel’s speech jumped from historical figures (Henry VIII and his wives) to modern-day royalty, including Kate née Middleton. Yes, she went there.

The London Review of Books, which runs the lecture series, posted a transcript, and soon enough, the Internet exploded with outrage. The lower-brow Daily Mail came gallantly or perhaps nationalistically to Middleton’s defense. Meanwhile, the higher-brow Guardian, as well as the New Yorker, stepped in with more sophisticated responses that highlighted Mantel’s broader argument. Mantel’s snark, they countered, was not directed at Middleton, as the tabloids would have it. It was aimed at a culture that insists Middleton look and act a certain way.

What did Mantel say that was so provocative? She referred to Middleton as “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” and “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.” Out of context, Mantel seemed to be calling Middleton an insipid woman. The lowbrow contingent may have ignored the context, but it is not entirely clear that contextualization absolved Mantel of nastiness. These are not kind things to say about anyone, no matter what you think of royalty, or of the life choice that is marrying a prince. Not, of course, that this excuses the implication that Mantel herself is just jealous because she isn’t a pretty, pretty princess.

But was Mantel critiquing the demands placed on Middleton, as per the highbrow reading, or Middleton herself? One sentence in particular—“Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character”—suggests the tabloids weren’t so far off.

Mantel was making assertions about Middleton’s inner life. This is like saying that one would not want to be friends with an actress on account of a dull character she plays on a sitcom. What got to me about the speech—in context—was the way Mantel discussed Middleton as if she were already a historical figure, not a person who no doubt has the intellect needed to get through sentences of highbrow but not all that dense prose. A public figure, yes, but a still-living one. Mantel seemed to insist that Middleton reveal some quirks, if not some burgeoning feminist qualms about her role. She appeared to want Middleton to be miserable, and dug for evidence of this misery, coming up with the recent (and notoriously unflattering) official portrait of the princess, in which, claimed Mantel, “her eyes are dead and she wears the strained smile of a woman who really wants to tell the painter to bugger off.”

I’m not convinced. Middleton could have gone with a private life of relative privilege, but opted for the life she’s got. She chose to act in a perma-performance of “princess,” artificially grooming herself and monitoring her physique for the role. Or that’s just who she is—svelte, shiny haired, and on an especially even keel. Regardless, it doesn’t seem necessary to imagine that there’s a human-rights lawyer or some such locked inside Kate Middleton, screaming to get out.

I wanted to side with Mantel on this. My professional aspirations are more Mantel than Middleton. And, on a less personal note, Mantel can write. But … I’m not really (as New York magazine put it) “team” anybody here. If you read the speech as a whole, you see that the insults are not quite the ones the Daily Mail imagined, but they’re there.

“Princess” is, these days, a derogatory word for a woman. A princess is a woman who is ungrateful to feminist accomplishments that permit her to make her own way in the world, one who instead chooses to live off the men in her life—a father, a husband, or a bunch of rich dates. She has the class privilege to do anything, but lacks the ambition to get further than the nail salon. So a woman who goes and becomes a real princess is, in this day and age, a bit baffling.

But what’s to be gained by pointing at Kate Middleton and asking why she isn’t more self-actualizing, more audibly opinionated? Do we need to pretend that feminism means all women are professionally ambitious? Are all men? And are we even sure she’s not ambitious? Her husband came with a job, and the job is not to serve her husband but to be a royal. And what an odd job it is. She’s rich, but not fun rich, which as I imagine it means jetting off to Tokyo on a whim. I really don’t think we need to concern ourselves with the possibility that Mantel envies Middleton.

A “princess” may lack agency, but a princess—a woman who hangs around and persists and then marries a prince—perhaps set out to do so. Middleton was not born a princess, nor do we have any reason to believe she was requested against her will to become one. The ones born into it we may pity, or the ones married into it very young, but Middleton? We don’t need to find becoming a princess the noblest (pun intended) of goals; we don’t need to say that because she has agency, she’s a feminist role model. But we need not pity her, as if she were some random woman plucked by the media for overanalysis, whose womb had been somehow unilaterally demanded by the Windsors. The point here isn’t to celebrate Middleton’s choice, but to respect that she presumably made one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, AB’05, is a writer and a doctoral candidate in French and French studies at New York University. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic online, the Jewish Quarterly, Doublethink Magazine, and other publications. She interned at the University of Chicago Magazine as an undergraduate. Her blog, What Would Phoebe Do, began as an extension of her Chicago Maroon column of the same name. A version of this essay originally appeared on The Beheld, a blog run by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano and hosted by the New Inquiry.