Thursday, 21 February 2013

Mantel Gets Flak For Bringing Up Royal Bodies

Multi-book-award-winner Hilary Mantel riled up passions with a Nile-long essay on how some of us see royal women, with examples such as Marie Antoinette, Lady Di, and Queen Elizabeth II. But it was what she wrote about Kate Middleton that twanged some nerves. The 5,000-plus-word piece became an 'attack on Kate' that many, including England's PM Dave Cameron, took offence with.

Many arguments defending Mantel have since surfaced, so it's pointless for me to comment in detail. So I'm left to ponder: Were the descriptions of royal women Mantel's own, or did she describe an image manufactured by the media for public consumption? Two voices, both in The Guardian, believe it's the latter.

"Tabloid papers – actually, all papers if we're honest – deal in templates and received ideas: in pretty princesses, snooty highbrow authors, smirking fiends and tragic tots," writes Sam Leith. "It's in the nature of that trade, though, that you can't write about the templates and received ideas themselves. That is a level of reflexiveness, a level of self-scrutiny, too far. Mantel was attacking the paper doll in which newspapers have imprisoned the real Kate Middleton."

So, it's no surprise that the papers fought back. That, at least, is Hadley Freeman's argument, that this whole media storm is "a story of lazy journalism and raging hypocrisy".

"Mantel was discussing how the royal family and the media manipulate women; it is of little surprise that the media would attack her back," she states. "But this nonsense highlights how it is still, apparently, impossible to be a woman and put forth a measured opinion about one of your own without it being twisted into some kind of screed-ish, unsisterly attack."

For many, the problem with Mantel's essay was probably its length; had 2,500 words been shaved from it, readers would've been able to reach the bottom, where she finally got to the point:

We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs. Adulation can swing to persecution, within hours, within the same press report: this is what happened to Prince Harry recently.

...It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago.

She didn't have to spell it out, did she? However, it seems like little has changed since then.

I haven't been fond of the British media of late. How it justifies its muckraking and disregard for private space is beyond galling, which means we probably shouldn't expect any soul-searching from Fleet Street.

Give the way Mantel worded it, her prescription for detoxifying the way the media portrays royalty - or other celebrities, for that matter - may be a bitter pill to swallow.


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