By Nisha Susan
When you marry into a family, often you have no idea what’s coming. But Meghan Markle is in the unusual position of just having to buy a few school-level textbooks. Markle and Kate Middleton can also look back at a long line of their female royal predecessors and see that it hasn’t been mostly laissez les bon temps rouler but mostly heads rolling. You don’t have to go all the way back to Anne Boleyn, though. Most recently, the two women India TV once called Kate ki asli saas (Diana Spencer) and Kate ki doosri saas (Camilla Parker Bowles) have had their varying shares of public misery.
One of the first things I thought when I heard of actor Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry was, “What is Hilary Mantle thinking now?” Double Booker-winner and all-round literary marvel, Mantle has grappled with the complications of women in the British royal family over and over again. In her 2005 novel Beyond Black, Diana makes an appearance as a cheerful and confused ghost. In the first two books of her Cromwell series Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the fascinating Anne Boleyn soars and crashes. In 2013, soon after her second Booker, Mantle gave a lecture at the British Museum about Anne Boleyn, the nature of monarchy and the media circus around Kate Middleton, and particularly her body. She said, “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.” In this and other ways, Mantle argues in favour of kindness to the “nicely brought up young woman” with the “dead eyes”, aka Middleton.
Mantle added, “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.”
I am not sure how to say that it was astonishingly brave of Mantle to make these remarks without sounding like I, in turn, am being bitchy to Mantle. So here it is — to be an overweight woman and call Kate Middleton too thin was to invite the guillotine. The Daily Mail immediately called Mantle venomous and vicious and reminded everyone that Mantle was infertile and “dreamt of being thin”. Mantle’s discussion of the latest version of Royal watch was pushed under the bus even by those with greater intellectual claims than The Daily Mail coz, you know, Mantle is a fatty. And this, as everyone who is not living under a rock knows, is what it is in this millennium to live in the public eye as a woman.
I wonder what Mantle makes of Meghan Markle, a thoroughly modern creature with biographical details that would have made her a royal no-no until even fairly recently. Her biographical and anatomical details have been simultaneously lauded by a section of observers and fans as a sign that the royals are getting woke-ish. What details? That Markle is American, Catholic, divorced, biracial and has a solid career. A career that she is reportedly quitting to be part of a household that costs $368 million a year, $48 million of which comes from the British government, an annual payment made to the Royals for nothing more than being already gloriously rich and well-dressed. It’s as if the nation of UK had figured out Instagram a few hundred years before everyone else and, having figured it out, continues to throw millions of pounds at it to retain a proto-Kardashian household to provide pageantry, fashion, anxiety, affection and rage. I mean, Instagram is free, Brits, you can still choose to exit (ahem) this arrangement.
Why is it considered all right to be particularly brutal to the young women of the British royal family? The British press has helpfully told its readers that Markle’s ancestors were slaves when her fiancé’s were kings and earls. It has retrieved astonishing anachronisms like ‘saucy divorcee’ to describe her. ‘Saucy divorcee’ was already dated back when the name ‘Hotmail’ made middle-aged Brits giggle. The media harassment escalated to a point that the Palace had to issue a statement claiming that “a line has been crossed” and the press should back off Markle. For its full impact, this statement should be read alongside what Harry said in a documentary made on the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death: “She’d had a severe head injury. Those that had caused the accident were then taking photographs. Instead of helping, [they] were taking photographs of her dying on the backseat. And then those photographs…made their way back to news desks in this country.”
It’s tough enough to be just about any kind of woman in the public eye, as one story about a husband-and-wife pair of reporters in The Washington Post demonstrated (short version: she got trolled, he didn’t). And it’s not like fame protects you from private assaults, as the Weinstein epic has taught us. The particular nature of their celebrity throws Middleton and Markle under the juggernaut of global rage and a profound lack of empathy.
When Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint and robbed in a Paris hotel last year, she faced heavy trolling, disbelief and online comments that wished she had been killed. Many of the celebrities who did offer Kardashian solidarity felt it necessary to remind the world that she was a wife and a mother of two. A year later Taylor Swift, sister suffragette, made a reference to the robbery in her new song ‘Look What You Made Me Do‘, also mocking her.
Middleton and Markle are likely to gain even less sympathy in a similar situation. In 2012, photographs of Middleton sunbathing topless in France were taken from nearly a kilometre away using special lenses and published in tabloids. I found myself in heated arguments with friends, even feminist friends, who felt that these are just rich people problems and Middleton deserved no sympathy. Are they really?
This week, American television journalist Matt Lauer was fired for serial sexual harassment and at least one complaint of sexual assault. Now we can draw lines connecting the dots between his alleged assaults to his edging out female colleagues to his giving Hilary Clinton a hard interview and Trump a soft one in 2016, all the way to his asking incredibly malicious questions to Anne Hathaway about paparazzi taking upskirt photos of her. The same logic that makes the royal women fair game made Anne Hathaway fair game back then. Even now, some would argue that Lauer’s sexism to Hilary Clinton more geopolitically significant, and hence more deserving of indignation, than his sexism to Anne Hathaway, aka frivolous Hollywood type, who shouldn’t feel bad about any public invasions of her body.
As Rebecca Onion points out in this post-Weinstein essay gloriously titled, We’ve Got the ’70s-Style Rage. Now We Need the ’70s-Style Feminist Social Analysis, most capitalist institutions are death to female ambition and encourage male domination. Which makes me think, aren’t the stories of Lauer’s systemic edging out of female colleagues as horrific as the stories of his sexual assault? As Onion writes, “Beyond creating a climate where harassment could thrive, capitalism reaped the benefits of this dynamic, since many women left male-dominated fields with higher-paying jobs for lower-paying positions in teaching, nursing, or social work where they would be less likely to have to deal with a harasser… Are men still taught to dominate, and to respect those who perform dominance? You betcha. And the behaviour continues to function as a check on women’s ambitions.”
Does Onion’s dose of feminist theory seem far away from our lives? Not so much. Just this week Scroll reported on economist Girija Borker’s study that has shown how women applicants often pick lower-ranked Delhi colleges if they are considered to be a ‘safer’ commute.
All this is to say that Middleton and Markle’s royal job is a jobless sort of job, like many jobs acquired through nepotism and family connections. But it’s not without some of the risks taken on by women in the public eye everywhere, and a tiny bit of the risks taken by a spectrum of working women. So a little kindness won’t hurt anyone. It isn’t as if they are going to stop bringing up the bodies, Markle’s, Middleton’s, yours or mine.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine