Home » Opinion | Kate Middleton’s Story Is About More Than Kate Middleton

Opinion | Kate Middleton’s Story Is About More Than Kate Middleton

by Marko Florentino
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“Where Is Kate Middleton?” yet another headline blared on Monday. The public speculation following her unspecified abdominal surgery, long withdrawal from appearances and dubious publicity photo has gotten so intense that reasonable people may want to roll their eyes and tune it out. Can’t we just wish her well and leave her alone?

But the frenzy around Catherine, Princess of Wales, raises important questions that go well beyond the usual concerns of royal watchers. Those questions stem from the extreme deference with which Catherine has previously been treated, in Britain at least, compared with the thrashing bestowed on her sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.

On the surface, the controversy over Catherine’s photo and her absence may have nothing to do with Meghan. The way it’s playing out, however — and the contrast with the way controversies about the duchess play out — are rooted in how we have been conditioned, by the monarchy and its allies, to think about the two of them. Their supposed rivalry has been manipulated for years now to generate nostalgia for social hierarchies of an idealized past.

“Bread and circuses” is how the Roman poet Juvenal described the strategy by which imperial Rome placated the masses with handouts and entertainment, often cruel, vicious spectacles involving death before cheering crowds. In modern Britain, royalty has played a similar role of entertainment and distraction — a role that persisted during the country’s post-Brexit decline.

Brexit came about by the narrowest of margins after an intense propaganda campaign whipped voters’ fears about foreigners ready to invade and despoil Britain. Similar themes are at work in the story line of a supposed rivalry between Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. That story, promoted in ways subtle and overt by the press as well as admirers of the Princess of Wales, casts Catherine as an “English rose” — beautiful, noble, white — and her biracial sister-in-law as a dangerous, trashy newcomer.

In January, when it was announced that Catherine had undergone surgery and would have an unusually lengthy hospital stay and recovery, the British press seemed to take the matter at face value. It repeated Kensington Palace’s vague news releases even though something out of the ordinary was clearly going on. When a paparazzi agency snapped a grainy photo of her in a car being driven by her mother, neither the quality newspapers nor any of the unabashedly aggressive tabloids ran the photos — “out of respect,” as one editor said in explaining his outlet’s decision, “for her privacy whilst she recovers.”

Compare that with the decision last month by Britain’s highest paid circulation newspaper, The Daily Mail, to publish “exclusive” paparazzi pictures of Meghan. A tiny figure, barely visible in the grainy image, she is described as “flashing a smile.”

“Meghan Markle beams as she drives near her $14M Montecito home — hours before Prince Harry returned home after 24 hours in London to see cancer-stricken King Charles,” the tabloid crowed, with the clear insinuation that she was materialistic and unmoved by her father-in-law’s health crisis as she lounged in California.

The double standard goes back many years.

Just a few months after the birth of Meghan and Harry’s first child — during which the couple was criticized for waiting a few days before releasing photos of their son and asking for more privacy — a columnist in The Sunday Times of London, derided her as “trying to smash the royal family’s contract with the public: We pay, they pose.”

But the onslaught has continued even after the duchess stopped working as a royal, and thus stopped getting paid. British tabloids now publish dozens of negative — and frankly, often unhinged — articles about her in a single day. The BBC estimated that, in one week in March 2021, there were more than 25,000 stories about her. The blitz continues to this day.

So the contract wasn’t “we pay, you pose” — it was that Meghan would never be left alone, no matter how she made a living. She had been thrown to the lions. The cheering crowds joined this frenzy of hatred from the stands, or as we call them in the 21st century, social media sites.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention. But I waded into the issue last year, to say that Harry was right that the British tabloids had invaded his and his wife’s privacy — and that such behavior had harmful consequences far beyond the royal family. The vitriol I encountered as a result, even as his claims have been vindicated in court numerous times, was shocking. On Reddit, there is a group of more than 60,000 people singularly dedicated to hatred of Meghan. And social media sites are full of claims that her children are dolls, or someone else’s and therefore a threat to the hereditary monarchy.

Catherine’s situation, by contrast, might never have been questioned had William, the Prince of Wales, not taken the highly unusual step of pulling out of a family memorial service at the last minute, with no explanation besides that it was a “personal matter.” Imagine if it had been Harry or Meghan with a last-minute cancellation — even at a birthday party for a classmate of one of their kids. I think the British press might have called for a full-on assault of the couple’s Montecito home.

Which brings us to a photo released by Kensington Palace on Sunday. The image, said to have been taken by the Prince of Wales, shows the princess looking happy and well in the company of her children. It quickly became clear, however, that the photograph had been crudely altered. Many news outlets and photo agencies pulled it. The palace refused to release the unaltered version.

The result: another blatant display of double standards.

The columnist Celia Walden had previously insisted that as a member of the royal family (which she referred to as “that corporation”), Meghan had no right to privacy. When the manipulation of the photograph was uncovered, Walden leaped to protect Catherine’s privacy. “The shameful speculation about the Princess of Wales’s health,” she wrote, “has to stop.”

Post-Brexit Britain has significant, substantive problems — problems that are far bigger than any controversy over a doctored photo of the Princess of Wales. And trapping women in constraining public roles, pitting them against one another and reducing them to symbols of virtue or vice is a powerful and politically expedient distraction. But it is harmful all around, and eventually, as the doctored photograph shows, it can backfire if accompanied by heavy-handed manipulation. Blatant coverups fuel conspiracy theories that may spiral out of anyone’s control, a social dynamic that applies to much more than a sordid tale of two princesses.

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