In an article published in the current issue of the London Review of Books, British author Hilary Mantel—two times winner of the Man Booker Prize--has written of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, as a machine-made princess, seamlessly suited to the role thrust upon her. The piece, which has unleashed strong, divisive opinions, including a critical one from British Prime Minister David Cameron, is searing and provocative for the uncomfortable questions it raises. The most important being: should adaptive women who willingly take on roles that land them in public scrutiny, without colouring them with their personal whimsy, be seen as machine-made? Should those who are defined only by what they wear be seen as idiotic? Does perfect dressing and thinness douse individualism?
“…the princess is a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore…,” writes Mantel. Comparing her with Marie Antoinette and Diana, the Princess of Wales, Mantel also said (she delivered the piece as a lecture two weeks ago) Middleton “was no gliding smiling disaster”. Further…“Kate Middleton appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindle of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished.” The Duchess “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 emergence of character.”
Harsh words. Also, because they sentence the easy-to-convert personality types minus quirks—which Middleton probably is—as inferior to venom-spewing champions of self. It is too lopsided a view coming from a nuanced author like Mantel, whose writings have warmed and worried us about the zillion personality variations inside the human race. Middleton’s lack of political or feminist aggression and her easy demeanour may make her seem out of step with women who accessorise their clothes with their fury and flaws but that doesn’t make her worse (or better) than Princess Diana, whose “human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in every gesture”. Mantel’s view suddenly makes women who go about their lives without Prozac, hysterical fits, emotional crimes and dangerous liaisons seem less likeable.
You don’t have to be a bored Brit to realize that being Prince William’s wife is a complex role, one fraught with enormous performance anxiety. Given that, Middleton’s has been the most effortless performance in its category we’ve seen so far. Yes, the Duchess could have taken a more vociferous personal stand when nude pictures from her private vacation were vicariously splashed last year, but to assume that she is a wilting violet just because she looks like a violet is too simplistic. A blank slate of a person is hardly machine made. “Seamless” suitability is a learned skill and Middleton seems to have mastered it. Besides, it takes time for masks, if any, to crack and fall apart; must we attack what’s not broken?
While one half of the planet continues to breathlessly battle for adopting a benign approach towards everyday existence, for pounding and packing away the ego, for seeing the larger picture even when you look into the mirror, and “practice” life as a short, fun trip, Mantel’s disregard for Middleton’s tabula rasa persona is really disheartening.
This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words.