Who'd be a princess?

Elizabeth II may be the last royal woman not to be subjected to rampant sexist scrutiny.

The Diamond Jubilee: it’s monarchist mentality gone mad, and there are many who, like us, have pointed out the absolute pointlessness of celebrating a hereditary right to loads and loads of dosh. As royal-loving holidays go, there are worse (when attempting to explain to a foreigner why we burn effigies of a militant protestor to usher in November, you realise just how terrifying tradition can be) but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge the more sinister subtext of marking Liz II’s sixty-year rule. Sure, she’s a little less bloodthirsty than Elizabeth I, but she still operates within that system of ‘good breeding’; of sexist ascension rules; of ascension rules, full stop; and of class inequality.

The existence of a royal family is, essentially, a logical no-brainer: it just shouldn’t exist in any supposedly enlightened society. We no longer live in a country that believes in the God-given right to wear a really camp crown, and even though a few archaic laws technically still stand, we hardly enshrine that right in politics any longer. There is literally no argument, apart from that heinous little ugly sod who keeps getting carted around by the right - ‘tradition’ - to keep the royal family in place.

Speaking disparagingly of Her Maj is still seen by many as ‘not done’. We acknowledge that anyone holding down a job for 60 years and doing that job with poise and professionalism is something to be admired. It’s just a shame that there was never an interview. There is a national affection for the Queen that is perhaps surprising - unlike her offspring, she has largely escaped censure by betraying few opinions during her sixty year reign. We suspect that this may well be her secret to avoiding large-scale massacre by tabloid: like all good women who came of age in the fifties, she is most often seen and not heard.

The problem is that no one takes the royal family seriously anymore - just check out Zoo magazine’s tasteful ‘Diamond Boobilee’ cover - and that is why they have to go. Only a few metres down the road from your straight-laced, cucumber-sandwich-filled street party, we can guarantee that you will find some twentysomething exhibitionist in a Union Jack mankini, suggestively licking frosting from the fruitcake off his fingers while balancing on a gaudy throne and proclaiming: ‘I’m the real Queen around here!’ Even if you don’t live in Brick Lane, you’ll definitely come across the Sex Pistols style bunting (or ‘cunting’, as it is termed) that has been selling just as well as its serious counterparts, draped across a table of slightly warm Strongbow and a load of enthusiastic hipsters in tea dresses. The monarchy in modern times, where heirs and heiresses like the venerable Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have cashed in on cashing in by celebrifying their heredity-given status, is little more than another sarky comment in the irony-laden mire of modern culture.

We should bear celebrity reporting in mind when we conduct our ironic celebrations over the rest of the bank holiday. Enough controversy surrounded the death of Princess Diana to let us know that the media had thought of her as fair game for borderline illegal harassment, yet now she is forever enshrined by amnesiac tabloids as the British Queen of Hearts. The enormous outpouring of grief at her death could indicate that we as a nation were sympathetic to her shoddy treatment, not only by her husband but also by the papers. In picking over the details of her divorce, her private life, her inner thoughts, perhaps those readers felt complicit.

Although the entire royal family are subjected to this to some degree, it’s always the young women who bear the brunt of it. Nowadays, the cult of Pippa Middleton, or P-Middy’s, rear end - whose Ass Appreciation Society has 241,220 likes on Facebook and counting, as well as a current admonition to enjoy ‘dat ass’ at the Jubilee celebrations - has been blown well out of proportion (no pun intended). Zara Phillips, meanwhile, became a national receptacle for crowing schadenfreude and faux sympathy following her husband’s tabloid antics, while Fergie and Sophie Wessex ‘married in’ and paid the price, and Eugenie and Beatrice couldn’t even have a Jaegerbomb at Fresher’s Week without some eager paparazzo ‘conveniently’ emerging, Stasi-like, from the men’s room with a pocket cam.

Kate Middleton has now been swallowed up by this media whale, which consumes her every movement with increasing fervour and subjects her to a dehumanising ‘baby countdown’ where the words ‘breeding’ and ‘pedigree’ are all too often applied. She is fashion icon, Stepford wife and, most importantly, womb-in-waiting. It’s impossible to know how long it will be before the adulation swerves to backlash, but the media treatment of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, following her ‘failure’ to provide an heir is not promising. We can only hope the Duchess escapes the same fate.

It is often said that every little girl dreams of being a princess. Feeding your little girl to the media’s increasingly dangerous machine, which currently churns out nothing but generic tits and female ‘emotional breakdowns’, backgrounded by male stoicism and at the worst mischievous laddishness, seems like a fate worse than death nowadays. If she does bear fruit, as international insistence dictates, how will Kate feel about throwing her young into this arena? We (the royal we) can only imagine.

Yet Elizabeth, despite being the first British monarch to have her image and her words beamed instantaneously across the globe, has, by some miracle, succeeded in escaping the usual hyping up of diets, love lives, fashion, and figures - everything that in these celebrity-driven times seems to signify womanhood. This is undoubtedly something of an achievement, and perhaps our one real reason to celebrate the Jubilee is that she has remained remarkably unscathed in the face of rampant sexist scrutiny. She may be the last royal woman who does.

Royal women: The Queen with Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Photo: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder