Leader: A caged princess, media hysteria and a culture of absurd deference

The Duchess of Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images

The most telling part of Hilary Mantel’s comments on the monarchy was not her descriptions of the former Kate Middleton’s appearance, although those were crafted with the precision we have come to expect of the Booker Prize-winner. Rather it was her description of the future of monarchy. “I think that question is rather like, should we have pandas or not?” she told the audience at her London Review of Books lecture. “Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren’t they interesting? Aren’t they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”

Ms Mantel captured the perversity of the British media’s – and the public’s – relationship with the royal family and the oddness of our continued deference to a set of people who occupy their position purely through birth or marriage. We love the royal family and hate it; most of all, we seem to need it, despite our rhetoric of democracy. Although we sneer at foreign dictators, decked in medals they did not earn, barely a whisper of republican sentiment is permitted in the public sphere.

Throughout the lecture, Ms Mantel returned to the idea that royalty’s greatest duty is to be seen. Although this is a burden on the Queen and Prince Charles, she said, the weight falls most heavily on the younger women of the royal family. Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, is photographed topless. Princess Beatrice is pictured on the beach in an unflattering bikini; she promptly loses several stone in weight and is embraced again by columnists. Even Zara Phillips, whose mother refused her a title in the hope that she could escape the gilded cage, made the front pages when she had her tongue pierced as a teenager.

As with all of these women – and Diana before her – the Duchess of Cambridge’s body is public property. Since she began her relationship with Prince William, the questions have been constant. Is she too thin? Are her clothes too expensive – showing her profligacy – or too cheap or recycled, showing disdain for her adoring public? Most of all, is she pregnant yet?

The duchess is by no means alone in being discussed in such terms. We appear to have an insatiable appetite for praising or denigrating women’s appearance and life choices. The same newspapers now castigating Ms Mantel for cruelty have spent years profiting from the most minute scrutiny of celebrities and their changing bodies. They also know the commercial value of a “catfight”, in which two women can be pitted against each other and the audience is invited to take sides. Some will argue that any discussion of the Duchess of Cambridge is trivial. Yet that is wrong on two counts. First, she is our future queen. She has a lifetime of dinners with politicians and handshakes with dictators to look forward to on our behalf. Absurdly, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband proffered their opinion on the row: the former said that “Prin - cess Kate” was “bright” and “engaging”, while Mr Miliband trilled: “Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job in a difficult role.”

Second, the episode demonstrated the regressive standards by which we still judge women. The duchess is one of the most photographed people in Britain; her face has launched a thousand newspaper front pages. Yet she is, as Ms Mantel noted, valuable to the country most for her ability to produce a future monarch. We value her body – particularly her womb –more than her brain.

The Daily Mail’s front page described Ms Mantel’s words as a “venomous attack”. If the author did launch a venomous attack on anyone, it was on the excesses of the press and on us for devouring them so eagerly. “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes,” she said. We have failed.