I just returned from the U.K., where reporters and Union Jack-draped monarchists are camped out in front of St. Mary's Hospital awaiting the royal baby, which seems to be coming fashionably late. Poor Kate. Giving birth for the first time is terrifying enough without a cadre of helicopters flying past your window.
Hilary Mantel famously described Duchess Kate as "a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung," earning the ire of the tabloids and citizenry alike for her "sexist" remarks (the fat ugly crone must be jealous, they concluded, totally un-sexistly).
Substitute "rags" for "women's interest trend stories," I say. Ever since she came onto the scene a decade ago, Kate, a flesh-and-blood woman, has served as a human mannequin upon which to pin narratives about modern love, marriage, domesticity, and childrearing. By looking at the media's treatment of her, you can get a pretty good look at contemporary gender-related cultural fixations. Only they're not very contemporary at all.
When Kate first appeared as William's college girlfriend, people wondered, with the whispered faux concern of a high school frenemy, whether she was too thin. Also, what was the secret to her shiny hair?
Later, when she and William were dating but not yet engaged, the press speculated frantically about whether and when Wills would put a ring on it, dubbing Kate "Waity Katie" and spawning 1,001 stories about long courtships and ultimatums and whether modern women should expect diamonds or not.
At the same time, her rather short work history and her career ambition were scrutinized. Was she lazy? Traditional? If she didn't work, would she be setting women back? Would she describe herself as a feminist?
When the couple finally became engaged, we could discuss the benefits and drawbacks of waiting until your late 20s to marry. It was also a good opportunity to chirp about the cost of planning a wedding (so expensive!) and unroll the full catalog of pre-wedding diets (SoulCycle! Quicktrim! Caveman!).
When Kate and William had been married for a month, tabloids began humming with faux concern about fertility issues. Was Kate eating Brussels sprouts on her honeymoon because the folic acid helped increase pregnancy changes? Was she--here we go again--too thin to get pregnant? Had the couple been seen outside a fertility clinic? Would she consent to IVF? Should we consent to IVF?
There was the parsing of her domestic habits, which, according to Vanity Fair, ran to "cooking William's favorite supper, roast chicken" and making jam for Christmas presents. She even refused to hire a housekeeper, reportedly planning to do the chores herself (or "share" them with Prince William, as is the modern way), and was taking cooking lessons.
When the royal pregnancy was finally announced, a torrent of "is it OK to ____ while pregnant" stories flooded onto the scene. Play field hockey while pregnant? Drink tea while pregnant? Get a new puppy while pregnant?
Was waiting until your 30s to have babies becoming trendy? But was it also dangerous? Autism! Down Syndrome! Hyperemesis gravidarum, AKA "constant morning sickness," from which Kate suffered, is more common in older mothers, don't you know?
Was Kate's baby bump too small? Would she have a natural birth? Hypnobirth? If the baby is a boy, would she and Wills decide to circumcise (if they do, will it be, as a Telegraph opinion piece suggests, "an affront to decent human behavior"?).
But, most importantly, how long will it take her to get her "pre-baby body" back?
"The royal body exists to be looked at," wrote Mantel. But the same is true about the female body in general.
The scrutiny Kate undergoes on a large scale is the same scrutiny nearly all women experience on a smaller one. Are we too fat or too thin? Is our hair shiny enough? Are we marrying too young, or not young enough? Should we Botox, condition, Clomid, circumcise, vaccinate, exfoliate, co-sleep, Dukan diet, Lean In or Lean Out?
"Ordinary girls and women feel all too keenly the constant scrutiny we're put under and the impossibility of measuring up," writes Susan J. Douglas in Enlightened Sexism, her analysis of gender in contemporary media.
In her book How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran summarized the sentiments of British women toward the princess's lot:
Poor cow. Jesus Christ, does she know what she's let herself in for? A lifetime of scrutiny, bitching, pap-shots of her thighs, and speculation on her state of mind. Rather you than me, darling.
But it's not her rather than me. Sure, she may be the one in the tabloids. But the questions the press asks of her are meant for all women.