By Donna-Marie Bohan
By now many people in Britain are aware of the 'Mantelpiece affair' which erupted in the media last week following double Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel's, comments about Kate Middleton in a lecture that she delivered at the British Museum. The speech itself appeared as an article in the London Review of Books and focuses on the portrayal of royal women throughout history and in the present day.
While the article provides an engaging and insightful commentary on the institution of the monarchy as a whole and the way in which royal women are manipulated by the media, the subsequent public response to the article is just as fascinating to analyse.
With the tabloid portrayal of Mantel as a jealous mouthpiece picking on the poor princess, the attention surrounding the author's comments soon cascaded into Fleet Street's version of a modern day witch hunt. The backlash against Mantel included the Daily Mail's review of the 'Royal Bodies' piece as a venomous attack on the Duchess of Cambridge as well as David Cameron's assertion that Mantel’s comments were "completely wrong" and misguided.
In spite of this defence of Middleton, other journalists and public figures have come to Mantel's defence. They argue that if people had bothered to read past the first 600 words of 'Royal Bodies' which includes the now infamous comments about Middleton as a "shop window mannequin with no personality of her own", they would soon learn that the 5,800 word lecture is not really about Kate. It is about Diana and all the royal women that preceded her. More importantly, it is about the way in which these women have been objectified by the press, the public and the royal family. Indeed, Mantel is quite right in astutely observing that monarchy and the press machine have reduced her to a plastic doll if daily reports on her dresses, hairstyles and baby bump are anything to go by.
Far from being a venomous attack on the person of Kate Middleton, the article reads as a sympathetic depiction of royal women trapped in a cage and suffering from the prurient fascination and licentiousness of our culture regarding women. It concludes with a call for restraint of the press on covering the royals in general.
How to be a Woman author, Caitlin Moran, wittily commented that "'Not understanding Hilary Mantel's critique of the media' is proving to be Twitter’s first Sorting Hat moment of 2013". The public furore surrounding Mantel, therefore, is a sad case of simply missing the point. Or is it?
Writers such as Sam Leith (The Guardian), for example, would contend that the obtuseness of the press in understanding the nature of Mantel's remarks is only pretence. In this manner, the tabloid construction of Mantel as older, uglier and barren in opposition to the thin, beautiful and blooming princess is perhaps a 'deliberate mischief' on the part of the media. In light of Mantel's remarks on Middleton, the press have seized on her words to paint a portrait of a woman driven by jealousy and to create a Snow White versus Ugly Godmother opposition. In this way, the press characteristically resorts to the familiar cultural narrative of the catfight.
Let's face it. We all enjoy a good bitch-slapping show down. Think Mean Girls or the media portrayal of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 American presidential elections. The cultural and political implication of the catfight is that while it provides entertainment for an audience it trivialises and dehumanises the women involved.
In addition, it further divides women from each other and prevents them from collectively challenging the male dominated status quo. Thus the projected image of Mantel as a bickering jealous schoolgirl serves to amuse readers and, in the process, renders her arguments petty and ineffectual.
Would the same reaction inflame if it had been two men involved? Hardly; the press were provided with the opening of exploiting the politics of a woman commenting on another woman. The media has in this instance capitalised on our culture's obsession with competition between women in order to discredit Mantel's ideas and distract us from what she is really saying. Ironically, the invented catfight surrounding Mantel’s comments makes Mantel a victim of what she critiques: the media's control of the representation of women. Therefore, the press response in this affair contributes further to containing women.
What has unfolded is a feminist debate in the form of two kinds of women; one who is seemingly mouthy and questions the status quo, Mantel, and one who remains quiet and acts the part she is taught to play, Middleton. In the true spirit of cat fighting we are prompted to ask ourselves: are we Team Mantel or Team Middleton?
The twenty first century crime that Hilary Mantel committed was daring to speak her own mind. It isn't a case that what she said about Kate Middleton is politically incorrect. It is a case that her commentary on two traditional instruments of patriarchy, the monarchy and the press, is considered politically incorrect and unacceptable.
Mantel dared to open up a familiar debate on female objectification in our culture and was publicly lambasted for this in the media. Thus it seems that we are still burning women at the stake for having an opinion.
Donna-Marie Bohan works in events and communications for the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO).
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.