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The Furore Over Topless Photos of the Duchess of Cambridge Reveals the Persistence of Sexist Stereotypes

Posted on the 18 September 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
The furore over topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge reveals the persistence of sexist stereotypes The Duchess of Cambridge on her wedding day. Audrey Pilato.

Just when all the lefty, non-flag-waving republicans – myself included – thought it was safe to go outside again after a truly patriotic summer, a certain French gossip magazine had to go and publish those pictures. For the last few days every media outlet going, and especially the BBC, has been monopolised by the minutiae of this dull-as-ditchwater story. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I squirm every time I see an article fawning over the shininess of the Duchess’s hair (it’s impressive, I get it), or praising her (frankly middle-aged) dress choosing talents, but I can’t help but think that stories like the protests and riots currently sweeping the Muslim world are somehow more news-worthy than the existence of some topless photos, whoever the woman in question is.

Of course the Cambridges have the right to at least a basic level of privacy; all humans do, even celebrities. Kate should be able to try and get a nice all-over tan in a private place without snapshots commemorating the event turning up across Europe. The photos shouldn’t have been published, and doing so probably broke the law. This is like one of those arguments that starts to get silly when you realize that actually you’re in total agreement: 90 percent of us seem to think that the pictures are bad, so let’s stop talking about it.

90 percent of us seem to think that the pictures are bad, so let’s stop talking about it.

But the thing is the British public (and certainly the British media) don’t seem to want to stop talking about it. I could write about the way that comparatively trivial stories like this – see also London 2012, the Diamond Jubilee, Prince Harry’s naked hijinks and most of popular culture – distract from the very real problems that are facing our nation, as demonstrated by the recent spread of food banks across the nation. Yet whatever critique one might make, the fact is that lots of people remain interested in every move the Royal Couple make. Like it or lump it these stories exist, and probably will as long as we have a monarchy and a blood-thirsty tabloid culture. Still, I can and will take issue with the way that the coverage of this story seems to spread some extremely dubious (and predictable) messages about Kate’s femininity.

First off, I am not alone in being convinced that Kate Middleton is a pretty shoddy role model for young women. Tanya Gold of The Guardian reminded readers of her rather Victorian description of William as a “good teacher” back when the couple announced their engagement. As Gold notes, the Duchess “deserves criticism for her perfect interpretation of a surrendered wife,” and I’m surprised more women don’t look past the glossy façade to see the outdated and sexist role that lurks beneath. But it is not only her position as a seemingly adoring and passive wife that gets my goat, it is also the way this most recent story has been used to peddle the same prehistoric ideas about women.

One of the most striking elements of the British media’s coverage of the topless photographs has been the juxtaposition of the mildly titillating and tawdry subject matter with images of a discreetly dressed and smilingly dutiful Kate on a Jubilee tour of South-East Asia with her husband. The Sun’s initial coverage  is a perfect example, filled as it is with pictures of the couple’s visit to a Malaysian mosque, which saw Kate dress modestly (of course, that’s only appropriate) and in a virginal white gown (arguably not so necessary). What we have here is the timeless myth that casts all women as whores, virgins or some double-think combination of the two. When Tom Morgan of the The Sun wrote that Kate “innocently sunbathed topless” he spelt out this contradiction: she is both innocent and topless. We are invited to be horrified at this violation of her privacy, while also judging her for the original act. While the British media may have held some sort of moral high-ground in its refusal to publish the pictures, it has repeatedly described the content of the images in enough tantalizing detail to excite the reader while simultaneously celebrating Kate’s wholesome charms.

This story has, of course, prompted endless comparisons with Princess Diana. Those pictures of Kate donning at headscarf at the mosque are printed in The Daily Mail  next to some of Diana dressed very similarly in Egypt. The Royals themselves have made the most explicit comparison between the two, admonishing the European media for reminding the Royals of the “worst excesses of the Press and paparazzi during the life of Diana.” Diana was the foremost modern example of a woman who notoriously contained both light and dark: a saintly, beautiful mother and philanthropist, as well as an unstable bulimic and divorcee. I cannot help but wonder if this is the first opportunity for the media to begin to push Kate into the same uncomfortable box.

The Duchess of Cambridge is neither a saint nor a hussy. She is a flawed (and, in my opinion, generally uninteresting) human being. Women are people, not stereotypes, and unless we begin to treat those in the public eye as more rounded individuals the same damaging myths will persist.

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