If you hadn't heard, there's a slightly enormous kerfuffle unfolding across the pond, after two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel called Duchess Kate Middleton a "shop-window mannequin" with a "perfect plastic smile" and no personality. That rumbling you hear is one million royal-obsessed biddies spit-taking their PG Tips all over the divan. Horrors! But she's so...nice! Only a monster would think critically about something NICE. Mantel's comments, of course, were actually just a small part of a much, much longer, extremely nuanced and measured speech about Anne Boleyn and the Queen and the weight and the weirdness of monarchy. But no matter. SHE'S OBVIOUSLY A JEALOUS BITCH.
Naturally, the Daily Mail seized on that detail to the exclusion of all else—stripping the context from Mantel's carefully considered and completely valid observations—and transformed it into a heartburn-inducing anti-intellectual circle-jerk like only the Daily Mail can. "UGLY OLD LADY HATE PRETTY PRINCESS," is essentially the gist. Great work, gang. Prime Minister David Cameron, without bothering to read Mantel's speech, declared it "completely misguided and completely wrong." No one seems bothered in the least by the fact that their method of defending the pretty, nice Duchess against allegations that her public persona consists of nothing but prettiness and niceness is simply to insist that she is pretty and nice alongside photos of her looking pretty and nice.
Fortunately for those of us with severe heartburn to tend to, Hadley Freeman at the Guardian has already said everything that needs to be said. You ought to go read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:
It is worth looking at what is going on here. Lazy journalism, clearly, and raging hypocrisy, obviously: what has any paper done with Kate for the past decade but use her as decorative page filler? Indeed, when the BBC covered Mantelgate (Mantelpiece?) it included lingering shots of the duchess's fair form while quoting in horror from Mantel's speech about the royal women existing to be admired. This is also a good example of how the Mail fights back when it feels it is being attacked. For if Mantel was attacking anyone in her talk, then her aim was clearly at the Mail with its obsessive, prurient fascination with Kate. To see the Mail gasping at Mantel's suggestion that the duchess is "designed to breed" when it has been on "bump watch" since she walked down the aisle is the Fleet Street reenactment of Captain Renault in Casablanca proclaiming himself to be "shocked to find gambling is going on here" while collecting his winnings. It then added helpfully that Mantel is "infertile" and "dreams of being thin". Yeah, no wonder she's jealous of our Kate, the fat childless cow.
But the liberal press has been arguably just as bad, with the Independent providing a kindly list, allowing readers to compare "the author and the princess", again emphasising Mantel's weight. The subject of women talking about women has become as fraught an issue for the left as it is for the right. The conservative press loves a good woman v woman – or "author v princess" – fight because it suggests that women are all hysterical girlies who can't be trusted with proper grownup issues because they'll start throwing tampons at one another. If, say, Martin Amis said anything vaguely similar to Mantel's comments about Kate, he would not have received anywhere near the same amount of publicity.
...Mantel was discussing how the royal family and the media manipulate women; it is of little surprise that the media would attack her back. But this nonsense highlights how it is still, apparently, impossible to be a woman and put forth a measured opinion about one of your own without it being twisted into some kind of screed-ish, unsisterly attack. As Mantel has learnt to her cost today, it's not only royal women who are expected to stay quiet.
I'd just like to add one thing, because I think this is a particularly salient example of perhaps the biggest problem with internet "discourse." You guys. Hello. NUANCE IS POSSIBLE. There are many, many shades of subtle feeling in between "glowing endorsement" and "frothing outrage." Sometimes when a person writes about something, they just kind of like it. Other times, they love it, but they recognize that it has some problems. Other other times, they're criticizing the framework that shapes the thing rather than blaming the thing itself. For instance, a writer can make fun of the weight loss industry's systematic crusade to cripple female self-esteem while still wanting to eat healthy foods. A writer can criticize the use of non-Western people as exotic props without calling for the death of the sexy boob industry. And Hilary Mantel can discuss the ways in which the modern monarchy capitalizes on Kate Middleton's sanitized humanity without "viciously" "attacking" the royals or, in fact, saying much of anything about Middleton at all. Any thinking person should be able to figure that out. Unless, of course, you'd prefer to let the Daily Mail do your thinking for you.
Discussion is not the same as criticism and criticism is not the same as condemnation. Discerning the difference is only a matter of actual reading. Let's do better.