On why the dice are loaded against women in public life
If they enter public life, women can expect a type of intense (and contradictory) scrutiny that is rarely applied to their male counterparts. If they are relatively young and conventionally attractive, such women will tend to be written off as lightweights – yet if they’re older and obviously competent, doubts will then tend to be raised about their “electability” and whether they are “warm” and “likeable” enough to connect with voters. Too conventionally feminine or not conventionally feminine enough? Too cold and too cerebral, or too warm and flighty to be seriously considered for high public office? For women in the public spotlight, the Goldilocks moments (when things are just right) are few and far between.
The examples are familiar, and recent. At the outset, Jacinda Ardern was written off by her critics as a show pony until she got taken seriously as a leader of international stature, at which point the ‘Turn Ardern’ campaign claimed that - what with her international gallivanting - she wasn’t really spending enough time back at home in New Zealand tending to her domestic duties. For women, that’s a familiar criticism. Neglecting hearth and home to selfishly pursue their own career satisfactions? Failing to carry out the serious (male) tasks of projecting New Zealand’s interests abroad – and if they succeed in that task, are they then giddily spending too much time in the international spotlight? Safe to say, such accusations were never an issue for John Key, whose nine years in office were of no interest whatsoever to the outside world.
On the too cold “likeability” index, Helen Clark remains the classic example of a female politician whose competence was seen to be alienating, and was held against her. At base, the unsubtle subtext of Helengrad was that she was too bossy, and not a real women (that voice !) much as Elizabeth Warren’s very similar set of abilities is being seen as problematic today. Warren’s “electability” problem is seen to be a factor ( too cold, too cerebral) working against her gaining the Democratic nomination for the US 2020 election. During the latest debate between the Democratic contenders, Warren finally took the “electability” issue head on, by pointing out in exasperation that the only people on stage who had won every election they’d competed in over the past 30 years were the two women candidates: the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and herself :
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at
the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10
elections. The only people on this stage who have won every
single election that they've been in are the women - Amy and
me,” she said….
“And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
Unfortunately, not many Americans will thank her for pointing that out. Who does she think she is?
Burying the Wisteria
The drama being played out within the Royal Family is, of course, another example of the process I’m describing. For every female hero, there (apparently) needs to be a female scapegoat. Thus, the demonization of Meghan Markle has been made possible only by the canonisation of Kate Middleton. That’s how the process works. The public is being virtually implored to pick sides, as if these binaries are not only inevitable, but cannot possibly be bridged. It has to be either Team Kate or Team Meghan, home or career, dutiful service or arrant selfishness.
As Helen Lewis pointed out recently in an insightful piece in the Atlantic Monthly, the architecture of misogyny rests upon just these sort of binaries. Any praise for one duchess has to be construed as negative commentary on the other. To be pro-Meghan is to be anti-Kate, and vice versa. All part of a broader trend, Lewis says, where political discussions morph into something closer to battles between fandoms.
In order to better enable the denigration of Markle, some extensive rewriting of the history of the media coverage of the Duchess of Cambridge has been necessary :
Where Kate Middleton was once depicted as a dull social climber, she is now presented as the epitome of female virtue: a respectable, silent, discreet, and selfless mother. Meghan must therefore be her opposite—a political, manipulative, “woke” careerist. Essentially, the two duchesses have been assigned to opposite sides of the culture war….
Kate is held up as an icon for traditionalists, metaphorically baking cookies…while Meghan has become the emblem of modern womanhood, outspoken and socially progressive. Never mind that they might just be following their own personalities and interests; they have become representatives of two distinct political positions. By carving up the messiness of female lives into a stark binary, the choices open to all women—not just Meghan and Kate—are limited.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, it isn’t :
Women’s lives provide a particularly vivid arena for the clash between traditionalism and modernity because we love to interpret women’s choices as commentary on other women’s choices. The Meghan-versus-Kate clash has echoes of the “Mommy Wars,” the feminist shorthand for how every decision made by a mother is interpreted as a rebuke to other mothers who choose differently—breast- versus bottle-feeding, C-section versus “natural birth,” stay-at-home mother versus “supermom.” (It is notable that Prince William and Prince Harry, despite their own different temperaments and approaches, are not being turned into cultural avatars in the same way.)
Harry, of course, has had to be assigned a different stereotype. Namely, as the dim-witted and henpecked tool and victim of his wife’s incessant scheming. True, the strong motive he has for protecting his family (from the kind of media intrusions that contributed directly to the death of his mother) does get mentioned in passing - but not sufficiently as to disturb the Manipulative Meghan narrative :
Tabloid headlines about [Kate] have become noticeably kinder since Prince Harry’s relationship with Meghan was announced. She was once deemed vulgar and hopelessly bourgeois, a schemer who chose to study at the University of St Andrews in Scotland precisely to ensnare Prince William. She and her younger sibling Pippa were the “wisteria sisters”—“highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb.”
How times change. Kate is now the woman against whom Meghan is judged and found wanting. “Of all the pictures published in this tumultuous week for the Royal Family, one stood out for me,” the Daily Mail’s Amanda Platell wrote on January 10. “It was of a smiling mother-of-three in jeans and a jumper … No tears or tantrums here, just a woman happy with her lot and who understands how to behave as a royal.” (Platell, like many other columnists in British right-wing newspapers, is a recent convert to Katemania, having previously condemned her “wardrobe malfunctions,” long hair, approach to parenting, and flight-attendant mother.)
What is surprising – at least to someone in New Zealand not consuming the British tabloids on a daily basis – is how systematic this process has been. In an interesting piece of journalistic archeology, Buzzfeed has found some 20 examples where the Duchess of Cambridge was lavishly praised and the Duchess of Sussex seriously denigrated by the tabloids, for exactly the same behaviours:
For example, on pregnancy :
Kate: "Bumping along nicely! The Duchess was seen placing a protective hand on her tummy as she exited the event." Daily Mail: March 22, 2018
Meghan: "Personally, I find the cradling a bit like those signs in the back of cars: Baby on Board. Virtue signalling, as though the rest of us barren harridans deserve to burn alive in our cars." Daily Mail: Jan. 26, 2019
On consuming avocado:
Kate and William: "Prince William was given one of the green fruit – wrapped up in a bow – by a little boy who's mother is suffering during her pregnancy too... 'He said he'd take it to [Kate] and see what happens – and said good luck for [the boy's] mummy.'" Express: Sept. 14, 2017
Meghan: "The pregnant Duchess of Sussex and so-called 'avocado on toast whisperer' is wolfing down a fruit linked to water shortages, illegal deforestation and all round general environmental devastation." Express: Jan. 23, 2019
On visiting/not visiting the Queen:
Kate: "Royal sources said yesterday that the Queen understood and endorsed William and Kate’s decision not to spend Christmas Day with her. One said: ‘Her Majesty understands that it is a dilemma that many young couples face and acknowledges how close Catherine’s relationship is with her family." Daily Mail: Dec. 16, 2016
Meghan: "The fact is the Queen expects to have the family around her for the festive season... to the Queen, for whom the tradition of the family gathering is a key date in her calendar, Harry and Meghan’s absence will be a matter of great sadness. It will also be a source of frustration." Daily Mail: Nov. 13, 2019
Privacy as a Brand
Obviously, there are other factors at work as well. Racism is one. Meghan Markle has been variously described as “uppity” and “exotic” and as “(almost) straight outa Compton” by a British media that wondered and worried about the contrast between Meghan’s mother living in a drug and gang riddled neighhourhood, and the Royal Family’s more refined milieu. Subsequently, the British tabloids have virtually ignored Meghan’s mother Doria – a business owner and social worker who proved a sympathetic figure at her daughter’s wedding – in favour of her estranged father, Thomas. (The couple divorced when Meghan Markle was six years old.)
The policing of privacy is another key element. Previously, the rich and the famous used to rely on high walls and hounds to keep the media and the great unwashed at a safe and sanitary distance. Today’s celebrities, politicians and senior royals prefer to use the courts as their shield. Besides the personal feelings involved, celebrities apparently want the key elements of their private lives to be treated as something akin to trade secrets, and worthy of the same protections as when copyright is infringed. In the process, as Werewolf pointed out some years ago in its coverage of a famous case involving the Michael Douglas/Catherine Zeta Jones wedding photos, the law courts are running the risk of becoming the enforcement arm of the character merchandising of celebrities.
Reportedly and for example, Brand Sussex is planning on expanding into new territories and activities. Not without some trademark difficulties, apparently. For better or worse, the legal and moral muddle of what does (and doesn’t) qualify as a valid realm of privacy is about to be tackled once again in the British courts, now that the Duchess of Sussex has chosen to sue the Daily Mail for publishing a private letter she wrote to her estranged father. Reportedly, the newspaper is claiming a public interest defence. It is arguing that since the public pays much of the running costs of the monarchy, there is a legitimate interest in whatever royalty’s senior figures do, and whatever their character may be. Clearly, the pact that was created in the wake of Princess Diana’s death – whereby the media agreed to respect the privacy of senior royals and their children in family matters - has gone right out the window.
This isn’t just a matter of tabloid ( or Palace) gossip. So long as the Queen remains our head of state, the case being brought by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is relevant to our own debates about privacy, and about republicanism. After all, the extent to which our own politicians can claim a right to privacy remains somewhat unclear ; and that’s a risky situation, given that New Zealand’s election campaigns have become increasingly presidential, and personality driven. Basically, if politicians mail out 5,000 pamphlets displaying happy family pictures, it would be difficult for them to argue subsequently for the suppression of less flattering depictions of their family lives.
On that point, the Daily Mail has signalled that it intends to cite emails in which the Duchess discussed how to manage and control her media profile. Defensive or otherwise on her part, such actions will weaken any claim that tabloid attention is solely one way, and merely intrusive. On the other hand, the newspaper’s alleged malice might also be relatively easy to prove, given the occasions referred to above where the Daily Mail’s coverage of the same behaviours by the two Duchesses was so starkly different. In all likelihood, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will win the case – she owns the copyright to the letter she wrote – but at some additional cost to their public image.
Meanwhile, our own laws are still struggling to find the right balance between celebrity privacy and freedom of expression. It was only 20 years ago that a limited defence of public interest was finally established in New Zealand (in the two Lange v Atkinson actions) with regard to what our media could say about politicians. In 2017, a subsequent case (Durie v Gardiner) expanded that public interest defence beyond politicians, to other public figures and to non-traditional media outlets.
Yet the central issue of privacy versus public interest remains largely unresolved. “The material that engages the interest of the public,” as the great British jurist Lord Bingham once wrote, “may not be the same thing as the material that engages the public interest.” Quite. And the enduring problem is to decide which is which, and who gets to make that decision.