The State of Kate

Prince Harry’s blockbuster memoir, “Spare,” has dragged the royal family back into international focus with details at once banal and intriguing. Kate Middleton, as she is still sometimes known to those of us who remember her before her royal marriage, figures in the memoir and the Netflix documentary “Harry & Meghan” as a sketch of steely disapproval and emotional coolness.

It is true that Catherine, Princess of Wales, seems poised in perpetual expectation, a real-life version of the fairy tale princesses who must wait stoically (some sweeping, some sleeping) until their prince finds and marries them. When she was the pretty young woman who dated Prince William for nearly 10 years (including a brief breakup) before becoming engaged, the British tabloids cruelly nicknamed her “Wait-y Katie.”

No one of course imagined that William might be the one doing the waiting. No, fairy tales, monarchies and, frankly, conventional heterosexual courtship practices to this day dictate that women wait to be chosen. And pop culture narratives from Cinderella (which dates to the 17th century) to “The Bachelor” reconfirm this constantly. Women wait for marriage to reward their beauty, charm or virtue. And so it finally came to pass for Catherine Middleton.

But for Kate, being engaged meant simply replacing one type of waiting with another, as she entered her next highly public stage: anticipating the wedding. Media coverage of this period focused on her royal transformation — her passage from an athletic-looking young woman with an infectious grin and tumbling wavy hair into an impossibly slender, impeccably coifed, swan-like creature. Her beauty grew ethereal, with no visual disruptions or irregularities left to catch the gaze: hair smooth, body sleek, smile distant.

Magazines speculated about Kate’s austere slimming diet and the elocution lessons intended to posh-ify her accent. Yet those newly refined tones remained a mystery, because Kate rarely spoke in public. She became an object of purely visual fascination — a liminal being hovering on the threshold of the marriage she, and the entire world, still awaited.

Fairy princess stories end with weddings. The blank “they lived happily ever after” is all we ever get as a description of postnuptial royal life. So, how to fill this void? In Catherine’s case, the media crafted a story of still more waiting: When would she conceive an heir to the throne? Then, when can we see the baby? Then, when is the next baby?

She obliged, smiling calmly through three (famously difficult) pregnancies that barely seemed to alter her sylph-like form, re-emerging each time, a polished, camera-ready Madonna with child on the steps of London’s St. Mary’s Hospital.

As a mother and wife, she has continued to telegraph control and studiously maintained patience. Even when encountering the kind of disruption that might try a mother’s temper, like a public tantrum by young Prince Louis, her gracious demeanor never falters.

She seems to find self-expression through one medium, though: photography. The princess is such a fine photographer, in fact, that Buckingham Palace sometimes distributes her family portraits to the media. They’re good pictures. They’re also clear evidence of how thoroughly she has internalized the idealized gaze that the palace prefers to train on the royals.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth and Charles’s ascension to the throne, Catherine enters yet another stage of public waiting — this time, the wait to be queen — a possibly decades-long slog that will likely require still greater levels of self-control. Even more than a princess, a queen must hold herself apart from regular human life, remaining more symbol than woman.

Royal protocol constrains men too, of course. But princes and kings enjoy greater latitude; they play polo, join the army, fly helicopters and wear military regalia for most official occasions. All this lends them an aura of vitality and action. But for centuries, the most spectacular — and media worthy — trappings of royalty have dwelled in the world of the feminine: jewels and crowns and fine fashion, things we associate with women. Women are the showpieces that make the monarchy watchable. Recent weeks have proven the exception to the rule though, as the telegenic Prince Harry set the media aflame.

Harry’s most discussed revelations about Catherine may seem inconsequential: She supposedly upset Meghan by being reluctant to lend her a lip gloss. Catherine reacted angrily when Meghan suggested she may be suffering from “baby brain” during pregnancy. And then there’s Catherine’s famous purported rage over the flower girls’ dresses for Meghan’s wedding, which allegedly reduced Meghan to tears.

Yet a pattern emerges here: All these contretemps involve Catherine trying to exert some kind of bodily control in the face of perceived transgressions. Sharing lip gloss, admitting to hormonal changes, even ceding authority on the matter of a dress — these all require letting down her guard and sharing some form of bodily intimacy, whether an item that touches her body (lip gloss), an intimate fact (hormonal fluctuations) or maternal control over something that touches her child’s body (the dress).

In all cases, she resisted, striving instead to assert dominion over her (and her daughter’s) body. It is behavior consistent with the extreme self-containment that distinguishes her public image.

In a way, the British monarchy is a perpetual performance of the refusal or shunting aside of various realities — the reality of human bodies and, especially, the reality of power’s darker side, including the machinations, manipulations and betrayals (not to mention the violence of imperial conquests) that built and sustain one of the richest families in the world.

The public spectacle of royalty is like a swan we see gliding serenely on a lake. But the private, usually unseen side consists of those webbed feet below, furiously churning in the water. One half cannot exist without the other. Perhaps Harry and Meghan’s bombshells help balance out the family, serving as those pedaling feet. By tacitly agreeing to represent chaos they permit the others to seem calm and unruffled by comparison. And the calmest of all, the smoothest and most unperturbed of swans is Catherine, still silently gliding toward the future — the ever-waiting princess.

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