Finally, the media chaos is calming. The headlines have returned to Libya and Syria; Facebook is moving on from inane, sexist comments about Pippa Middleton’s derrière and Twitter has slowed its circulation of the photo which looks like William got more than a kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony. I am now wondering how I should have responded to The Royal Wedding but I am left with an array of conflicting thoughts, none of which rest easily with each other.
It seems honest to begin by stating that I had a genuine sense of excitement last week as the population was hyped up by an unusually effusive British press. I was adamant that I would watch the whole spectacle, which indeed I did whilst clutching a William and Kate mug from which I drank copious amounts of tea rather less ironically than I had intended to. I cannot deny my enjoyment of the footage; I was, after all, an overexcited child in 1981 and this weekend felt like a beautiful reminder of an ’80s summer when life was simpler. I therefore set aside the welcome day off to comment on clothes and hats; to try to lip read the protagonists; laugh at the crazies who camped out; feel a little sentimental for a couple who pledged their lives to each other; and to be amused by the ex-colonies who displayed unadulterated enthusiasm for the old mistress Britannia and her eccentric traditions. My eyes feasted on toffs and frocks and carriages aplenty and, overarching all of that, I could not help but be in love with Britain (London in particular) for putting on a show which was genuinely impressive. Beauty, pomp and ritual was held together by a militaristic precision and a phenomenal security operation. And, even better than 1981, I could amuse myself with the pseudo-connectedness that Twitter and Facebook can create at such moments.
Yet this enthusiasm is tempered by a more thoughtful response. Firstly, I may be impressed by that Britain can still create moments of national identity in a postmodern world but I am not immune to questions about the relevance of the Royal Family. They and many of their guests are immensely privileged and wealthy because of an accident of birth; the monarch still possesses legal powers (albeit largely unused) despite having no accountability to the population; and my taxes simultaneously support the egalitarianism of the NHS as well as the royal lifestyle; and their very existence seems to be a symbol of an outmoded age. However, I also acknowledge the continual revenue they generate, boosted by events like royal weddings. I do not know how much The Firm can actually be credited with bring into Britain PLC, but I assume it balances out the taxes we pay to support their central London residences, polo ponies and designer clothes. This all leaves me in a terribly reasonable but bland, middling, political position: they are an anachronism but there seems to be no point in getting rid of them for now.
The religious status of Friday’s ceremony also raises complex issues. The world witnessed the Church of England at its grandest and best: an amazing setting, divine music, glorious costumes and admirable solemnity. All as befits the wedding of a man who will eventually become head of the Church of England. Yet this is a denomination of Christianity which has its origins in the groin of Henry VIII and one which still ensures that protestant Prince William could not have married many of his fellow Christians (I refer to the Act of Settlement). In a country where Tony Blair waited until he had left office to finally convert to Catholicism (despite years of being an aspiring Catholic), the historical Christian tensions are still apparent despite being a multicultural society which is largely tolerant of far more diverse religions. Northern Ireland still deals with violent outbursts and recent media attention on Scottish football’s sectarianism suggests that Blair prioritising his popularity over spiritual honesty is part of an unresolved religious antagonism which the Royal Family has historically been at the heart of. Taken further, Britain may well be legally and culturally a Christian country, in that Christianity has been the dominant cultural force for centuries, but we are now in a world where multiculturalism and atheism jostle for power. Friday’s ceremony was William and Kate’s public declaration of religious affiliation but this is a monarchial ritual which cannot survive in the same way as we progress through this century. However, as we have not yet established a spiritual identity suitable for a different age, I again reside in political no man’s land.
Furthermore, the feminist in me wants to rail against the expectations placed on the new Duchess of Cambridge. Her role is appallingly limited and, despite her rejection of the vow to obey, she has been increasingly constrained the closer she has got to full royal status. This university educated woman is expected to be largely silent or to refrain from expressing opinions: the engagement interview showed us an understandably nervous figure who carefully measured every word and deferred to Prince William who frequently spoke for both, clarifying or completing many of her answers. Catherine’s marital status has now silenced her with royal stereotypes and traditions which have long since been eradicated for women in middle and working class stratas of society. Whilst she has been complimented on her poise, discretion and loyalty this really is praise for her silence. She has never berated the press for hounding and judging her and she has never spoken out about the difficulties of trying to establish a career and relationship under uninvited press scrutiny. It is likely that she will now never be allowed her voice in a country which prides itself on freedom of speech. Her story has (and will continue to be) told by others, whether this is William and Kate, the Movie or the books already available on Amazon; the biggest truth of these will be the absence of her voice in her own narrative. We know very little about Catherine but, worryingly, the most significant thing people want to know is about her physical appearance. The media devotes relentless attention to her clothes, style and weight and so has defined her most important role as that of a beautiful appendage. Woe betide her if she ever does anything from now on without perfectly coiffed hair or if anything bar pregnancy makes her larger than a size 10. We expect a highly educated woman to simply fulfil the aesthetic desires of all who gaze. Moreover, there has been much talk about Prince William’s desire to protect her from public scrutiny which, whilst admirable, sees him fulfilling an old chivalric role and posits her as a weak figure. The new Duchess of Cambridge is now shackled to a public life which will not acknowledge the hypocrisy of condemning her if she exhibits too much independent thought whilst berating her if she does not align herself with suitably serious causes.
Likewise, this weekend normalised marriage in a world of falling marriage figures. It celebrated a cultural construction which huge numbers of the Queen’s subjects have rejected and saw millions of pounds being spent on a rite of passage many feel is too expensive or unnecessary for themselves in our age of austerity.
Thus logic and intelligence tell me that I am a hypocrite for having enjoyed this weekend so much; instead, I should have been utterly scathing about the spectacle. I certainly think that Charlie Brooker takes the prize for the best summative response to a frequently over-emotional media: “So sickly my eyes have got diabetes” was perfect for those who still want to beatify Princess Diana and infantalise William as the tragic, motherless child. Despite my criticisms, I still seem to be able to accept the contradictions in my own response and to let childish excitement coexist with political concerns. My frustration is that I have no alternatives at the moment for our strange but impressive royalty so I shall pause only to resume my over-analysis next year during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.