Kate Middleton: the female body in the post-Berlusconi media

The publication of topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge, and the backlash it evoked, reveal an uneasy and gendered understanding of privacy in British, French and other countries' media, that the oldest tactics are still deployed to humiliate women, and how life in the public sphere is filtered through Berlusconi lenses.

Heather McRobie
27 September 2012

No, it wasn’t the most thorny issue of what should or should not be published in the public sphere in the last week – the crude, division-reinforcing  ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video and the problematic response to it was September’s most significant demonstration of how (not) to handle unhelpful and poisonous public discourse.  But in the week since photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge topless were published in a French gossip magazine, the reaction has revealed some curious and contradictory concerns about ideas of privacy, public identity, and concepts of sexual harassment as technology develops.  On the one hand, the general response to the publication seemed admirable, at least by commentators and in online discussions – a mixture of a shrug and making fun of the magazine for doing something so juvenile.  On the other hand, the baffled response by the French magazine to how the British reacted as though the publication of the photos were an ‘affront’, given British tabloid culture, reveals layers of interwoven and unresolved questions to do with privacy, privilege and what is considered humiliation. 

I’m no fan of the monarchy, and the 2011 royal wedding in particular struck me as a regressive re-marrying of empire, state Christianity and Tory-tinged visions of public pageantry to entertain the austerity-crippled masses.  At a time when British social and economic inequalities are ossifying, the elevation of Kate Middleton as cultural icon seems curiously aligned with the Tory presentation of Samantha Cameron as a model wife – an almost-blank cipher of generic, impossible-to-cause-offence feminine ‘tastefulness’ to which fashion magazines encourage British women to aspire at a time when austerity and recession chew away at British women’s daily lives.  At a time when British women should be getting angry at how they’re being increasingly pushed out of power, not keeping calm and carrying on.  So to defend Kate Middleton’s right to privacy is not to deny that she benefits, grossly and daily, from myriad privileges that it cannot be said that she has fairly earned.  Frankly, we shouldn’t know who Kate Middleton is, because she has done nothing noteworthy other than getting married. 

 But this in turn is also the part of why the publication of private photographs of her were a violation, an expression of the cheapest instincts in ourselves, and a kind of sexual harassment.  Kate Middleton has done nothing to grant her a place in the public eye except for getting married: harassing her because she chose to marry someone is effectively stating that she is defined by her relation to a man.  And more significant than this Diana-reminiscent incident of a harassing of a woman because of who she married is the response to the publication of the photographs in Britain and France – Britain, the country of The Sun’s Page 3 and that stereotype of our blushing Anglo Saxon prudishness, France with its recent Strauss-Kahn saga and its heritage of Mitterrand-era commitment to ‘personal privacy’ safe from the press.  Somehow, yet again, our contradictory attitudes to the public and the private, to privilege and to gossip, are getting played out on the terrain of a woman’s body.   

The French editor of Closer argued (perhaps surprised that the magazine’s ‘scoop’ had been met with such vitriol in Britain) that there was nothing distasteful in the photographs, merely pictures of a young couple in love – an argument that was so frustrating precisely because there is of course nothing wrong or shameful about nudity, but curious that such an argument be evoked to imply that Kate Middleton does not have the right to decide for herself whether the general public can see her without her clothes on. It was all the more frustrating for how it therefore made the widespread condemnation of the photographs by British commentators look (how Anglo-Saxon) prudish and moralising – not least in light of the publication of photographs in the British media of Prince Harry only weeks before. 

Hypocrisy abounds, of course – the hypocrisy of the usually-prurient British tabloids railing at the French media for ‘hounding’ Kate as they ‘hounded’ the last British Princess who, in 1997, died – as portions of the British press quickly indignantly reminded them – on French soil; the hypocrisy of the royals to suddenly assert their right to privacy given their willing, Hello!-magazine-posing participation in the embarrassing soap opera that is modern monarchy – an element of snobbery in the implication that they don’t deserve to be treated like other celebrities, but rather granted a unique and higher level of press coverage only on their terms.  The hypocrisy of tabloid culture as a whole, mass embarrassing archetype that it is of the high school bully who tells you you’re their new best friend before telling the rest of the class that you’re a slut. 

So let us take one problematic issue at a time: for instance, the French media –remember how insistent many French media outlets were in 2011 that the accusations against Strauss-Kahn were either surely fabricated or surely prurient to be concerned about.  While the French media landscape is varied and the actions of a gossip magazine like Closer can’t be read as the actions of the country’s journalists as a whole, an outsider in the country couldn’t help but wonder why all this ‘privacy’ that was evoked to quash the quite concerning evidence that misogyny was rife in the higher echelons of the PS and French political life was suddenly, in 2012, no longer any concern. The two incidents taken together at a glance look like a textbook demonstration of the use of the ‘private sphere’ defence in a way that benefits men. This was the failure of large sections of the French media and commentators in 2011: to rush to the defence of Strauss-Kahn’s privacy while both peddling misogynistic treatment of the alleged victim of the assault and failing to acknowledge that there was a legitimate issue of concern in how French political life treats women.  

The problem of 2012 in France is whether lessons have really been learned from 2011: in Hollande’s France, with its much-celebrated 50/50 gender-equal cabinet and the appointment of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as the new women’s minister to address gender inequity in public life,  the ugliness of 2011 still ripples the surface – the wolf-whistling at Minister Cecile Duflot for wearing a dress in Parliament earlier this summer opened the issue of the treatment of women in politics, just as the new Presidency offered a chance for the country to turn over a new leaf.  And, as with the Closer defence that Kate Middleton’s photographs are nothing to worry about, the defence that the wolf-whistlers were merely ‘complimenting’ Cecile Duflot seemed again to be a comprehensive missing-of-the-point of the difficulty of being female in public life.  The Belgian film on sexual harassment, Femme de la Rue, struck a chord across Europe this summer for articulating a prominent reality of women’s experiences.  Over the summer, the issue of sexual harassment cropped up across Europe like weather-forecast symbols of a heatwave, the photographs of the British princess arriving in September like a storm.

Which leads to the issue of why what Closer did to Kate Middleton is sexual harassment.  No, there is nothing wrong with nudity or sunbathing topless.  It’s removing Kate’s right to decide, for herself, whether or not she be photographed topless that’s violating, the same way the treatment documented in Femme de la Rue is violating and the treatment of Cecile Duflot not ‘a compliment’ – the photographs had a more painful cultural resonance than the publication of photographs of Prince Harry stripping naked with his friends in private.  The bullying is gendered because our concepts of how to humiliate others are gendered. The easiest way to humiliate a woman, as Femme de la Rue shows us, is to remind her that she’s just a pair of tits when it comes down to it.  The very fact that Kate Middleton has more power than most women in the world could ever dream of perhaps even reinforced the sense that this was a diplomatic-incident re-enactment of the playground: for what better way to redress the balance of power with a young woman who seems aloof, who keeps herself closed to you, who is (in that patriarchal trope of female-innocence) exalted for her ‘tastefulness’ and ‘dignity’ than to make a dirty joke about her, write graffiti on the bathroom wall about her, print pictures of her naked, try to embarrass her about her body, her private acts?   Not so dignified now, are you, Kate? the action seemed to say. There was something in the act of publishing a photograph of her in a moment of vulnerability – the well-behaved princess for once doing something a bit normal and un-posed – that smelt of the desire to teach her a lesson: the media giveth and the media taketh away.

Kate was, as official palace statements declared, humiliated and upset.  But even aside from the obvious fact that no-one’s privilege negates their right to privacy, the photographs were also an indirect affront to others.  It sent the message not just to Kate Middleton but to other women that this form of sexual harassment is okay – a message that is particularly concerning if we consider how our concepts of ‘sexual harassment’ have failed to adequately evolve with new technology, as the tabloid-culture of ‘up-skirt shots’ and ‘leaked sex videos’ further warps our understanding of intimacy and consent in the age of the internet. Kira Cochrane reported for the Guardian this weekend on the rise of bullying of both ‘celebrity’ and ‘non-celebrity’ women in the era of camera-phones by using private or sexual photos of them obtained without their knowledge or consent.

So, we have misogyny, power, and lurid gossip-media…feel like something’s missing in the picture? Oh don’t worry, he’s here.  Yes, Berlusconi – the man who made the last year better just because we didn’t have to say his name so often anymore when discussing European politics – in fact owned the media outlet that originally published the photographs of Kate Middleton (a fact which led to some conspiracy-theorising that this was Berlusconi’s revenge on perceived snubs by the British monarchy, according to the Daily Beast’s Barbie Latza Nadeau).  The publication of the photos by a Berlusconi-owned media outlet should thus be a good opportunity for all European media to reflect on how much damage the former Italian prime minister has had on media standards even outside of Italy, not least in respect to the treatment of women.  The 2009 Italian documentary Il Corpo delle Donne analysed how, under Berlusconi’s effective 95% ownership of Italian media, public depictions of women were infantilised, used (often literally) only as decorative props on Italian television, essentially making invisible from public life any woman who was not willing to pneumatically, breathlessly play along with the narrow, porn-ified role granted for them in the media space.  Journalists who tried to report on the dual dominance of corruption and misogyny while Berlusconi held the dual role of head of state and media mogul found themselves intimidated, critics invariably dismissed as prudes.

In such a climate of media-dominance on the European level either of Berlusconi-owned media or its imitators – an unreal world of commodified Jessica Rabbit cartoonishness as the only media template for female identity, a world of paparazzi ‘up-skirt’ photographs, French ministers howled at for wearing a dress, and power-politics and diplomatic incidents playing out on the terrain of what a young woman does innocuously with her husband (for can you think of anything so strangely natural in the face of all this, than that someone wanted to sunbathe without intrusion? It all feels so strangely old, Biblical even, like some contemporary echo of the Bathsheba story) – perhaps the question should not be about freedom of the press or whether Kate was in a public place or the technical issue of the rights of the media versus the right to privacy.  Perhaps instead a simple reflection would be more helpful – how many of us actually enjoy living in this climate?  

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