Most of us didn’t hear the bell-ringing declamation by costumed town crier Tony Appleton outside the doors of St. Mary’s Hospital in London, nor have we read the royal birth announcement perched upon the gilded easel in front of Buckingham Palace. All but the most vigilant royal-watchers learned the modern way — through tweets and online headlines — that Will and Kate’s baby, His Royal Highness Prince [insert name here] of Cambridge, had entered the world. And so the strange cultural hybrid of centuries-old pomp and circumstance and modern-day celebrity that is the British monarchy advanced forward into a new generation July 21, 2013, at 4:24 p.m.
Fortunately, the duchess and her newborn son are reportedly in good health and doing well. If there had been complications, the world audience would almost certainly have been more restrained in expressing reactions that ranged from breathless euphoria to why-all-the-fuss annoyance to Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown’s attention-grabbing declaration that by having a boy, Kate Middleton had “once again” done “the perfect thing.” Not a few Americans took to their keyboards to disparage the royal family and what they stand for, offended that the legacy of the royals has been extended.
Much of the abiding ambivalence towards all things royal is channeled into humor. Was anyone surprised when SNL aired a skit about Kate’s obstetrician being visited by a palace representative? The palace functionary schools the doctor on the royal etiquette required when examining the duchess. Far from endorsing breezy references such as the “royal cervix,” the adviser tells the doctor to clear his throat discreetly rather than use any clinical terms. He concedes, however, that over time the doctor will be entitled to address the duchess’ pelvic region as “m’lady,” or should he prefer, as “her downton abbey.”
The famous photo of Michael Jackson hanging infant son Blanket over a balcony with the baby’s face covered by a towel? Now it’s Prince William dangling the unnamed heir to the throne, with Kate standing next to them.
Humor, at least, keeps its subjects at a distance, as opposed to the intrusive (and alternately fawning and critical) paparazzi treatment. Long after we have ceased paying attention to North West and the Kardashian clan (yes, I believe it’s possible that that day will come), we will be buying magazines with cover photos of the young prince. This is partly because our cultural fairy tales create a space for princes and princesses in our imaginations and because Disney reinforces it by marketing them so well.
It’s also because the celebrity of the royals doesn’t depend on their youth or beauty. The paparazzi were stirred into a frenzy over the loveliness of shy Di, true enough, and the brightly lit smile of Kate Middleton is featured on images across the globe. But she and the rest of her family are historical figures. As long as Kate lives, she will continue to receive attention for her role within the institution of the monarchy. And so will her son.
Her son, the child who is third in line for the throne, has been born into what will certainly be a life of unrelenting media saturation, and he will need to learn to cope with the constant exposure. The search for privacy, the skill of stepping off into the shadows, will be a lifelong project.
We, on the other hand, can change the channel, put down the magazine and click away from the hoopla.
I have two different mugs circa 1981 that were given to me by my brother and sister, both of whom spent some time in England when that country (and the rest of the planet) first fell under the spell of the young and blushing Diana Spencer.
One mug shows official cameo images of Diana and Charles, separated by a coat of arms and the text of their names and wedding date. The other mug shows Charles and Diana posing together as a happy couple, but with one thing changed from the formal engagement portrait: Charles is pictured as completely bald, like Yul Brynner.
The text reads simply, “The King and Di.”
The joke is of course sadly dated, an artifact from a time when the union of Charles and Diana was regarded with excitement and affection, before the ugliness of marital betrayal was headline news, and before her death changed everything.
Dated, too, by the assumption that Charles would be installed, in due time, as the next king of the realm. He is 64 years old and still waiting, now with two younger and more popular contenders (who can compete with a baby?) nipping at his heels.
I don’t think it is too far a reach to see the birth of Will and Kate’s newborn as Diana’s final victory over her ex-husband and his family, who had such difficulty accepting and loving her. No doubt comparisons will be made (the baby has her eyes, her nose!), and the public will regret the absence in his life of the grandmother he never knew. No doubt this child will benefit in the court of public opinion from his status as Diana’s grandson, even as he is hounded by photographers and reporters at every turn, just as she was.
And very possibly, this prince, like Charles, may struggle to forge an identity apart from his royal status, waiting even at retirement age for his crown. And so, in the manner of a fairy-tale godmother, I project onto the long view of this child’s life, wishing him not only vibrant good health to promote his longevity, but patience, stamina and a robust sense of humor to help him endure it.
Lynn Joyce Hunter is a therapist who works with low-income children and their families in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.