The royal baby: A bouncing bundle of international obsession

It is finally time to talk about this baby.

This bouncing Buckingham baby, who prompted Harlequin to launch a whole line of royal-baby-themed romance novels — “His Royal Love Child,” “Sheikh’s Baby Bombshell,” “His Pregnant Princess” — currently populating Amazon. This baby, who set British bookies aflutter with due-date speculations, who introduced us unwillingly to the phrase “too posh to push.” Where is the royal baby? headlines began demanding five days ago, as if the Windsors were deliberately hiding it in the Duchess of Cambridge’s womb.

This baby was delivered unto the people at 4:24 Monday afternoon, weighing eight pounds and six ounces, a presumably adorable boy. Throngs gathered outside of Buckingham Palace awaiting the official announcement to be posted, as is tradition, on the gilded easel.

“It is an important moment in the life of our nation,” said Prime Minister David Cameron of the new arrival, according to Britain’s ITV news. “But I suppose above all it’s a wonderful moment for a warm and loving couple who got a brand-new baby boy.”

This baby is . . . an important baby?

Prince William and Duchess Kate’s first child means a reworking of who is next in line for the British throne.

Yes — he is the future king of Great Britain. Which is only slightly less momentous than a future queen would have been — this year, Parliament finally repealed an ancient succession rule that gave heirs the preference over heiresses, regardless of birth order.

Amid the pomp and general celebration, one finds something both archaic and strange about declaring any baby’s arrival “important,” any more so than every baby’s arrival is “important.” When we talk about this baby, what we are really talking about is the powerful vortex he inhabits: the intersection of celebrity worship, royal worship and the burgeoning baby-industrial complex.

His Royal Highness — the name has not yet been announced — was born into a world in which a British market research firm recently estimated that celebrations surrounding his birth would inject $400 million into the British economy, and in which photos of star offspring can fetch $15 million (as People magazine reportedly paid for photos of Angelina Jolie’s twins in 2008). A world in which sites such as Babyrazzi.com exist to stalk A-list toddlers, in which Forbes magazine a few years back published an earnest analysis of the “most influential babies.”

Historically, the arrival of a much-anticipated baby meant more than a cash influx. Sometimes, the birth changed history, as when King James II unexpectedly had a son. After the 17th century Reformation, there was a strong anti-Catholic feeling in England. James II had sired two Protestant daughters with his first wife, but when she died, he converted to Catholicism and married an Italian princess. “If the new queen had produced a daughter, the heir would have been the existing Protestant daughters,” and all would have been well, British historian John Ashdown-Hill said.

Instead, the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart resulted in the Glorious Revolution. For more than a century, Catholics were prohibited from holding seats in Parliament; for more than three, monarchs were prohibited from marrying them.

That was an important baby.

Often, royal marriages were political unions; the arrival of an infant was the final erasure of regional or inter-familial tensions. That tradition goes all the way back to the 11th century, the era of the Norman invasion, when Henry I of England (son of William the Conqueror) married Matilda of Scotland. Her daughter, also named Matilda, was widely perceived to be “the hope of the future,” royal watcher Amy Licence said.

That was an important baby.

Licence’s upcoming book, “Royal Babies: 1066-2013,” has been ready to go for weeks, by the way. “What we’re waiting for is the official photograph and then it can be rushed out the door,” Licence said. The snapshot of the new baby will be used as a cover-wrapper and popped, posthaste, onto bookshelves.

But how important is this baby, in the context of modern royalty — a largely ceremonial institution in which the ruling monarch’s salary must be approved by taxpayers? How important, in the context of modern fame, in which some American celebrities live in houses bigger than royals do, and have higher approval ratings? How important, in the context of modern parenthood, when it’s not uncommon for even commoner children to have prenatal Twitter accounts? Every baby is a prince in 2013, with the home-mashed food and the artisanal naps and the “Congratulations! You’re 1 (month)” birthday celebrations.

It’s awfully retro to give much importance to any baby, in this post-feudal society where accolades are supposed to be based on accomplishments rather than birthright. And the list of babies who accomplish something just by being born is very small.

Jesus: Important baby.

Louise Brown: Important baby. She was the first “test-tube baby,” born through in vitro fertilization, a process that changed the nature of modern reproduction.

But in general, contemporary baby culture has conflated “famous” with “important.” In leadups to the royal birth, photo galleries abounded online, ranking the most “powerful” celebrity baby bumps: Beyonce’s Blue Ivy, Kim Kardashian’s North West, Brangelina’s moppets.

All of these babies are famous babies; none of them is an important one. When Blue Ivy grows up, she’ll be only a satellite to her parents’ renown, and when Suri Cruise grows up, she’ll struggle with being seen as more than a satellite to her father’s weirdness.

The true value that these babies provide to our culture is what they tell us about our own values. After all, it’s easy to denigrate celebrity infant obsession as shallow tabloid culture, but shallow tabloid culture runs deeply through our veins — a glossy dissertation on Western mores.

Celebrity pregnancies teach women how to be pregnant, says Renee Cramer, a professor at Drake University whose scholarly article “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin” examines celebrity pregnancy. The overarching storyline of the duchess’s pregnancy focused on her trim physique, her fresh clothes, her patient demeanor.

More than that, celebrity pregnancies reinforce the communal possession of every pregnant woman’s body. When Cramer herself was pregnant, she said, “People asked, ‘Are you really going to eat sushi? Are you really going to drink Coke? Are you gaining enough weight, are you gaining too much weight?’ ” The village, in other words, felt free to raise her child before it was even out of the womb.

With this royal baby, the proprietary relationship is only magnified, and will only grow as he grows. As a 2-month-old, he’ll be the test for whether the duke and duchess seem caring and competent enough; as a 2-year-old, he’ll be used by the public to judge whether his parents possess enough discipline. He’ll be important not because he’s a shoo-in for future king, but because he’ll be a humanizing lens through which to view a normally quite private world.

“Grandparenthood is a unique moment in anyone’s life, as countless kind people have told me in recent months,” Prince Charles said in a statement shortly after his grandson was born. “So I am enormously proud and happy to be a grandfather for the first time.”

Meanwhile, three months ago, a few months after the former Kate Middleton announced her pregnancy, scientists in Italy discovered the skeletal remains of what is believed to be the first known Homo sapiens/Neanderthal hybrid — the tangible specimen supporting research that modern humans are 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal. “First Love Child of Human, Neanderthal Found,” the Discovery Channel heralded on its Web site.

That baby changed the face (and DNA) of the human species for the course of the next 30,000 years. That baby was an important baby.

This royal baby is a blessed bundle of joy.

This story has been updated from a previous version.

More royal baby news:

If it feels like #royalbaby hijacked your Twitter feed, that’s because he did

Obamas congratulate Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

James, George or Alexander: Potential royal baby names for Prince of Cambridge

Royal baby memorabilia sales could top royal wedding

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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