Although the press has spent the past two years buzzing about Kate Middleton’s impeccable wardrobe, not even the most inspired sartorial choice has garnered the attention that topless photos of the princess did last week. But while the tawdry affair has provoked the ire of Will and Kate—the couple released an uncharacteristically caustic statement trumpeting their “anger and disbelief” and calling the invasion of their privacy “grotesque”—it also highlights the ambivalent role the royal family plays in the British cultural consciousness. Are its members paragons of flawless breeding and unimpeachable decorum, or are they just celebrities who enrich the public’s lives with their designer outfits, attractive faces, and salacious affairs?
The truth is, Britain’s first family has long hovered between sacred symbol and tabloid fodder. The monarchs are trapped in a “Faustian pact” with the media, Charlie Beckett, the director of the London School of Economics’ media think tank, told me. They rely on press coverage to fulfill their purpose as a model of national values, but they also depend on a cultivated mystique—which the media can undercut by airing their dirty laundry or making them look too effete. (Case in point: British papers love to hate Prince Charles for his aristocratic pastimes). The Brits are torn, too, he said, between wanting the royal family to stay inviolate and uplifting and wanting, well … to see Kate Middleton’s breasts. The public response to the fracas bore that out: This week, public opinion overwhelming supported British papers’ decision not to publish the topless photos, but Beckett said most of the country has looked them up online.
It wasn’t always this way. A few centuries ago, most Brits ignored the monarchy, which was foppish, lascivious, and divorced from everyday life. But in the 1800s, Queen Victoria cultivated a stolid, moral image aimed at the middle class. With the advent of modern media, the public has moved further into the royals’ lives: Queen Elizabeth defied precedent by allowing the BBC to film her coronation in 1953, and in 1969, she, her husband Philip, and their son Charles were the subject of a BBC film called The Royal Family, which showed nearly two hours of footage from their daily lives. During this summer’s Olympics, the Queen had a cameo in a James Bond skit with Daniel Craig, filmed in advance of the games.
Though some of these appearances were lighthearted, all were carefully choreographed and controlled. “There’s definitely a sense that the royals are expected to perform,” Beckett said. In shaping its image, the monarchy has walked a high wire, trying to seem both above the plebian fray and like a relatable, if not regular, family—“like us, but like a better version,” said Arianne Chernock, a professor of British history at Boston University.
This delicate balance went off-kilter in the 1990s, when the whole world watched as the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana violently unraveled. After separating, the couple competed for the hearts of the public in tabloid-worthy fashion, outdoing each other in tell-all, televised interviews. As the media kerfuffle escalated, the royal family’s popularity plummeted. Their subjects didn’t want them looking like any old movie stars embroiled in a scandal.
Kate and William say their outrage about last week’s invasion stems from fear the media will push its way into Kate’s life as relentlessly as it did Diana’s. In their statement, they called the illicit photos “reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana”—excesses that included the People’s Princess’s death in a car crash while fleeing photographers.
Like her mother-in-law, Kate is adored by public and press. But as usual for the royals, that adulation is complicated. On the one hand, she’s praised for maintaining her privacy, for being demure and removed. Before last week, the closest she’d come to a wardrobe malfunction was a minor midriff showing when she leapt up because Britain won Olympic gold. On the other hand, her subjects eat it up when the press pokes and prods at her inner life, criticizing her weight loss and speculating that she may be too thin to get pregnant. The transition from this invasive coverage—which the royals endured in silence this summer—to topless photos was not a quantum leap.
Hypocritical or no, the British press has stood by the princess, and despite Will and Kate’s fighting words last week, they look happy enough in the pictures of their Asia tour. Their smiles as they accepted garlands from tribeswomen and waved from the prow of a ship corroborate sources’ claims that they’ve decided to “keep calm and carry on,” and that they’ve taken solace in the hope that their legal action will protect them from future impositions. But Chernock doubts this will be the last of it. Up until now, Kate and the press have been on a “honeymoon,” she said, “but there will be moments when she’s judged much more harshly.” The Brits want to be able to treat their first family like celebrities, but they don’t want its members to act that way—and it’s hard to look like the moral center of a nation when the paparazzi catch you topless.