This week, around the same time that news broke of the third pregnancy of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (or Kate Middleton, as Brits prefer), the Guardian posted a story of the upcoming marriage of the Japanese Princess Mako to a commoner. The story, with the title ‘No fairytale ending‘, was a light-hearted look at the archaic reality of the Japanese Imperial Family, which forces its princesses by law to give up their title if upon marriage. A lot of the news coverage of this seemed almost disappointed by this law, not because of any gender double standards it reinforces, nor due to the way it has forced the royal family’s numbers to seriously dwindle over the years. The narrative seemed to go against every Cinderella story the media still clings to as the ultimate dream come true. You’re supposed to marry up, not down. You’re meant to become a princess upon your wedding day, not give it up for the life of a normal guy. Electing to quit the coveted life of countless bedtime stories feels like a betrayal to some, but it merely highlights a cold, hard truth — being a princess is fucking awful.
Fortunately for Vanity Fair, they landed the ultimate cover story this month to extend that dream. Meghan Markle, Suits actress, humanitarian and girlfriend of Prince Harry, gave an exclusive interview where she directly discussed her relationship with Britain’s spare heir. I’ve written before about how interesting Markle is beyond the confines of royal girlfriend, and you can see the Vanity Fait piece stretch to accommodate details on her ambitions, upbringing, job and charity efforts. It’s just depressingly clear that they don’t especially care for those parts of her life. The cover, where she looks very beautiful, doesn’t even seem that fussed about her name. The headline is ‘She’s Just Wild About Harry!’
Of course, nothing gets the press raving like a royal pregnancy, and Kate Middleton is now onto her third. Another case of hyperemesis gravidarum — also known as acute morning sickness — led the Cambridges to announce the news early, but the headlines were still giddy with anticipation. Bump watch has begun, and no doubt it will be just as feverish in its intensity as it was for her first two pregnancies. The clothes will be dissected — always compared to Diana — the sex of the baby bet on, and we’ll all end up knowing far more about a woman’s gynaecologist than we’ve ever cared to ask about. They’ll say she’s glowing, she’s sublime, she’s born to be a mother. We’ll all quietly omit that, by merit of her position, this is all she’s ever required to do. Smile, look pretty, make babies, try not to get caught in a toe sucking scandal.
The princess fantasy is one that has always perplexed me, even though I understand its inherent appeal. On the surface level, who wouldn’t like to be swept off their feet by a handsome guy with unlimited funds, prime real estate and easy access to a tiara collection? The excitement of that lifestyle comes with the alluring combination of soft power, public adoration and few tangible responsibilities. What does Kate Middleton do beyond some charity work and gala attendances?
It would be nice to have a life utterly unconcerned with bills, debts or purpose. There’s a neatness to having your future laid out before you and decided without your input. There are days when the pressure gets too much where such a system would be a life-saver. The true cost of that deal is far more insidious.
This year is the 20th anniversary since the death of Princess Diana. It’s the benchmark for a generation who saw the fairy-tale, loved and lost it, then watched the rot underneath seep to the surface. A 19 year old lady with little formal education became the icon of her time, drowning in a mass of a wedding dress while the world watched. The divorce let her be a person, but it wasn’t until her death that the British press felt ready to forgive. She never got peace in life and in death she is the impossible measuring stick for the women who follow in her footsteps. The Daily Beast were excited to proclaim Middleton’s pregnancy as the PR coup the Palace needed to distract from anniversary musings of Diana’s life and all the anti-royal sentiment it could create. Smile, wave, procreate, and if you can distract the world a little from remembering how horridly treated your late mother-in-law was by the same institution you find yourself trapped in, then all the better.
Princess life is undoubtedly a trap. Imagine giving up everything that defines you — your job, your hobbies, possibly your faith, your right to opinions, your political leanings, your desire to wander free — to be public property, paid for by their taxes, a fact you’ll be reminded of constantly. You’re tasked with achieving the bare minimum of duties but doing so will still never be good enough. The vaguest of interactions with other royal women will be spun as a catfight in the making. No midriff on the planet will be as watched as yours (except for possibly Beyoncé). At some point, you’ll be forced to stand next to Donald Trump and smile as if you’re not screaming inside. You may even crack under all that pressure, but don’t expect sympathy.
The future empress of Japan, Crown Princess Masako, may have the most tragic of all the modern fairy-tale royal romances. A Harvard and Oxford educated diplomat who studied law and passed the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s entrance examination, Masako originally turned down the marriage proposals of Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, twice for fear that a royal life would restrict her freedom and desire to become a diplomat. Eventually, she accepted and married in 1993, but faced over two decades of scrutiny, criticism and a severely difficult life. She’s been plagued by stress and emotional disorders, allegedly from the palace pressure to produce a male heir, and stayed out of the limelight for many years. Her illness was ridiculed, her actions controlled, and it’s been said she never truly came to terms with what a royal life required of her. Journalist Ben Hills, who wrote a biography of Masako, has said she is banned from leaving the palace without approval, has no phone access, is not allowed a passport or credit card, and has basically no say in how her duties are conducted. But hey, she gets to wear a tiara now and then.
Other princesses may have an easier time, with their respective palaces more relaxed in their approach than that of the Japanese Imperial Family, but they also perpetuate their own lie around their supposed modernity. The favourite fallacy of the Cambridges is one of their very modern lives. Look, they’re breaking royal tradition, they’re wearing outfits more than once, they do their own shopping now and then. Altogether now — they’re just like us. Of course, they’re not just like us. I can’t believe I even needed to type that, but I keep seeing that nonsense repeated as if it evens the playing field of our classist society and makes the women stuck in it just one of the girls. The chances are that someone like Kate Middleton probably craves a degree of normalcy in her life on some level, but that time has come and gone. She was never truly typical anyway — privately education, millionaire parents, rent-free London loving, never employed full-time — but when you hunger for the fairy story, you take what you can get.
The craving for normalcy in the princess narrative also goes against a clear truth — people don’t want normal princesses. They’ll never really be like everyone else so why bother? Then again, the moment the expensive shoes come out or the holiday to Mustique is taken, questions are raised over how it’s all paid for and oh no, isn’t she getting too big for her boots now? How will the British public get their money’s worth with these princesses if they keep trying to act like the rest of us?
Ultimately, the life of a princess is one forever defined by a refusal to change. We’re beyond the need for this anti-democratic practice but we coddle ourselves with lies over the benefits from tourism or the supposed stability they provide. Taxpayers don’t shell out much on average to keep the Royals going but the optics of another palace renovation happening while affordable housing crumbles and food bank use increases is a tough one to justify. The role of a princess in all of this is an impossible balance between window dressing and incubator. Becoming a princess is defined by the decision to become a fundamentally less interesting person, something patriarchy thrives on. Why be nasty or shrill or persist in your opinions when you can be quiet and pretty?
After all, the fairy-tales are usually written by men for a reason.