It’s Clear Who Is to Blame for What’s Happened With Kate Middleton

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At 6 p.m. local time on Friday in the U.K., the official social media accounts for the Prince and Princess of Wales released a video featuring Kate Middleton sitting on a bench in a garden, alone, speaking directly to the camera. She reveals that as a result of the abdominal surgery she received in January, doctors discovered that she has cancer. She has been receiving what she describes as “preventative chemotherapy” in the time since then. “William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately, for the sake of our young family,” she said. “Having William by my side is a great source of comfort, and reassurance too.”

Something like this was always coming down the pipeline. Whatever the reason Middleton’s disappearance from public life eventually turned out to be, it was never going to be something fun. And now we know the precise shape of that darker reality.

This video was followed by commentary from journalists and online mouthpieces that anybody who speculated about her whereabouts ought to be ashamed of themselves. Helen Lewis wrote a piece for the Atlantic headlined “I Hope You All Feel Terrible Now.” But it’s not guilt the public ought to be feeling. It’s a more wide-ranging kind of disgust about monarchy in general.

I don’t blame Middleton for any of this. She knew what she was signing up for in joining the royal family, sure, but I think it’s right and human to feel sorry for a mother of young children who has received a cancer diagnosis. That said, turning the blame on the public at large is disingenuous. Yes, the speculation online has been insane. People undoubtedly took it too far, with the TikTok sleuthing, the prurience with which many engaged in conspiracy theories about where she had gone. The jokes look in very poor taste now. But it didn’t have to be like this. The manner in which the palace went about handling this situation produced that situation. We’re in the odd but useful position of being able to compare what happened with Kate Middleton’s cancer directly with the cancer of another royal at the same moment, King Charles. There, the palace announced enough information to keep nosy hordes at bay, and they did it promptly. What the palace apparently decided to do here was to allow speculation to reach fever pitch over a period of weeks, release an obviously doctored photo of Middleton, blame her for the editing job, approve a grainy piece of bystander footage of her leaving a farm shop, and patch all of this up by trotting out a woman fighting cancer to sit alone on a bench and tell us, in the kindest words they could write for her, to leave her alone.

So, a big part of why this feels bad is that massive public relations failure by the palace. But it is also, to a large degree, an inevitable consequence of the fact of whom the royals position themselves to be, and the friction produced by their status in Britain. It’s important to remember that Middleton is not a celebrity in any normal sense. The Kardashians, people of perhaps equivalent fame, do not owe anybody any information about themselves, although they choose to give out a lot of it. But the royals do owe the public, in order to justify their existence. Middleton is a person whom the palace deemed it appropriate to parade out in front of the world media just hours after giving birth to each of her children, hair done, makeup applied. A person whose job, that which she earns taxpayer money for, is to appear in public: to shake hands, to be photographed, to grace schools and businesses with her presence. And she has to do this in strict accordance with the palace’s idea of what a princess ought to be. Polite, modestly dressed, humble, uncomplaining, smoothed of any rough edges that might constitute a personality. The idea that a person like that could just disappear, and people wouldn’t wonder where she was, is ludicrous. The royal family turns its members into figures who exist purely as spectacle, as glossy, likable ciphers for monarchical power. They have taught the public that they exist for us to see. That’s a hard lesson for people to unlearn.

Is this horrible? That any human being owes huge numbers of people who don’t know them private information about their life? That a person can belong to a public institution so completely? Yes. But that is not the fault of the public. If it is unpleasant for us to watch that video of Kate Middleton, that is an unavoidable consequence of the existence of the royal family, and the unique, un-squarable sordidness of their position. Being a member of this institution is intolerable. Princess Diana knew it; Meghan Markle and Prince Harry came to find it so too, as they’ve said ad nauseam. The reason it’s intolerable for the individuals under its umbrella is that being in the royal family is built on a fundamental paradox. You are an individual person with the desire for and the right to a private life, but you are also, quite literally, public property. It hurts, no doubt. Any discomfort that people are feeling at this moment about the fact that Middleton had to sit in front of a camera and talk to us about her medical condition should ultimately be discomfort about the hideous circus of the monarchy itself. “Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage,” Hilary Mantel once wrote about the royals.* If we don’t like looking at the animals in their cages at the zoo, perhaps the zoo shouldn’t have put them there specifically for us to look at in the first place.