Friday, January 24, 2014

We Are Not Royalz

Prominent among the top stories of 2013 was Kate Middleton's pregnancy and the birth of the royal baby. If you weren't familiar with the term "baby bump" before 2013, you can hardly have avoided initiation through the royal "bump watch" that occupied the first half of the year. News outlets on both sides of the pond went into hysterics when the Duchess started showing. Enthusiasm quickly gave way to concern over the petiteness of Kate's belly and a media-hyped Bump War between Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian.

Scrutiny on Kate's midsection didn't end with Prince George's birth. Photos of the royal couple leaving the hospital with their new baby prompted criticism of the Duchess's still visible bump, along with heated discussion of how a postpartum body should look. (The gossip rags are back on bump watch this month, with speculation that Kate is pregnant again.)

I've written previously about our infantile fascination with celebrities' pregnant bellies. What's interesting about the Kate Middleton stories is how they focus both our preoccupation with celebrity pregnancy and our obsession with royalty onto one woman's body.

Tom Sykes, editor of the Daily Beast's blog The Royalist, believes Americans are fascinated with the British royals because "they encompass all the best elements of a reality show, a fairy tale, and a historical novel in one ultra-famous family." We watch the royals as we would a soap opera, this line of thinking goes, fully aware we're watching a fantasy.

So what's wrong with a bit of regal entertainment? Peggy Orenstein addresses the same question in the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. "To call princesses a 'trend' among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book," Orenstein wrote in a New York Times article preceding her book. When the article was published in 2006, the Disney princess line alone was generating $3 billion in annual sales.

Princess play becomes a problem, Orenstein argues, when it is "the only narrative or fantasy girls have access to or are indulging in." A Disney executive told Orenstein that princess merchandise is specifically designed to help girls project themselves onto the princess characters. Our daughters might not aspire to become actual princesses, but through projection they become Disney princess-like: slender sopranos sweet enough to attract woodland animals to perch on their shoulders as they sing about the day their prince will come.

We're still projecting ourselves onto royalty even after the prince has arrived and an heir to the throne is in utero. Like our daughters, we know we'll never be royals, but we identify with Kate through pregnancy and childbirth. The media encourages such identification, comparing readers to Kate in articles about morning sickness, pregnancy weight, and postpartum hair woes. Since Kate's arrival in the public eye, stories about her have frequently mentioned her down-to-earth lifestyle and demeanor.

If Kate is no different from us commoners, then we too should have a yummy mummy tummy a few months after giving birth. Women's media perpetuates this reasoning and offers products and services to get us back on track. But it's not just that we should look more like Kate. When we compare ourselves to royalty, we start to think we deserve to live like royals.

This is what bugs Peggy Orenstein about what she calls the Princess Industrial Complex. On her blog, Orenstein writes:

Today's princess is not about romance: It's more about entitlement. I call it "girlz power" because when you see that "z" (as in Bratz, Moxie Girlz, Ty Girlz, Disney Girlz) you know you've got trouble. Girlz power sells self-absorption as the equivalent of self-confidence and tells girls that female empowerment, identity, independence should be expressed through narcissism and commercialism.

"Selling self-absorption as the equivalent of self-confidence" could be the tagline for women's media, which swaps animated princesses for real-life royalty and a reigning court of celebrities—"royalz," if you will.

Let's stop buying the lie that self-confidence comes from dressing like Kate Middleton or shopping like celebrity moms. Let's question marketers who tell us we and our children deserve royal treatment obtained through consumerism.

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