One More Essay on the Ideal Family

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I’ve been thinking more about Robert Oscar López’s comment that “any choice to parent a child in a less-than-ideal setting for a less-than-grave reason,” and I want to share one more piece of writing on the subject.  

It’s “Royal Bodies,” a lecture Hilary Mantel gave at the British Museum in February. I bring it here because at the same time López’s essay was generating controversy, the whole world was fixated on St. Mary’s Hospital in London, awaiting the birth of Prince George. In fact, some of the same family values sites that promoted López’s article also posted cheerful notes celebrating the new royal baby.

Which raises the question: did William and Kate bring their baby into an ideal situation? In the sense that López is (mis)using the term, I guess so. George’s parents are married and heterosexual and unlikely to divorce. Oh, and they’re also well off. Little George will lack for nothing and have every advantage imaginable. And in a larger sense, the one Mantel explores, the royal family is supposed to be as close to ideal as an earthly family can get—the literal standard bearers for a nation. If any boy can be said to be born into an ideal family, it’s the new Prince George.

And yet I doubt many of us would want anything to do with the reality of living as a royal. It’s not just the media glare that literally drove George’s grandmother to her death. It’s the monarchy itself, its very nature, that deprives the royal family of their human dignity. The ideal is the problem, in fact. As Mantel notes, “Along with the reverence and awe accorded to royal persons goes the conviction that the body of the monarch is public property. We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way, making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all.”

Mantel tells us of her first encounter with the Queen:

I had expected to see people pushing themselves into the queen’s path, but the opposite was true. The queen walked through the reception areas at an even pace, hoping to meet someone, and you would see a set of guests, as if swept by the tide, parting before her or welling ahead of her into the next room. They acted as if they feared excruciating embarrassment should they be caught and obliged to converse…

And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at. 

Then she goes on to chronicle the history of the public’s claim to ownership of royals’ (particularly royal wives’) body parts. This sort of history is exactly what led some commenters, like Christopher Hitchens, to suggest that the ethical thing for Kate Middleton to  do would be not to have a kid at all. Why bring a child into that situation? If, like López, you think it’s child abuse to have a kid in a “less-than-ideal” setting, you’d have to concede Hitchens’ point.

Or you could just acknowledge the absurdity of López’s argument, and recognize that love and commitment make a family, not adherence to some Platonic ideal. Then you can join the rest of the world in cheering the new addition to William and Kate’s household. But you also might have to start acknowledging the value in non-traditional families and soon (who knows?) you might even be cheering marriage equality as it advances across the world. 

By the way: typing this got Lorde’s “Royals” stuck in my head. Sorry! Now it’s your problem:

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