Pop Culture

Why Does Kate Middleton (And Her Famous Hair) Appeal to Americans?

Whether Americans care about Prince William’s impending nuptials is an ever-changing story, at least as reported by the press. One day, we uncouth commoners just can’t get enough of Ms. Kate Middleton aka the future Princess of Wales aka the long-term future Queen Catherine VI. The next day we’re being our cheeky, revolutionary selves, not giving a damn about such an “outdated” and “silly” tradition as, pfft, monarchy.

First, I’m not sure that “Will Americans Care About Kate Middleton?,” the question HuffPo’s Jonathan Ezer posed after the couple’s engagement last November, is the right one to ask. Kate and Will’s engagement pics swept the front pages of US tabloids just days after their announcement, and Kate’s mug has since continued to pop up every few weeks or so, dethroning whichever Kardashian’s turn it is to be front and center.

Whether or not we would have cared about Kate and Will without the endorsement and continuous coverage of the press is about as relevant as whether we would have cared about Kate Gosselin before she got a reality show and a divorce and another reality show. We’re stuck now–we have to care, insofar as we’ll keep absorbing the pictures and quotes and trivia until we form an opinion, however subconscious. Find me someone who doesn’t have an opinion about Brangelina and I’ll find you a hermit without an internet connection.

In addition to the gossip-rags, another powerful arbiter of taste, Fashion (capital F because I’m talking about that ethereal “thing” that somehow gets decided and foisted on the masses) has crowned Kate an icon. Apparently, her hairstyle, her feathered hats, her tweed jacket, and even the sapphire engagement ring which was once Diana’s* are being knocked off and imitated by New Yorkers, who it’s safe to say pioneer a majority of the trends which trickle down to Middle America/fly-over country.

While it’s clear that many Americans are fascinated by Kate, what I want to know is why? We so rarely shower this much attention on people who don’t actively campaign for it (see: Bristol Palin, Dancing with the Stars fiasco, 2010), so why her? Why now? Obviously, there’s some spill-over from the reverence Americans showed Diana, but surely that can’t be the only factor.

I think the love Americans have showed Kate and the extreme devotion they showed Diana are actually rooted in something sinister and backwards.

Consider how Americans generally talk about Michelle Obama and how they treated Hillary when she was in office. While Michelle is often lauded by the liberal media and her style has been enshrined in Vogue, venture onto FOXNews or any conservative blog, hell, even a middle-of-the-road news site like CNN, and you’ll read innumerable references to how “trashy” she is, how “controlling,” how “uppity.” Hillary’s appearance and personality have been lambasted even more.

Why? Because there is a strong contingency in America that likes its First Ladies to be figureheads–beautiful, submissive, retiring figureheads. Laura Bush fell into this category, as did Nancy Reagan. Even the iconic Jackie Kennedy, for all her work renovating the White House, protecting its history, charming dignitaries, and championing the arts, was beloved because she was attractive and stayed just barely within her chalk-outlined spousal role.

Kate Middleton’s somewhat spotty job history is already being evaluated by the press, and while some find it disappointing, I’ve also read repeatedly that her “lack of ambition” makes her perfect for princesshood.  Harry Mount, of the Telegraph, writes:

Her lack of career is perfect ““ there’ll be no wishing she had stuck to her career and become chairman of ICI or whatever, whenever the marriage, like all marriages, has a few rough moments.

It’s rather telling that, aside from debates which really center around the roles of monarchs in general, no one has asked Kate about her experience working for her family’s business. No one’s asked her who her favorite author is, what her favorite college class was, or even what charities she might be interested in supporting.

We Americans don’t care about those things because they aren’t relevant to her being young, conventionally beautiful, unemployed, and charismatic–a dynamic combination that Americans haven’t experienced in one of our First Ladies in years, though we try to force it.

What with all the duties of being the First Lady and the requirement to move to Washington, we practically mandate that she quit her job. But once installed in the White House, any attempts at actual policy-making get loudly booed. We scrutinize her outfits and deplore pantsuits or anything too “masculine,” while also demanding the First Lady walk a fine line between dressing inexpensively and wearing too many designers. We pay attention to how the President’s children are raised and where they go to school, usually in the context of how the First Lady is smoothing their transition.

We expect, no, demand, so much from our versions of princesses and queens, but we give so little back to them. They aren’t salaried and they get treated like so many voodoo dolls to curse or paper dolls to aid in dispensing fashion advice.

Personally, I think it’s wrong. I think the American ideal of the First Lady as silent, painted figurehead needs to change. We shouldn’t take this opportunity to glom onto Kate Middleton as representative of what we wish we had, but evaluate new models of womanhood and find ways to be proud of the strong, intelligent, creative woman we have in the White House right now, in order to pave the way for greater freedoms for and respect of the women (and men, though that’s another post entirely) who will fill the First Lady position in the future.

*I have a costume version of the famous sapphire ring. It originally belonged to my grandmother, who wore it to church every Sunday.

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