Kate Middleton’s Story Is About So Much More Than Kate Middleton

“Where Is Kate Middleton?” yet another headline blared on Monday. The public speculation following her unspecified abdominal surgery, long withdrawal from appearances and dubious publicity photo has gotten so intense that reasonable people may want to roll their eyes and tune it out. Can’t we just wish her well and leave her alone?

But the frenzy around Catherine, Princess of Wales, raises important questions that go well beyond the usual concerns of royal watchers. Those questions stem from the extreme deference with which Catherine has previously been treated, in Britain at least, compared with the thrashing bestowed on her sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.

On the surface, the controversy over Catherine’s photo and her absence may have nothing to do with Meghan. The way it’s playing out, however — and the contrast with the way controversies about the duchess play out — are rooted in how we have been conditioned, by the monarchy and its allies, to think about the two of them. Their supposed rivalry has been manipulated for years now to generate nostalgia for social hierarchies of an idealized past.

“Bread and circuses” is how the Roman poet Juvenal described the strategy by which imperial Rome placated the masses with handouts and entertainment, often cruel, vicious spectacles involving death before cheering crowds. In modern Britain, royalty has played a similar role of entertainment and distraction — a role that persisted during the country’s post-Brexit decline.

Brexit came about by the narrowest of margins after an intense propaganda campaign whipped voters’ fears about foreigners ready to invade and despoil Britain. Similar themes are at work in the story line of a supposed rivalry between Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. That story, promoted in ways subtle and overt by the press as well as admirers of the Princess of Wales, casts Catherine as an “English rose” — beautiful, noble, white — and her biracial sister-in-law as a dangerous, trashy newcomer.

In January, when it was announced that Catherine had undergone surgery and would have an unusually lengthy hospital stay and recovery, the British press seemed to take the matter at face value. It repeated Kensington Palace’s vague news releases even though something out of the ordinary was clearly going on. When a paparazzi agency snapped a grainy photo of her in a car being driven by her mother, neither the quality newspapers nor any of the unabashedly aggressive tabloids ran the photos — “out of respect,” as one editor said in explaining his outlet’s decision, “for her privacy whilst she recovers.”

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