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'Normal' royals are not like us


'Baby prince' by Chris Johnston shows Prince George sitting on a throne being worshipped by child-like Australians. A young Tony Abbott in knight's armour stands byThere is a scene in the fourth season of Downtown Abbey in which a suitor informs Lady Mary Crawley of his need for a wife. Unable to give her the time she needs to finish grieving for her first husband, Lord Gillingham says, 'We both know I need to marry. I don't need to explain to you how the system we're trapped in works.'

This exchange shows how even wealthy bluebloods may feel imprisoned by society's expectations. Humans install institutions and, through enforced loyalty, these institutions take on a life of their own, until we regard them not as systems of our own creation that we can dismantle at will, but as intractable truths.

While the aristocracy has changed dramatically since the 1920s, the royal family remains trapped in the institution we both love and hate. Some may dismiss them as freeloaders but how many of us would truly want to live life in the goldfish bowl that is modern day royalty?

Eight-month-old Prince George is capturing hearts on his first official tour to New Zealand and Australia. Oblivious to his celebrity status and his future obligations, the son of the wildly popular Kate and William represents our complicated, and contradictory, relationship to the royal family.

George is at once a novelty and, as media reports remind us, a regular baby. One of the most remarked upon events of his visit has been his 'play date' at Government House in Wellington. Ten babies were selected to play with their future king, an honour that had one proud mum declaring she has 'a lot in common with the Duke and Duchess ... we've been through the sleepless nights and we can talk to them about our experiences'.

The casual play date occurred just days after the couple released an official but casual portrait with George and family dog Lupo. The Daily Mail praised the couple for their 'very modern approach to royalty' in which they let 'the public gaze in' with 'the promise of effortless informality'.

It appears that ostentatious elitism is out of favour, and the royal family is just like us.

Of course, if they were just like us, they would not be royalty. Yet we insist on having it both ways. Attachment to tradition won't allow the dismantling of the royal institution, but we all take seriously the claim to human equality. And so we stress that the royal family are just figureheads, that their continued existence as bluebloods is mere nostalgia, that, really, they are just like us.

But they are not. There are rules we must follow. Those who transgress may no longer lose their heads, but they will cop a shellacking in the media, particularly in the UK.

When Paul Keating was presumptuous enough to steer the Queen with a hand at the small of her back, his recalcitrance earned him the nickname the 'Lizard of Oz'.  More recently, The Daily Mail took Julia Gillard to task for not curtseying to the Queen, accusing her of 'disrespect' for merely shaking the monarch's hand. 

It takes a certain kind of cognitive dissonance to lap up the concept of 'informal royalty' even as we tear down those who breach royal protocol by daring to touch them. 

By clinging to this notion that they are just like us, even as we treat them as anything but, we brush aside the inconvenient fact that their status is a relic of a bygone era in which royal rule was enforced through brutal means. Where titles were bestowed upon the court's favourites and inherited purely by accident of birth, while 'commoners' were persuaded to accept their own inferiority by declaring loyalty.

How do we reconcile this with the modern notion of equality? How also do we accept that this wide brown land of ours is still referred to as 'Crown Land', overlooking the thousands of years of history of its First Nations? Is it right to forget that the British monarchy presided over colonialist expansion with all its associated genocides? A class system that bestows inherited superiority is a remnant of a more oppressive era best left in the past.

Now, I harbour no animosity towards the royals. They are merely living in the world as it is presented to them. But while the titles we perpetuate are merely symbolic, we are kidding ourselves if we claim that symbols don't matter. We may dilute them to make them more palatable, but in doing so we keep the original concept alive.

In the case of the royals, what we are keeping alive is the notion of inequality. Because royals cannot be royals and regular people, no matter how often Kate gets photographed doing the shopping at her local grocery store. And so we continue we fawn over them, even as we force them to make pretences to normality.

Many of us will gush about that one time we saw the Duchess of Cambridge in our own backyard, even as we marvel at how ordinary she seemed. 'She is a mum,' effused one New Zealand 'commoner' to the waiting media at one of Kate's official engagements. 'Just like me.'

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets.

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Prince William, Princess Kate, Prince George



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Existing comments

I haven't watched very much TV coverage of William, Kate and George's visit to NZ but I think without their occasional visits we'd miss something important to us. It's not that I want to fawn or peek into their life. They're serious about their place in our life and maybe we should be serious about our place in theirs. My grandsons are just as cute as George - but I'm happy to have the Royal family around for a visit now and then!

Pam | 13 April 2014  

No one in a position of power over us is 'like us'. Whether Liberal, Labor, democrat or royal. It is the unpalatable fact of the world. Some are worse than others - eg Stalin, Idi Amin, Mugabe, Pol Pot, Putin - and others are a tad better. We will not escape the situation of people having power over us till the world ends.

Skye | 14 April 2014  

Oh Ruby, if you believe the above to be true and you dislike it so, have a look at the Papacy and try to get through the front door to see "Frank". And what about the persecutions against "heresy" that the Jesuits enacted and the Borgias! I rest my case.

shirley McHugh | 14 April 2014  

"Is it right to forget that the British monarchy presided over colonialist expansion with all its associated genocides?" This is a good question. How many of the world's current conflicts and enmities are a direct result of British imperialism, the legacy of the Empire?

Janet | 14 April 2014  

So true Shirley! For that matter priests in he Catholic Church are not like us either, where they are to be seen as God's specially chosen ones. Their status is a divine right. Unlike all other professions they don't seem to have performance appraisals, if they do who carries them out? According to our parish financial advisor the money collected at the first collection for the support of the priests has dropped, could this be the people providing feed back to the priest?

Kevin | 14 April 2014  

Well said, Ruby. Let's pick up the chorus.

Richard Olive | 14 April 2014  

Well done Ruby. I just can't get my head around people who think that the 'Royals' have a special place in our life - our national life anyway. Is it that that association with 'the great' makes them feel a significance that they feel they don't have? I admire the queen very much but I think It is sad that our push towards being a republic seems to have lost steam. Anyway, the gimmick that saw NZ babies selected to play with young George must be the zaniest publicity stunt ever imagined. Why can't we, and our great leaders, grow up?

Joe Castley | 14 April 2014  

European royalty have adapted enormously, and have survived only because they came to recognise that they had a place only if they became "servants" of the (whole) people/community. The British monarchy have done extremely well in this regard. It works especially well when the humans involved are kept for the vast majority of the time 12,000 miles away and at others` expense! Further, the "Crown" in Australia is subtlety different to the monarchy, and is a symbol of political stability, values and decency, the rule of law and guarantor of liberty under that law. Again, it works wonderfully well. There are many lessons from all this for the Papacy and indeed the church hierarchy in general.

Eugene | 14 April 2014  

"Ye see yon birkie, called a Lord Who struts and stares, and all that, though hundreds worship at his word he's but a coof, for all that". Robert Burns And now I expect a thousand Scotsmen to abuse me for not presenting this quote in proper Burns language.

Vincenzo Vittorio | 14 April 2014  

William and Kate are a splendid example of devotion to duty,Remember, Kate was a "commoner" --no title, no ancestral estate.. Despite all the privileges associated with Royalty, marrying the heir to the throne means she faces a lifetime of service, always in the public eye, expected to behave graciously, dress appropriately and attractively and put others at their ease. There can be no finer example of selfless, lifelong devotion to duty than William's Grandmother. It is a harmless human characteristic to see certain people in prominent positions as inherently interesting . People like a bit of glamour. These two have perfect manners, are gentle and self-deprecating and a good example of a happy marriage -and they have an appealing baby. Be sensible- the days of the conniving, murderous Tudors and their ilk are long gone in England. The Royal Family is a Symbol, for Heaven's sake and the present young representatives are visiting New Zealand and Australia because so many people want to see them, Lighten up, Ruby.

helencpy@ bigpond.com | 14 April 2014  

There is absolutely nothing “good” about a monarchy. A monarchy is the triumph of discrimination based on racism and religious intolerance. The only reason we are still exposed to the “fairytale “ version of one of the most outdated systems on earth is the fact that it is well marketed by self-interested media. I believe for Australia the answer is simple. Replace the queen of king with a President. Maybe we should consider having a President appointed for a single calender year, similar to Switzerland to overcome the danger that a President gets a “big head” and becomes power hungry, I believe we should seriously consider giving the position to an Aboriginal or Torrens Island person. This would be a little “Thank you” to the original owners of our beautiful country. We would show our gratitude to the original owners and not the original thieves (British royalty) Land rights and reconciliation mean little if we remain ruled by a foreigner living in a far away land. In the meantime we should address anybody, any time and anywhere as Sir or Madam.

Beat Odermatt | 14 April 2014  

I am undoubtedly more lower class than all of you who comment as I was born without parents, clothes, food or a home and began life being raised in care. However, I unexpectedly met Pope Francis some months ago (or "Frank" as Shirley calls him). I have also met with a number of "Royals" - and with Queen Elizabeth II on 3 occasions, and 2 of them were unplanned. These people aren't plastic. They exude responsibility and duty which are so lacking in our overly-critical 21st century Western society. They manifest more dignity and respect, self-sacrifice and joy, than I have read in any comments on here. As for the digs at Catholic clergy: for the record, I was also grossly sexually abused as a child within society, and "put back together again" thanks to the long-suffering pastoral and spiritual care of several holy, humble and noble Catholic priests. Without their guidance and belief in me, I would be dead today as many of my co-victims are. How easy it is to throw stones at others when you have no experience of them as individuals, their lives or their daily service to humanity... It's 2014. Let's get real!

Jim Craig | 14 April 2014  

The article misses the point of what Monarchy is really about. There is only one area in life which we all should insist on and that is courtesy to all. It is naive to think there will ever be equality - ever flown on a plane? Poor old Bob Carr having to slum it in Business Class. Ever watched the Olympics or any sporting match? Ever looked through the HSC results or University results? Ever read a book and thought brilliant? Ever noticed the disabled? Ever noticed the cleaners in your place of work? Australia is very like a rebelling envious adolescent and it’s time to recognise the good and be thankful for our stable Westminster system. Be grateful for the good that the British did and the legacy they left us. If this is too hard to reflect on, then compare it with living in Syria or Egypt at the moment. Much easier to criticise rather than inspire and uplift. Every area of life has role models and long may they continue to inspire and encourage.

Jane Penseur | 14 April 2014  

Ruby thank you. What is this terrible weakness lots of us have when we consider the "Royals." It truly is pathetic. We even get carried away when the former Tasmanian young woman returns from Denmark. Why? Have people gone mad. Have we forgotten we are an educated independent nation, which elects our leaders? Why this carry on about someone who was born into a position. I could understand being impressed with, say an eminent scientist who has discovered a great medical treatment which will assist many thousands of the world's people. But a person who is born into a position really! I would just like the "Royals" to stay at home , for us to become a Republic, get a proper flag- without the Union Jack and one which featured our Aboriginal Heritage. We might then have some respect in the World and be proud to be an Australian.

Ron Hill | 14 April 2014  

I am a republican but I don't see any harm in having them visit. They put on their undies and sox the same way I do and are mortal. Nothing else

John | 14 April 2014  

The Royal Family is collectively the wealthiest group of people in the United Kingdom. This is why they always were and always will be more than just a symbol. The House of Windsor (before World War One, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) learned a lot from the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. If you don’t get out there and behave like people with a common touch, the people will turn on you. Another monarchy that disappeared in the twentieth century was Egypt and it was King Farouk who said in future there will be only five kings: those of England, Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs. That said, I agree with those who say they work hard and show how to be courteous, charitable and respectful of others. These are the sorts of leaders we need when we have a Prime Minister and Cabinet like the ones we have at present in Australia.

CLOSE READING | 15 April 2014  

We make our own reality. We can choose to see the Christianity of the Monarch of the day as the fragile but formal reminder that God, with People and Parliament, is our constitutional system; to believe that the chief ministerial owner of a temporary, and occasionally unbalanced, majority in the lower house must nevertheless see himself as subordinate and accountable to another real person or his vice-regal representative (a snub to the GG or governor being a snub to the Monarch), as opposed to a conceptual person called The Voter who, like another conceptual person called God, is only as influential as the first minister's conscience wants him to be; to believe that in sharing our Monarch with the other successful, modern poly-cultural societies of the UK, Canada and New Zealand, we are stating to the world that we are successful because of the family of values that we inherited and continue to develop, and proof of concept is to be seen in our parent and sibling cultures.

Roy | 17 April 2014  

Without British "colonialist expansion" we would not be here. It brought great benefits to many peoples (read Bp Colenso's account of pre-colonial Natal) - but of course had its great failures and its sometimes terrible oppression (think of General Dyer in India or the Zulu Wars that Colenso opposed) - though the word "genocides" is hardly appropriate (contrast Turkey's treatment of the Armenians, or of the genocides directly presided over by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.) Think again about what the Queen does, not least her support of the Commonwealth and her witness to a broad and sane Christianity, or of all the many activities of Prince Charles in relation to e.g. the environment and conservation, housing, architecture, traditional worship - but also inter-faith reconciliation- and the many and varied charities he has founded within the UK. I prefer judicious judgments to journalistic generalisations.

J.R.Bunyan | 17 April 2014  

And the spontaneous brain-snap by which PM Abbott resumed use of "KMart titles" in Australian awards may be treated as an aberration - perhaps induced by the impending Cambridge visit? ... and can soon be rescinded - including by his embarrassed Coalition colleagues!

Geoff D Bolton | 17 April 2014  

Some years ago Princess Alexandra of Kent made the statement that she was "just like us." "Can you cook a meal?" asked a reporter. "No," she replied, "but I can supervise the servants while they do." Perhaps not quite like us, then.

Anna Summerfield | 17 April 2014  

To Beat Odermatt: well said sir!

Brett | 22 April 2014  

Great essay Ruby. Add me to the 'Chorus" of supporters.

Bernadette | 22 April 2014  

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