Background: Hilary Mantel said some interesting things about our fascination with the breeding habits of the monarchy. I liked the observation about how writing about the wives of Henry VIII tends to fit with moral trends of the author’s time. The Daily Mail (and others) preferred the bit about Kate Middleton being “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.” And then used it to talk more about the royal pregnancy while Twitter got cross.
A friend messaged me earlier:
“Pip, why is everyone getting so angry about Hilary Mantel?”
I used to write about celebs for a living so I field a surprising number of these kinds of queries from baffled friends who want a quick answer when a Twitter storm hits or when they can’t remember which charges Lindsay Lohan is currently in court for.
Usually I give as in-depth an account as I can (or as they will pay attention to) and the conversation moves on. That or, if the story has been a tawdry one, I send a picture of a red panda giving another red panda a high five by way of an apology for human nature.
Today… what’s the point? The answer is “Because the internet.”
Look, we all know the Daily Mail is good at trolling the internet, at linkbaiting, at manufactured outrage for initial page views and then settling back for a second round of traffic as the inevitable waves of Daily Mail detesters land crashing on the provocative text beach in a froth of tweets, comments and indignation. Oh, and then soaking up the third wave of page views as pictures and phrases in the sidebar ‘o’ shame catch your eye and you can be outraged about them too. Maybe a fourth as the rest of the world asks “What are you guys talking about?”
It’s not unique to the DM, particularly not using Kate Middleton (the artist formerly known as) to generate traffic, they just happen to execute it spectacularly. Award-winningly, even.
But if you stop and think for a moment, this whole thing isn’t really about Kate Middleton. Sure, she’s the focus of this round, but you’re noticing it because she’s ubiquitous enough that everyone feels they can give an opinion and because it involves talking about women’s bodies and women’s representations in the media. There’s also the delicious irony that by sensationalising Mantel’s essay the papers are doing the very thing Mantel is holding up for comment. Prime fodder for observers of pop culture.
Except, delicious irony? Really? It’s the god-knows-how-manyth time this has happened. Seeing it as story riddled with laziness and an improper understanding of the source material means you probably aren’t cynical enough.
Perhaps it’s easier if you take Kate out of the equation. She’s just too loaded a subject.
Look elsewhere and you can see the same sort of thing going on across the whole internet. Peer at all the speculative articles about the upcoming generation of games consoles or any physics story touching on the nature of the universe or whatever other topic takes your fancy.
Now look at all the stories asking questions in an attempt to lure you in for the payoff of an answer. Look at the headlines asking whether the Xbox 720 have a built in, like, I dunno, toaster oven? Look at articles covering mild scientific discoveries whose opening paragraphs feature at least one reference of the end of humanity or the universe or some other dramatic thing because that’s what people en masse like to click on or be outraged by or have some kind of instant emotional gratification from.
It’s a case of curating a press release or an interview with a very specific goal in mind: eyeballs not accuracy.
The accuracy isn’t the point. Going back to Kate, Why on earth would the DM be trying to give a precis of Hilary Mantel’s essay? Their readers (whether native or dragged in through a link) are interested in Kate and Mantel definitely did mention her using the phrase: “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own”. That’s where the relevance ends for this type of reportage. It doesn’t matter that that point was part of a wide-ranging and interesting essay because Kate wasn’t namechecked in that bit. Besides, removing the rest of the context means you can update the article with as many pictures of Windsor Womb Watch as you like.
So yeah. I ended up writing about it. But it’s not new. It’s how we are continuing to landscape the internet through our clicks and our outrage.
We’re a shitty, salacious Capability Brown.