This morning, the French magazine Closer published a number of photographs of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless at a family-owned vacation spot in the south of France. The Duchess had apparently been alone with her husband, Prince William, on a brief vacation, staying at a remote chateau owned by one of William's cousins. She had been relaxing on a balcony without her bikini top when paparazzi with long lenses snapped the pictures in question.
This is the second embarrassing photographic incident affecting the British royal family in the last several weeks, and it raises a number of questions about the nature of privacy and the ethics of chasing famous people around with cameras, waiting for them to do something that will be worth selling to a tabloid. The British royal family is now threatening to sue for breach of the Duchess's privacy.
Spokespeople for Closer have defended the photographs as "not shocking" and "like millions of women you see on beaches." People have also defended the publication of the photographs by saying that the Duchess has no reasonable expectation of privacy. The argument goes that, having married a prince in line for the British throne, she has more or less consented to the publication of any picture that can be taken of her, with any technology, in any location, in any state of undress. This is a familiar refrain - I heard it a few weeks ago when the Duchess's brother-in-law Harry was photographed cavorting naked in a seedy hotel room in Las Vegas. It goes like this: he's a prince of England, for heaven's sake - what sort of privacy does he think he's entitled to?
Closer's first response is simply disingenuous. It is customary for women to sunbathe topless in the south of France and in many other parts of the world where the baring of a woman's breasts is not considered obscene. I've done it myself, but if Closer had followed me and my husband to the south of France and had taken pictures of me without my bikini top, I doubt it could have sold the pictures to a tabloid for any appreciable amount of money. Nobody's interested in seeing me topless (well, nobody other than my husband). I'm like the millions of women you see on the beaches - Kate Middleton is not.
The privacy argument is more difficult, because it brings into play a deeper societal attitude about women's bodies and the distinctions we draw among virtuous women, naughty women, famous women, and normal everyday women. Kate Middleton married a prince. In doing so, she took on a public role as a famous, virtuous woman. She needs to make public appearances and observe the modest standards that society demands of a princess. She is a role model for many, and as such, she needs to behave as virtuously as possible. As a requirement of her job, she must dress well. She must avoid public confrontations with people who annoy her. She must smile and nod and speak only when she has been asked to do so.
But isn't she entitled to a private life? Is there nowhere she can go to be a normal woman, out of reach of cameras just for a few moments? Can't she take off her bikini top at the family home and let her husband help her with the sunscreen? This is the man she's married to, after all. Unlike Harry, she wasn't cavorting with prostitutes in a public hotel. She was at her cousin's home trying to relax for a few minutes with her life's companion.
Harry got off with an apology and a winning grin. Society doesn't expect anything more of a single man. Catherine, however, is a married woman, and it's never that easy for a woman. She has breasts and someone saw them. The response is mortification (how embarrassing it must be for the world to know that a princess has breasts!) and the old blame-the-victim saw (hey, honey, you married a prince, so you can't complain about fuzzy naked pictures of yourself appearing on a newsstand).
Single men who play strip poker with strangers are just having fun. But women who let anyone see their breasts - including, apparently, their husbands - are naughty. We are expected to be modest, reticent, and, above all, embarrassed about our bodies. And there is a huge public market for that embarrassment. I have no doubt that Closer's naked-Catherine issue will be a big seller today, and that the pictures will be online in no time and shared all around the world.
The fault is not the Duchess's. The fault is in societal attitudes. As long as we consider women's bodies obscene, and as long as we are willing to pay money to see rich and famous women humbled, this sort of behavior will continue. Shame on Closer and shame on all of us for perpetuating this attitude.