On Wednesday, January 11, William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, visited Child Bereavement UK in Stratford. It marks the couple’s first joint engagement of 2017 and followed an earlier visit that Kate made to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, one of her patronages. Compared to previous years since the couple’s 2011 wedding, it was an earlier-than-usual scheduled appearance in a new year, with January historically being a slow month for royal engagements.
Notably, both events come on the heels of the annual compilation of end-of-year engagement numbers for the royal family. For better or for worse, members of the House of Windsor, from the Queen to the Dukes and Duchesses of Kent and Gloucester, are ranked based on how many engagements they carried out over the course of the previous calendar year and it naturally leads to a fair bit of press attention and commentary. Most years, including 2016, the Queen and her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, are rightly praised for their work ethic, as are the Princess Royal and Charles, Prince of Wales. Indeed, for most members it’s a fairly non-controversial turn of events – unless, of course, you are William, Kate, Harry or the York girls.
2016 was an interesting year for the younger members of the royal family. Five years on from the royal wedding, when it seemed that William and Kate could do no wrong, they, alongside Prince Harry, have started to garner a fair bit of criticism, primarily claims that they are “work shy.”
This is nothing new for Kate, as anyone paying attention to headlines about her over the last decade could tell you – it’s been widely reported that she struggled after University to find her footing professionally, unsure of what to do and, somewhat understandably, how to navigate a media presence that would be able to glean and take advantage of a daily work schedule. Because of this she was nicknamed “Waity Katie” by the tabloids prior to her engagement, judged harshly for her lack of a public professional role, combined with paparazzi pictures from her mid-2os of her leaving night clubs.
But that had quieted down somewhat since she officially joined the royal family. In 2011 the press was focused, naturally, on her engagement and wedding. 2012 saw the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a royal tour and “newlywed” coverage. 2013 marked her first pregnancy and the birth of Prince George. 2014 saw the Australia and New Zealand tour, during which Prince George accompanied both his parents, and then the announcement of her second pregnancy. Criticism really started to build in the second half of 2015, when Kate took a longer maternity leave after the birth of Princess Charlotte than she did with George.
My opinion is that this was largely driven by the dearth of other royal news, but her re-emergence that fall (and with a new hair cut, no less) didn’t do much to quell the tide. And, unfortunately, 2016, which saw rumors of tension between the Prince of Wales and Andrew, Duke of York, the announcement of a new girlfriend for Prince Harry, and two overseas tours for William and Kate, appears to have made the problem worse, not better.
Indeed, the headline for Tom Sykes’s latest column in the Daily Beast is, “Why Prince William and Kate Middleton Have a Work Problem.” In it, he argues that what the 2016 engagement numbers show is that the couple simply aren’t pulling their weight, particularly compared to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. At one point, he says:
It’s rather bizarre, anyway, to talk of these fit young thirtysomethings “supporting” their 90-year-old grandmother. They should be doing the heavy lifting, but William attended just 188 engagements last year, while Kate attended 140.
Some may think that Kate’s 140 public engagements sounds like an impressive tally. But it’s important to remember that often two or three events are scheduled to take place on the same day.
In fact, Kate only made public appearances on 26 actual days in the U.K. or Europe, plus two week-long foreign tours to India and Canada in which the couple packed in dozens of engagements.
Now, Kate isn’t alone in receiving this criticism obviously. It’s William that’s the future monarch after all. But Kate, like her mother-in-law before her, is the media draw. I think there are a number of factors at play here:
- Nearly six years past the royal wedding, some of the glitter has worn off of the couple, at least so far as for the purposes of a news cycle. Much like a seven-year itch, I think an uptick in public criticism right around now is to be expected. I also think that the royal family is well-versed in playing the long game, because the institution of the British monarchy is nothing if not a long game.
- They’re a well-off couple living in palaces that can afford to take regular holidays, buy new clothes, etc. Simply put, that’s going to inspire jealousy. But more to the point, unlike other celebrities, it’s going to prompt the question, “Are we getting what we’re paying for?” regardless of what credence you lend to the financial argument behind the existence of a monarchy.
- There are likely some behind-the-scenes factors at play to which the public isn’t privy. And I don’t know what those are at any given point, but neither does anyone else. The fact of the matter is, as much as there’s credibility behind the argument of two 30-something adults working more than a couple dozen days out of the year (not counting, of course, William’s actual job as a pilot), there’s also the fact that neither William nor Kate are the monarch and consort, or first in line to the throne. Because the British royal families doesn’t really “do” abdications like other European monarchies, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are significantly older than other monarchs. The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are older than most other heirs and their spouses. It doesn’t benefit any of them, but especially Charles and Camilla, for William and Kate to be seen as not only overshadowing all four in media attention, but in actual substantive duties. In this case, it’s rather more sensitive given how many random opinion polls get put out there, to varying degrees of credibility, asking whether the public would rather William or Charles was the next monarch.
- The Queen’s engagement numbers tell more than one story. You could look at her hundreds of engagements per year, compare them with William’s, and decide that he’s “workshy.” Or you could realize that the monarch doesn’t retire – nor, indeed, does their spouse. If that’s the case, then isn’t there some sense in taking time on the front end to focus on your family and take advantage of what private life you’re able to create from within an extremely public family? I would argue yes, even if you know it will inevitably lead to criticism that you’re not pulling your weight because you know, eventually, whether you like it or not, you will be. And not for nothing, but for all of the praise that Queen Elizabeth has received for ascending the throne at 25 and dedicating her life to duty, she has also received a fair amount of criticism for ceding a lot of her parental responsibility to the Duke of Edinburgh in the 50s and 60s and being an “absent mother,” however understandable the circumstances (or, indeed, however sexist that particular complaint is).
Now, that said, not all of the criticism William and Kate have received is off the mark. Here’s where they (or their press office) have botched the delivery:
- Obviously a lot of working hours (and days) goes into their public engagements, but this is an optics game and no matter how many times you say that, it’s not going to get you anywhere. Spread out the engagements. Add more on. Show, don’t tell, what some of that behind-the-scenes work is and what goes into these patronages. This isn’t a difficult fix.
- Stop presenting this as a choice between working and parenting, because most parents are working parents and doing it without a lot of the resources William and Kate enjoy. I think it’s a safe assumption they know this, so for the love of God stop presenting any failure to appear or decline of an invitation as necessitated by an urgent need to spend time with the children. It just comes off as tone deaf.
- Say something. In an era where CEOs and private corporations are, more and more, expected to have a point of view and take a stand on any number of political and social issues, we’ve passed the point of mysterious muteness from our public figures. Yes, there’s a sharp, deep line in the sand that members of the royal family can’t cross on both of those fronts, but candor and humanity are more powerful to the 21st century than providing a blank canvas on which the public can project. A little on this front would go a long way and would be the surest step towards the modernity that the House of Windsor says it’s moving towards.
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