Death of a patriarch

Not long ago I quoted Robin Lakoff’s observation that looking closely at the details of language-use can reveal, or bring into sharper focus, beliefs and attitudes that usually go unnoticed. I’ve been reminded of that again this week, following the announcement of the death of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Since he was approaching his 100th birthday, this event was not unexpected; the government and the media had made a detailed plan (code-named ‘Operation Forth Bridge’) which they could put into action whenever it happened. So, what we are now reading and hearing—all the news reports and tributes and retrospective features about his life—is not the result of some hasty bodge-job. Much of this material was compiled well in advance, by people who had plenty of time to consider what they were going to say. I was expecting the coverage to be a lot of things I haven’t personally got much time for: royalist (obviously), obsequious (naturally), nationalistic (inevitably). But I’ll admit I was not expecting it to be quite so… patriarchal.

When I say ‘patriarchal’, I mean that in a very basic and literal sense. I’m not just talking about the presentation of the Prince as a model of aristocratic masculinity, a man who had served in World War II, who spoke with the bluntness of a former naval officer, who sent his son to a school that prescribed cold showers and stiff upper lips, etc., etc. I’m talking about the fact that commentary on his life has been organised, to a remarkable extent, around the proposition—not directly stated, but apparently still taken for granted—that it is natural and desirable for men to rule over women and children, in any social unit from the family to the nation-state. That proposition has shaped the outlines of the story we have been told—the story of a man who was outranked by his wife,  and who (understandably) found that demeaning; and also of the wife herself, a Good Woman who understood the problem and made every effort to mitigate it.  

In case you think I’m just making this up, let’s have a look at some textual evidence.

The first thing that’s striking about the coverage is that many news reports announcing Philip’s death chose headlines that specifically drew attention to his subordinate position. In Italy the Corriere della Sera had ‘Goodbye to Philip, always one step behind the Queen’. This wasn’t the only occurrence of the ‘step behind’ formula: he was also compared, by Andrew Marr, to ‘an Indian bride’ walking two steps behind (not surprisingly this comment was criticised for ignorance/casual racism, but I’m mentioning it in the context of this discussion because it’s such a clear pointer to the underlying idea that Philip was feminised, or emasculated, by his role). Another phrase used by several newspapers was ‘in the shadow of’, as in the Spanish daily El Pais’s headline ‘Muere el Principe que vivió 70 años a la sombra de Isabel II’ (‘the prince dies who lived for 70 years in the shadow of Elizabeth II’). Some reports combined these formulas: the Bangladeshi Daily Star, for instance, informed readers that Philip ‘lived in the shadow of the woman he married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 and always walked a step behind the queen’.

To assess the significance of these choices, we need to ask if the same phrases would be equally likely to appear in reports on the death of a queen consort, the wife of a surviving male monarch. That’s hard to test empirically because it’s rare, at least in recent British history, for a male monarch to be widowed (the last four kings all died before their wives). But it would be odd to describe a queen consort as living in her husband’s shadow, because that’s exactly where important men’s wives are expected to live. Being outranked and overshadowed by one’s spouse is the unmarked case for women; for men it is marked, and that’s what makes it headline material.

For Prince Philip, unlike the female consorts who preceded him and those who will follow, being relegated to the shadows was a problem; indeed, it was the problem that defined him. In the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, ‘Philip’s life was…lived in perpetual limbo, his every move, every remark, every glance reflecting on his wife. He enjoyed none of the scope extended to various predecessors [like William of Orange and Prince Albert]’. ‘The frustration’ adds Jenkins, ‘must have been intense’. This frustration is clearly a function of Philip’s maleness: if a woman in his position were to complain (as he once did) that she was ‘nothing but a bloody amoeba’, she would be met with a mixture of incomprehension and accusations of being a jumped-up, power-crazed harpy. Royal wives are expected to content themselves with smiling, looking pretty, accepting bouquets and providing heirs: those who do threaten to overshadow their husbands do not, on the whole, remain royal wives.  

The second notable thing is the emphasis commentators have given to the idea that while the Queen may have outranked her husband in public, behind the scenes their roles were reversed—or to put it another way, their marriage was based on the ‘normal’ patriarchal arrangement whereby wives defer to husbands, not vice-versa. Perhaps the bluntest statement to that effect appeared in Italy’s La Repubblica, which described Philip as ‘l’unico che poteva permettersi di dire alla sovrana: “Stai zitta”’ (‘the only one who was allowed to tell the sovereign to shut up’). For this the paper did get some pushback on social media. But it wasn’t unique: the Guardian said that Philip ‘allowed’ the Queen to take the lead in public, while the LA Times assured us that he was ‘the undisputed master of the royal household’. Sky News noted that ‘the Queen wore the Crown—but when it came to family, Prince Philip wore the trousers’. Ah yes, the Crown and Trousers, that beloved 1950s pub where women couldn’t get served at the bar or set foot in the saloon…I remember it well, and apparently so does a royal correspondent who’s probably about half my age.

If the Prince ruled the roost at home, perhaps he was really the power behind the throne, and his place in the shadows, always a step behind, was just a carefully nurtured illusion. A number of papers reminded us that for decades the Queen began every address to the nation with ‘My husband and I’, as if to underline his indispensable status as ‘her closest advisor and confidant’. And the idea that he was indispensable, if not actually in charge, might explain an otherwise puzzling piece of fluff put out by Reuters under the headline Despite loss of husband, little sign Queen Elizabeth will abdicate. That ‘despite’ clause is a classic, encouraging the inference that we would naturally expect her to consider abdicating at this juncture—that the death of her husband would be an appropriate moment for her to ‘relinquish the throne in favour of her son and heir Prince Charles’. (Time, perhaps, to draw a line under the anomaly represented by a female monarch, who is only ever there because her predecessor had no sons.)

In reality, as the piece goes on to acknowledge, there is no reason to think the Queen has any intention of abdicating, ‘despite the huge hole in her life that Philip’s death leaves’. It isn’t explained why she, or indeed anyone, would decide to deal with a ‘huge hole in her life’ by making another huge hole in it. But apart from the thought that a woman in her 90s should not be clinging on to power when a man is waiting for his turn (once again, although I can’t test it, I doubt this would ever be the response to a reigning King’s loss of his wife), the idea that it’s time for her to go may be related to another theme which has been quite noticeable in the coverage of Prince Philip’s death, the portrayal of him as ‘the love of her life’ (vice-versa has been rarer, presumably on the old romantic/Romantic principle that only women are ruled by their hearts). ‘He was her King’, said Bild, metaphorically bestowing on him the title he was not permitted in reality, because kings have higher status than queens. Perhaps the commentators think that, like Queen Victoria after Prince Albert died, she will be (or should be) too grief-stricken to carry on.

Does any of this really matter, though? Would we not expect media coverage of such an anachronistic institution to be, itself, anachronistic? Yes, and in many respects it has been: in its solemnity, its deference, its assumption that mourning dead royals is the same kind of shared national preoccupation it was in 1903, and its total disregard for the realities of the digital age (the BBC shut down one of its television channels entirely for a day while showing the same royal-themed programming simultaneously on the other two; meanwhile on the other gazillion channels, life went on as usual). All this seemed, to many people, weirdly old-fashioned, as if we’d suddenly gone back 50 or 100 years in time (the BBC even set up a webpage specifically for complaints about the excessiveness of its coverage).

But I don’t think the patriarchal presuppositions I’ve been discussing are in the same category. Nobody needed to have it spelled out why Prince Philip’s position was so difficult and ‘frustrating’ (something that will never be said about the future Queen Camilla); journalists my own age or younger reached unselfconsciously for formulas like ‘wore the trousers’ and ‘in her shadow’. The Times was able to report that Prince Charles had ‘step[ped] up to fill his father’s shoes as male head of family’ (because of course every family must have a man at its head). The assumptions behind all this did not strike most people as weird. And that, depressingly, is because they aren’t.