I clicked. Damn it. I admit it. I clicked on the link and watched the Duchess of Cambridge and her smiling husband walk down the steps of St Mary’s Hospital, hours after the birth of their third child.
I’m a middle-aged Māori woman with a strong mistrust for these young royals, with their stage-managed personalities and light-hearted banter with journalists. So why did I click once, and then click again to watch a second time?
Duchesses attract attention.
Last year, the royal family brought in £550 million for British tourism.
The Tower of London always does a brisk trade with its ravens and gartered yeomen in doublets and muslin ruffs. The ravens alone score a 5-star rating on online discussion boards, but other royal residences also draw the flag-waving crowds.
The gardens are beautifully kept, says Tabby L. in a TripAdvisor review about her visit to Buckingham Palace, adding, “the portaloos outside were very clean too”.
And, of course, there’s a souvenir shop (“a little pricey”, writes archiekitten of Australia, “but you have to expect that”). Well, naturally.
Each time there’s a royal birth, death, or wedding, visitor numbers to royal heritage sites swell and revenue from royal-themed tea towels and coffee mugs fill the coffers of the Exchequer.
So it’s worth remembering that, as far as the British economy goes, the royal family is a closely managed global brand.
They wed, they give birth, they die — and cash registers ring across the British Isles.
But I often wonder if the merchandise that these heritage sites, with their steep admission prices, really offer is an emotionally-charged gateway into a particular version of history.
Visits to the palaces and stately homes of British nobility might be educational, but they can also be a nostalgic nod to the empire that this network of aristocratic families built, ruled, and then lost.
The violence of imperialism, the invasion of indigenous lands, the fundamental destructiveness of colonisation for native populations around the world — are all tucked away somewhere behind the Sèvres porcelain and liveried footmen.
I think there’s an enormous hunger to sanitise these stories.
With the rise of decolonisation movements throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, indigenous people around the globe have refuted the idea that the sunny days of the British Empire were bathed in glory.
In the process they changed our dialogues with the past.
Nowadays, it’s more difficult to overlook the chaos and injury that these aristocratic families presided over — and, for some people, it creates a deep uneasiness.
The present is uncertain. The past can’t be trusted.
I think there are many who travel in that colonial wake seeking reassurance that history has not left them behind. That there are still places for them in a world where the social conversation has veered in new directions.
An afternoon stroll around a castle or manicured manor gardens allows people not only to revisit the past — but also to rewrite it. To make it less brutal.
Nostalgia does that. It lets us control a narrative that’s slipped from our grasp. It makes us feel better.
In a way, it’s history written in glitter pen, with unicorn stickers in the margins.
And yet, I also understand that sense of being set aside as the world rushes by. It’s a very human condition and something that most of us probably understand.
“Brilliant,” writes Polly on TripAdvisor, after viewing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. “Felt very patriotic as the Royal Standard flag was flying. The little one was hoping to see the Queen or Kate but still wasn’t disappointed when I told her they were having breakfast & reading the papers.”
And there it is. That comfy sense that the royals are like any other white, middle-class family, kicking off their shoes in the drawing room and cutting out brunch recipes from the lifestyle section of the Daily Mail.
It’s the conviction that queens and princesses might have their ups and downs — divorce, infidelity, abdication, melancholia (Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alexandra, was a sufferer) and, occasionally, beheadings — but, aside from the things that actually kill them, they will glide through these setbacks with a brave smile and a cheery wave to the crowds.
A hundred years ago, when colonial administrations were urging white women to have babies as a patriotic act to boost settler populations, princesses projected an idealised image of maternity to the colonies.
As the “mothers of empire”, they gave birth as often as possible, and were model wives.
Those ideas took hold here, too.
Truby King, founder of the New Zealand Plunket Society, once said, “perfect motherhood is perfect patriotism.”
But he was mainly referring to white women.
And that’s the crux of it really. In their way, British princesses are a nostalgic fantasy of white womanhood.
Their gynaecologies precede them up the aisle on their wedding days.
I really think there’s something we need to say about all of this to Māori girls who are growing up in these nostalgic times.
When I was a child, I never wanted to be a princess.
I was different from the little girls today who I see dressed up as fairy princesses, walking through the supermarket with their mothers.
I never wanted the ruffled petticoats, or the wire and netting fairy wings oddly juxtaposed with the plastic tiaras.
Theirs is a world of Disney princesses. Fake royalty.
No, when I was growing up, I had loftier ambitions.
I wanted to be a ballerina.
I joined a ballet class when I was five or six years old and took my place alongside the pretty, blue-eyed girls who danced as if they were mounted on air.
Every Saturday afternoon, while a scratchy Tchaikovsky LP played on the turntable, we would stand in a row with our arms above our heads, toes pointed outwards, pretending to be swans or fairies or sugarplums — and once, for some reason that I can no longer remember, a family of raccoons.
There are photos of me from that time in a yellow and white tutu posed gracelessly against the hydrangeas, staring crossly at the camera.
Too awkward, the ballet mistress would bark at me, rapping her cane on the floor. Too tall. You’re all angles.
And it was true. I had the stumbling clumsiness of a newborn foal.
The Pākehā girls standing at the barre would sigh. Another class delayed.
At the end of the afternoon, they would float off in clouds of tulle to their gently applauding mothers and I would be released from my weekend purgatory, at least until Saturday rolled around again.
At the heart of the difference between those girls and me was a fundamental disagreement about the cultural scripts we were reading from.
We were at war, although we didn’t know it then, over who would control the narrative.
Let me explain.
In the late 1960s, the world was in flux.
Betty Friedan had written The Feminine Mystique and Rosa Parkes had refused to give up her seat on the bus.
These messages from the wider world were slow to reach Rotorua, but they were on their way.
I saw a glimmer of this one day when the ballet mistress decided on a jungle theme.
She divided us into pairs and urged us to “express ourselves”.
Be fierce, she told us, tapping her cane on the floor to keep time with the music.
My partner that day was a girl called Mandy.
She had a halo of golden curls like Shirley Temple and eyes the colour of Lake Tikitapu — a deep, almost navy blue.
Mandy was an obedient child. She always followed adult directives no matter how capricious or strange, and that day she was determined to give her creative all.
Let’s be warrior princesses, she said, nervously eyeing the other girls as they bobbed around the room making chimpanzee noises.
Smiling inwardly, I agreed. For once, I knew I could pull off a move which, if not balletic, would at least be on-task.
As she pirouetted around me, arms above her head and toes pointed outwards, Mandy emitted a series of squeaks, a bit like a sick kitten.
I’ve got this, I thought.
When my turn came, I took a moment to gather myself.
Standing tall, and casually casting my eye over the assembled mothers, I paused for their attention.
The chimpanzees fell silent.
Then I began.
Picking up an imaginary taiaha and assuming my best, most fierce pūkana, I circled Mandy slowly.
Then, as I gave a blood-curdling cry, I heard a sharp, collective intake of breath and a few gasps from the mothers at the other side of the room.
It’s probably clear by now that this story doesn’t turn out well — so let me pause the scene for a moment.
I grew up on the banks of Lake Rotorua. Mokoia Island is like a compass point for me.
Most weekends after Sunday School down at St Faith’s Church, I would sit by the lake with the other Māori kids as we waited for Reverend Manu Bennett to finish his service.
Rotorua has a booming tourist trade, and to pass the time, the girls would take turns at choosing their favourite Māori guides and creating complicated, ever-evolving scenarios about them.
The guides were important women in Rotorua society.
There was Guide Te Paea, who saw the waka wairua emerging from the mist, just days before the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886.
And there was Guide Bubbles. Guide Bella. And Guide Rangi, who had a lightning-quick wit and made the grown-ups laugh.
For many Māori girls who grew up in the town during the 1960s, they were our heroes. Our superwomen. Our warrior princesses.
Their lives took a different course from many other women in Rotorua.
And on Sunday mornings after church, before the adults herded us home for lunch, we would spin stories about them — investing them with magical powers.
My favourite was Mākereti — Guide Maggie — who went to a place called “Oggsford University” in England and had cups of tea with duchesses.
She was the one who didn’t come home.
I worried endlessly about that.
But she was clever, complicated, and devastatingly beautiful, and she seemed to me, a six-year-old girl, as someone who could hold her own.
I doubt she would have approved of my freestyle interpretation of mana wāhine that day in ballet class, although I don’t know.
Lost in my performance, I roared and slapped my thigh.
But then I saw the ballet mistress frowning, and Mandy’s eyes — those deep, blue pools — brimming with tears.
Confused, I laid down my imaginary taiaha and became, once again, a little girl in a leotard.
I held out my hand but Mandy evaded me and ran to her mother.
The room was suddenly very quiet.
I think that girl’s going to kill me, she wailed, hiding her face in her mother’s lap.
The other mothers drew around her, muttering darkly.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped going to ballet classes, but I think it was about that time.
Those pretty, blue-eyed girls have shadowed me most of my life.
In my teenage years, when they jogged off to the netball courts and hockey fields, I followed at a distance — not running but gliding, I would tell myself as I dropped my books and my bag and tripped on the stairs.
But in the pantheon of British royalty, the Duchess of Cambridge is the leader of the blue-eyed girls.
So when she glided down the stairs of St Mary’s hospital with her newborn child and waved to the crowds, I clicked the link and watched the performance.
Years earlier, I had watched her late mother-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral to marry Prince Charles.
Her wedding dress that day was a billow of silk taffeta wrapped around a body, we were later told, that was wracked by bulimia.
During her engagement to Charles, she was examined by doctors on at least two occasions. Once to confirm that she could bear children. “She’s a superb physical specimen,” her father declared afterwards.
The second time was to confirm her virginity. On that occasion, her Uncle Fermoy gave an interview to the Daily Star, saying that it was medically proven that “Diana had never had a lover”.
Perhaps, nowadays, we can dismiss these men as quaint relics of the past. But they represent something that I think still endures today.
It’s more than a cavilling preoccupation with the bodies of young women. It’s that deeply embedded view that these women are property that might be traded and exchanged for profit or status — like horses or slaves.
And no matter how much the monarchy shifts gears to project an image of hip young royals, I really don’t think this has changed at all.
I think we can do better than this. And perhaps we have.
In 1981, at exactly the same time the royal wedding was taking place in London, here at home the streets of Wellington city were in total chaos.
Protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand were gathering momentum.
On Molesworth Street, near Parliament Buildings, as Diana took her vows, a pitched and violent battle broke out between 2000 anti-tour protestors and baton-wielding police.
It was later named the Battle of Molesworth Street.
I mention it here because — princesses notwithstanding — that night marked the end of a public willingness to believe in the stories we had been told about the country we thought we knew.
It was the end of nostalgia for many who were there.
After that night, new groups of people, including many Māori women, stepped forward to challenge a social narrative that had not served them well.
As Diana left the church, and a coach and four horses carried her off into her own future — in this part of the world, the rules we lived by were changing.
For some of us, they had never really stuck.
And I think that’s what we need to keep reminding our daughters.
We need to tell them that it’s possible for them to tell their own stories with constantly evolving plotlines — and also that some rules never stick.
I want my own daughter to know this. And I really think she does.
Like many Māori girls of my generation, I have walked my whole life in the footsteps of clever and accomplished women — among them, Te Paea, Bella, Rangitīaria, Bubbles, and always, Mākereti. I feel their occasional tap on my shoulder, look back, change direction, and reset my course.
The next generation will do better than us and they’ll do things in their own way. The stakes are high, but I trust those wāhine Māori to make it work.
As for me, I’ll be watching and cheering them on. Not running, but gliding.
[First published in E-Tangata, 15 May 2018]