Today, as I am sitting here reading about masculinity, my mind wandered off. As the parent of young children who are today being swept up in the Coronation fervour at school- dropped them off to a day of enforced patriotism through the wearing of red, white, and blue, alongside having to learn the King’s coronation song. Dressed up to them as harmless fun, it leaves me with a deep unease.
The reality of living in a patriarchy feels more poignant with an impending king. A poster in a shop window in my town proudly claims, ‘A King in his Kingdom’. Somehow there is a sense of ‘rightness’ that people feel now that the patriarchy will have its patriarch. It is the natural order of things in a monarchy established as going down the male line (although technically changed by the late Queen Elizabeth, it will be many successions before the eldest girl child will be selected over her brothers). Even a local gym has been advertising on social media; ‘Feel like a King this bank holiday’ and it had an image of a man, woman, and child- however the foregrounded language speaking to the father in the family scene places him as the financial decision maker- the patriarch – the advertisement was written through and for the male gaze. Interestingly though it features a Black man; racial diversity in what is otherwise very conservative messaging.
When thinking about what it is to ‘feel like a king’ I also thought about the Labour Party’s recent claim that they will ‘make boys respect women’ (as reported in The Times), and ‘make lessons on how to respect women and girls’ part of school curriculum’ (The Daily Mail). Grimly, the aim of this policy is to ‘reduce violence against women by half’; which, as a woman, feels like a weak and quite ghoulish goal- although perhaps aiming for a zero rate could seem wildly optimistic, aiming for half seems as if there is a rate of VAWG which society is willing to tolerate.
So as I was sitting here pondering both the impending king and the move to educate boys to respect women, I couldn’t help wondering about the role of adulterous public figures among all of this.
We have a King who committed adultery throughout his marriage, to our now Queen. Although there is a public narrative as can be seen on the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ that he was a victim of a sort of arranged marriage himself (and setting aside the now lesser-heard conspiracy theories that the royal family had a role in Diana’s death), I can’t help wondering how this fits into the ‘respecting women’ discourse we are now seeing.
Not that adultery is unique to him as a recent public figure. Boris Johnson likewise had a shotgun marriage with a woman who he had betrayed his wife with (whilst she was undergoing cancer treatment no less), one of a large string of affairs during his time in public office. Donald Trump has also bragged about the way in which his status and power has given him more access to ‘do anything’ to whomever he chose, his own marriage irrelevant, just ‘Grab ’em by the pussy’. At the time of writing, he is in a civil rape trial. Likewise, Prince Andrew, another royal, paid off a reported £12 million to Virginia Giuffre who accused him of sexual abuse when she was 17 years old and had been trafficked by another (then) public figure Jeffrey Epstein. Not that I am trying to equate consensual and non-consensual activity here (especially since affairs appear to be quite common). But it is rather the combination of high-profile men with considerable societal and state power (significant public roles that are quite distinct from usual celebrity status), that makes me wonder whether their behaviour counteracts the work that could be done with teaching boys to respect women in schools.
In considering the sexual politics of adultery I on the one hand acknowledge that the institution of marriage is inextricably linked to patriarchal values of heteronormative family life. The nuclear family has its history in propping up the power of the father. However, once two people have made those commitments, I can’t help but also see adultery as potentially a form of abusive behaviour. Perhaps this is because in my own family, adultery was used as part of a wider dynamic of domestic abuse; to ‘womanise’ as a form of harnessed power, resulting in a wife’s self-esteem being further degraded. As with other aspects of marriage, this is a gendered experience. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics writes about this, discussing the ways in which men’s affairs can be seen as a constant part of patriarchal marriage, yet it is only females who are required to be monogamous. This sexual double standard around infidelity though is nothing new. Indeed the United Nations note that state interventions that seek to legislate against adultery violates women’s human rights as it is so often used as a means for control and abuse over women’s bodies. Accusations of adultery can become the new witch trials for women in some contexts. Clearly, private sexuality should not be the subject of legal and state legislation.
I guess it is important to note that Camilla was also married when she was in a relationship with Charles. Perhaps this feels less significant because of the central role of Diana as the weeping vulnerable White woman in the public imagination. She embodied her victimhood in her narrative of pain in the documentary with Martin Bashir. Situating her pain as both a victim of an adulterous husband and abused by the royal institution. Ironically the interview dynamic has also been since framed as coercive in the way that journalists deceived her to gain access. Double-crossed and used. The hetero-patriarchal context of Charles’s power as royalty in contrast to Diana’s victimisation as bound by her status as mother of the princes rendered his infidelity as more notable. Heterosexuality is strongly intertwined with male power and sexual dominance (Connell, 2005).
So as my children celebrate the King’s Coronation today in school I wonder whether the system is merely propping up the latest figurehead of the monarchy. Perhaps the behaviour of those individuals is glossed over, as really it is the power harnessed over us within this system which is what is important in all of this. Patriarchy works by maintaining itself.
Is it the case that the marriages and sex lives of public figures are private issues?
Does adultery convey a lack of respect?
Does infidelity by state figures who are at the same time role models to children matter?
Or does this rather point to the patriarchal foundations of heterosexual marriage and the gendered power vested in it?
What does it mean to ‘feel like a king’ in this new kingdom?