Mocking the royals: How far can the satire go?

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When HBO launched a cartoon show mocking eight-year-old Prince George this summer, it was only the latest instalment in a history of royal satire that reaches back for generations.

But reaction to The Prince — mixed at best, and decidedly negative from some quarters — may point to an evolving public distaste for any kind of parody that puts a young or vulnerable royal at its core.

Part of that may stem from the experiences of George’s father, Prince William, and his uncle, Prince Harry, following the death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

“There is a lot of awareness from how both William and Harry have spoken about how difficult it was to grow up in the public eye [and] there’s understanding now of the necessity for royal children to have a degree of privacy,” Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian, said in an interview.

“Certainly in the 21st century, it’s considered distasteful for satire of the Royal Family to focus on the children, and in fact The Windsors satirical TV series has been much better received and it doesn’t really touch on royal children at all.”

Puppets depicting Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are seen at the stand of British satirical television puppet show Spitting Image during the MIPCOM, the world’s biggest television and entertainment market, on Oct. 14, 2019, in Cannes, southeastern France. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

Satire has offered up a mocking appraisal of kings and queens, princes and princesses for centuries, but the nature of it has changed.

Harris takes its history back to the time of King Charles II in the 17th century, when “being able to compose witty verse and make amusing conversation were considered very positive attributes for a courtier.” Charles even joined in, having had a sense of humour about his reputation.  

The nature and tone of satire took on a more biting tone in subsequent reigns, focusing more directly on the personal lives and attributes of monarchs and members of their families, before losing some of that bite in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and seeing something of a re-emergence in a milder form in the latter years of the 20th century (think of the satirical British TV puppet show Spitting Image).

Broadly speaking, since the 18th century, royal satire has shifted from being “bitter, ironic, contemptuous [and] relentlessly extreme in its censure” to being “amused, tolerant and wry,” said Adam Smith and Jo Waugh, co-directors of the York Research Unit for the Study of Satire at York St. John University in York, England, via email.

“In the 18th century, when royal satire was at its most scathing, scandalous and, frankly, scatological, it was enormously popular and drew very little attention from the monarchy,” they said. 

Arguably, they added, the monarchy’s tolerance of such satire spoke to their strength: they were so secure in their position of power that they weren’t bothered by cheap jokes and toilet humour. There were even instances where the monarchy appeared to benefit, as far as its public reputation was concerned, from the satirical attention.

That’s not, however, the kind of satire at the heart of HBO’s recent offering — or the reaction it elicited.

A 1792 cartoon by caricaturist James Gillray models a couple on King George III and Queen Charlotte. Gillray would regularly produce more severely satirical images, including ones of members of the monarchy defecating. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

“The climate around the release of The Prince suggests that, in the media at least, there is great concern that making fun of the monarchy might cause irreparable damage, or that it is in some way harmful to tradition,” said Smith and Waugh. 

“This perhaps speaks to the monarchy’s existential precarity (or, at least, perceptions of such), when a light-hearted adult cartoon causes more concern to the Crown than images of defecation, nudity and sexual promiscuity did 200 years ago.”

The reception of The Prince, they said, “and, more strikingly, the controversy surrounding the recent Charlie Hebdo caricature of Meghan Markle being choked by the Queen in a manner reminiscent of George Floyd suggest that in some quarters, sensitivity around royal satire is at an all-time high.”

Satire as a literary genre has a long history, reaching back to the time of the Greeks and Romans.

“In a healthy democracy, there is a strong tradition of satire because we need to be able to speak truth to power in a way that doesn’t threaten our freedom,” Robert Morrison, British Academy global professor at Bath Spa University, said in an interview. 

While the royals of today don’t have political power, Morrison sees them embodying something with its own significance.

“They have enormous cultural influence … look what happened when Diana passed,” he said, noting also how when Diana went walking among landmines, “all of a sudden that becomes a major political issue.” 

Diana, Princess of Wales, wears protective gear while visiting Angola in an effort to raise awareness on the problems of landmines in 1997. (Giovanni Diffidenti/Getty)

But satire doesn’t work, he said, against someone who is vulnerable, like a child.

In many ways, Smith and Waugh suggest, royals are the perfect subjects for satire.

“Traditionally, the satirist seeks to reveal and skewer stupidity, ridiculousness and hypocrisy and, in most cases, speak truth to power.” And part of that, they said, involves “punching up” at power and avoiding being seen to punch down. 

“Given the Royal Family’s position at the very top of society, it has been, traditionally, almost impossible not to be seen as ‘punching up’ when taking them as the target of satire,” Waugh and Smith said.

“Historically, efforts by the Royal Family to present themselves as aloof and untroubled by mortal problems have meant that the satirist needn’t concern themselves with questions about the harm such satire might do to the Royal Family ‘as people.'”

But in recent years, Smith and Waugh said, there’s been a slight shift in this — for example, with Harry and his wife, Meghan, speaking “about pressures and oppressions they have felt and experienced, discussing the Royal Family in language more often associated with popular cultural debates around racism and mental health.”

In that climate, where members of the Royal Family can be positioned as vulnerable, even with their access to wealth and privilege, Smith and Waugh said a satirist can no longer be assured they will be seen as “punching up,” meaning this type of satire may no longer be viable.

And that, they suggest, could have its own repercussions.

“This seems a shame, since the ability to hold the powerful to account has, since the 18th century, been valued as a key marker of a democratic society.”

A ‘difficult time’ for Prince Charles

Prince Charles has been the focus of criticism after a former close aide was accused of helping a wealthy Saudi businessman obtain an honour. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

It was, in ways, déjà vu all over again. A former valet and aide to Prince Charles who has been at the heart of controversy more than once was in the news again the other day, after being accused of helping a wealthy Saudi businessman obtain an honour.

Michael Fawcett temporarily stepped down from his position as chief executive of Charles’s charitable foundation after claims emerged that he helped secure the honour for Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz. (The Saudi denies any wrongdoing, and Fawcett has said he will help in the investigation underway, according to reports.)

While Fawcett is at the heart of the allegations, the circumstances also reflect on the Prince of Wales.

“Prince Charles is receiving particular criticism in this case because Michael Fawcett has been in trouble before,” Harris said in an interview.

“He resigned following bullying allegations and he resigned again following an investigation into whether members of the household were selling royal gifts.”

But eventually he was back, helping organize events in a freelance capacity for Charles.

Michael Fawcett, left, shown in 2004, a former close aide to Prince Charles, stepped down temporarily from his role as chief executive of a royal charity amid reports that he helped secure an honour for a Saudi donor, according to reports on Sept. 5, 2021. (The Associated Press)

“It’s clear that Prince Charles values Fawcett’s services, as he keeps reappearing in Prince Charles’s inner circle even after all of these investigations and resignations,” said Harris.

The BBC reported that its royal correspondent, Jonny Dymond, said a Palace source “stressed the distance” between Charles’s office and his foundation, but the former valet was known “for being close” to Charles and that the allegations were an “embarrassment” for him.

All this comes as Prince Charles’s reputation is going through a “difficult time,” Harris said. 

“His reputation had gradually improved in the early 21st century when Camilla gradually became an accepted part of his life and then of the Royal Family and his charity work received more attention than his personal life.”

But in recent years, there’s been a lot of negative scrutiny, in part because of numerous pop culture depictions of his ultimately doomed marriage to Diana, which have tended not to be sympathetic to him. (The Netflix series The Crown and the new movie Spencer, with Kristen Stewart, come to mind.) 

There are also the differences he has with his son Harry, Harris said, and now these further allegations of misconduct within the royal household.

“That’s leading to scrutiny about who Prince Charles trusts and surrounds himself with,” said Harris.

“Fawcett has been in trouble before … so of course questions are being raised about why he’s still organizing royal events and in the midst of these circumstances when he’s been investigated before.”

Looking to the future

For those who like to think about how the future may unfold for the Royal Family, there were intriguing headlines the other day.

As is so often the case in such instances, nothing was confirmed and royal officials labelled it as “speculation.” But still, it was of more than passing interest that Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, are reportedly looking for a new home closer to Windsor.

As it stands, the second in line to the throne, his wife and their three young children are based at Kensington Palace in central London. They also have a home about 185 kilometres northeast of there, in Norfolk, where they were based for a time while Prince William served as an air ambulance helicopter pilot.

Kate and William, along with Queen Elizabeth, thank volunteers and key workers at Windsor Castle on Dec. 8, 2020, in Windsor, England. Reports suggest William and Kate may be looking for a home near Windsor. (Richard Pohle/Getty Images)

But if they are indeed looking to move closer to Windsor, west of London, there would be considerable symbolism and significance to it, beyond any practicalities they may be looking for in a new location.

It’s widely reported that William’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, will become permanently based at Windsor Castle — rather than Buckingham Palace in central London — once she returns in a few weeks from her summer holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. 

For William and Kate, relocating closer to Windsor would mean being closer to the Queen, and, as The Telegraph reported, it “would mean they are better able to support the Queen as they take on a more senior role at the heart of the Royal Family.”

A streamlining of the upper echelons of the Royal Family has been telegraphed for a few years now. Circumstances have also conspired to mean fewer active senior royals, with Prince Andrew stepping back from official duties in the wake of his disastrous BBC interview over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and Harry and Meghan stepping back as well.

Whatever support members of the family will be offering the 95-year-old Queen, particularly in light of the death of her husband, Prince Philip, in April, she also appears intent on carrying out high-profile engagements in the fall.

She’s set to address the opening ceremony for the next session of the Scottish Parliament on Oct. 2. And she’s to attend a reception at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow on Nov. 1.

Royally quotable

“Until every community can access the vaccine and until every community is connected to trustworthy information about the vaccine, then we are all at risk.” 

— Prince Harry blames “mass-scale misinformation” for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, during a virtual appearance at the GQ men of the year awards.

Royal reads

  1. Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family support the Black Lives Matter movement, a senior representative says. [CBC]

  2. Prince William personally intervened to make sure an Afghan officer he knew from his time at a military academy could get his family out of Kabul as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. [Evening Standard]

  3. Britain’s media regulator cleared TV personality and journalist Piers Morgan of any violations for making comments about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, that drew more than 50,000 viewer complaints, the largest number ever received by the watchdog agency. [CBC]

  4. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who has a longstanding interest in focusing attention on the work of sexual assault and domestic abuse charities, will be patron of Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre. [ITV]

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