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How the Royal Navy did the Royal Baby a right royal disservice

Jess Bickers looks at the famous photograph by the royal navy to celebrate the birth of the royal baby, and argues that it demonstrates ‘ordinary sexism’.

This image is probably very familiar to anyone who lives in Britain and was conscious at any point this week. It is, of course, what various newspapers have lauded as the Navy’s “epic tribute” to the arrival of the royal baby (whose name we now know, thank god, for a minute there I was worried she’d just be known as It’s A Girl Mountbatten-Windsor for the rest of her life.)

Now, regardless of your thoughts on the monarchy, and your theories that an entire nation’s unhealthy obsession over a new born baby is just another capitalist ploy to make us forget the utterly wretched state of our woeful lives, this image is troubling in a whole different way.

Take it as given, however much you love it or loathe it, that there are people in this country and across the world who will celebrate the birth of another member of the royal family. The papers celebrated it, the people camped outside the hospital for a month celebrated it, even…artists, celebrated it.

But none of them did so in quite the same way as the Navy, who referred to her simply as “sister”. To be honest, I had expected some of the less discerning newspapers to come up with headlines that defined the birth of a girl in male terms, but apart from one Australian publication sporting the headline “A sister for George” the headlines ran with key words like “Princess!” “Girl!” and “Girl Princess!!”, albeit in a rather alarming shower of pink. In fact there was so much pink = girl nonsense that I half expected Harriet Harman, as if on call, to turn up in her Pink Bus. Oh no sorry, magenta.

When I first saw the picture, I didn’t understand it. It didn’t make sense. How was that supposed to be a celebration of her birth? “Sister” seems an awful lot like a celebration for George. “Ooh yay, George has a sister!” Not, “Ooh yay, a girl is alive!” When you celebrate anything happening to anyone you don’t use a word that makes the celebration about someone else. It’s like celebrating a relative’s 90th birthday and writing in the card, “Hooray you’re 90, soon your family will be rid of you!” It’s really not an ‘epic tribute’ to have your nativity heralded as a brilliant thing for your brother.

I hate to defecate on something that is a source of joy for many (I don’t at all, I live for it), but there comes a point where we have to lay the cute aside and think about what’s going on here, about what’s being said. Within a mere 4 hours of her birth a new born baby was defined in complete relation to her brother.  They could have spelt GIRL and had enough personnel left over for an exclamation mark. They could have spelt BABY or PRINCESS, or HOORAY, GONGRATS, SPROG, anything, but the Royal Navy chose SISTER. And with that, this baby has had her first taste of society’s attitudes towards women and girls, less than a day into her life.

That picture is a message that society’s knee-jerk reaction to women is still to define them by their relationship to men. Unintentional, I’m sure, and yet all the worse for that. They didn’t think it would be read this way, they didn’t think it was an extraordinary case of very ordinary sexism, they didn’t think about it at all. But the bottom line is, when you’re the Royal Navy standing on the deck of a destroyer called HMS Dragon spelling out a word that’s going to go global, you really had better think about what you say, because your message has consequences.

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