Laapataa lady: The world has gone bonkers over the ‘disappearance’ of Kate Middleton - Hindustan Times
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Laapataa lady: The world has gone bonkers over the ‘disappearance’ of Kate Middleton

Mar 17, 2024 10:46 AM IST

Speculation about the ‘missing’ future queen of England tells us a lot about our obsession with curating the perfect image. Read on…

In a post AI world, rarely have images mattered as much as they do now. An innocuous-enough photograph of a mother and her three children has created a stir that is bouncing off our planet as if the first bugle of armageddon has been sounded.

The picture that launched a thousand conspiracies
The picture that launched a thousand conspiracies

Kate Middleton, on track to be the future queen of England, released a picture on Mother’s Day presumably with the intention to scotch rumours about her ‘disappearance’ from public view since Christmas last year. On January 17, official sources had informed the British public that she had undergone abdominal surgery that is not cancer-related and she wouldn’t be seen in public until after Easter.

That statement notwithstanding, there’s been a frenzy of conspiracy and other theories.

She’s dead (or in a coma).

She’s recovering from botched up plastic surgery.

She’s in a sulk over her husband’s ‘mistress’.

The Mother’s Day picture, reportedly taken by her husband William (who, unsurprisingly faced no flak from the fallout), was designed to put to rest these and other saner questions: Just where is Middleton? It has, in fact, had the opposite effect.

The culprit is the discovery of some what seems to be some pretty harmless tinkering, a daughter’s sweater sleeve, the position of a zipper, a blurry hand, which Middleton has belatedly admitted to. Except for one theory that her face itself has been superimposed from an earlier Vogue cover, nobody has so far suggested that Middleton’s image has been altered to make her look healthier or other than she really is.

Yet, major wire news services decided to ‘kill’ the image and asked clients to pull it down because it had been altered in violation of their ethical standards.

Picture perfect

More than anything else what ‘Kate-Gate’ tells us is the primacy of images in a world where news is now ‘content’ and words are increasingly being replaced by pictures.

There is nothing thoughtless or candid about these images. Whether we are consuming images of

the British royal family, a naked John Cena presenting the Oscars for best costume design, airport sightings of immaculately dressed celebrities by paparazzi, or the wedding celebrations of the son of Asia’s richest man. What we see are pre-planned exercises crafted to project a certain image.

The picture of a mother surrounded by her happy, smiling children? Robust wholesomeness. A-list Bollywood stars and global industry leaders at the wedding celebrations of the son of Asia’s wealthiest individual? Glamour, power and unabashed excess. The curated photographs of family and hand-picked friends resulted in a flurry of coverage from every media outlet in India and also the more conservative Financial Times and The Economist.

The fact that we simply cannot get enough of either—too little of one and too much of the other—says something about us as a society, rivetted, entertained and distracted by what would be tabloid fodder but now makes mainstream headlines.

Perhaps the reality of our world is too much to bear. We are witnessing an ongoing genocide in Gaza where children subsist on animal feed or starve to death. Where gangs in Haiti led by a figure called Barbecue has erupted in violence. Where economic crisis in Nigeria has led to food looting. Where the war between Ukraine and Russia drags on. Where we must gloomily consider the prospect of Donald Trump coming back to power in a country where hard-won rights for abortion won half a century ago are under threat again.

But equally, the two moments tell us of the vulnerabilities and humanity of their subjects. Behind the picture-perfect images is a mother airbrushing her children’s images to their best advantage. Images of the world’s rich and beautiful celebrating an individual’s impending nuptials tells us that for all his wealth and influence, Asia’s richest man is not immune to being a film fan—like billions of others across the globe.

In 1545, the artist Agnolo Bronzino completed a commissioned portrait of Eleonora di Toleda, a Spanish noblewoman who had married into the powerful Medici family. A fascinating April 2023 report in The Economist recounts how the portrait, which hangs in Pitti Palace in Florence built by her funds, conveys not just Medici wealth but the source of that wealth too. It was Eleonora who not only financed many of her husband’s political campaigns but stepped in as regent thrice while he was away.

She also apparently commissioned her own portrait to send out one simple message: She mattered.

The views expressed are personal. The following article is an excerpt from this week's Mind the Gap. Subscribe here.

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