Performing ‘ordinary’: Prince Harry, charity and military masculinity
Recent comments by blogger Brent Blake that Prince Harry is ‘more real than most people you know’ echo sentiments in our interviews with young people that Harry is ‘a normal guy’. But what does it mean for a millionaire British royal to be seen as ‘ordinary’? In this blog post, Laura reflects on initial analysis of our group interview and case study data, arguing that Harry’s performance of ordinariness serves a powerful rhetorical function in erasing oppression and justifying continuing national and international inequality.
One of the things I certainly wasn’t prepared for in our interviews was the talk about Prince Harry. In fact, we were so fascinated by how young people talked about Harry in the group interviews that we selected him to be one of our 12 case study celebrities. Despite his highly-publicised, expensive international ‘party’ lifestyle, constant press attention to the detail of his every movement and position in line to the thrown, Harry Windsor was frequently described by participants as ‘down to earth’ and ‘normal’. Such representations of royal ordinariness are also common in media representations of Harry, as I discovered when I followed the media coverage of Harry for six months as part of our case study data collection. Harry’s ‘ordinariness’ also came through strongly in our individual interviews, in which we asked participants to imagine the case study celebrities at their school. In this imagination exercise, many of the young people positioned Harry as a ‘down to earth’ person with whom they could be friends.
When Michael Billig analysed ordinary families talking about the royal family in the late 1980s, he argued that when people discuss royals, they are also talking about their own lives. Billig found that people often represented royal lives as difficult, in comparison with ‘the desirability of ‘ordinary life’’. Billig argued that people talked about the importance of royals ‘earning’ or ‘paying their way’, signalling a shift in the function of royalty in relation to changing ideologies of individualism, work and ‘value for money’. He argued that these ways of talking about royalty worked to make sense of inequality:
‘As the columns of credits and debits are summed, so the accounts are settled to arrive at the conclusion that there is a ‘just-world’, at least so far as royals and commoners are concerned.’
Ordinariness: ‘playboy’ and ‘soldier’
The extract below is taken from a group interview in a rural school, which happened to be a couple of days after the documentary ‘Prince Harry: Frontline Afghanistan’ was aired on BBC3:
Florence : And he doesn’t act like a royal. He kinda acts like a normal person.
Dory: I think he’s pretty inspiring because he like.
Mat: Are you saying royals aren’t normal?
Dory: So at the start when he wanted to go to Iraq, like, everyone told him not to,
and then he actually went because like they found a secret place for him to go, and
then he started coming out of it. He’s pretty cool. [laughter]
Laura: So why do you think that it’s good that he’s gone, that he went to
Iraq and Afghanistan?
Dory: Because he’s –he’s part of the royal family, he just, he doesn’t really,
obviously he doesn’t act like a royal family member but.
Laura: How do you- how is it kind of different to how you see other royal family
Dory: Like, I dunno he just like, you wouldn’t get Prince Phillip going out with a
machine gun would you that would be really funny
Mat: You wouldn’t see the Queen driving past in like an, armoured vehicle.
Laura: So it kind of like, you feel like he’s a bit more like, ordinary people?
Florence: Yeah. And like he could just like sit around because of all the money he’s got,
but instead he goes out and does like one of the hardest jobs there is.
A similar exchange happened in a group interview with a year 12 group on the same day:
Joe: Even if he is in the Royal Family, he’s just a normal guy. He fights for
our country. He’s just trying to be a normal bloke, he wants to go out
and have a good laugh. [Paris: Yeah] That’s why he goes on like holiday,
and he does stuff like that. He just wants to be normal.
Paris: Yeah. He’s young. Like, I’d say that’s like what every young person
would be doing. Just because you’re famous, or you’re a celeb, or
you’re part of the Royal Family, doesn’t mean you can’t have a life,
like, or have to act-
Joe: Even if you are a role model to millions, it shouldn’t affect you
having a good time, and-
Paris: He’s still got to have a life, can’t live a life of misery
Britney: Coz people, people like him for what he is, and not for what he
like pretends to be.
The narratives in these interviews are quite similar to the story told in the BBC3 documentary. Working in the military appears as a form of ‘escape’ from the stifling confines (or ‘misery’, as Paris puts it above) of royalty and the paparazzi, in which he can joke around with fellow soldiers about the ‘piss bags’ he has to use in the Apache helicopter he fires missiles from. These ordinary soldiers, Harry tells interviewers, are the real heroes:
‘I wouldn’t say I’m a hero. I’m no more a hero than anyone else. If you think about it there are thousands and thousands of troops out there’ (quoted in Robert Jobson’s biography, Harry’s War).
Through his role in the military, Harry is thus able to claim an altogether more ordinary kind of extraordinariness. In an interview about the now infamous incident in which he was photographed playing strip pool in Las Vegas, Harry responded that ‘It was a classic example of me probably being too much army and not enough Prince’. Indeed, in reponse to the Las Vegas scandal, solidiers posted ‘naked salute’ photos on Facebook to support him as ‘one of the lads’. Harry appears in these accounts as just an everyday kind of guy – the sort of person who has a bit too much to drink and gets himself into scrapes, but who doesn’t ‘sit around because of all the money he’s got’. The lavish hotel suites and swimming pools fade into the background – he’s an ‘ordinary guy’, a ‘lad’, who plays Xbox with his fellow soldiers and makes the tea, even if he was born into extraordinary circumstances. Biographer Chris Hutchins goes so far as to suggest that Harry’s aspirations for ordinariness are ‘modernising’ the wider royal family and improving their popularity, citing evidence of the Queen’s spoof James Bond sketch in the Olympics opening ceremony.
Extraordinariness: international philanthropist
One of the defining public narratives of Harry’s mother, Diana, was her charity work, and media representations of his own charity work often make comparisons with that of Diana. Harry’s charity, Sentebale, works with children in Lesotho in southern Africa. His trips to Lesotho often get a lot of media coverage, some of which focuses on his apparent transition from rebellious party boy to charity worker.
We have argued elsewhere that young people in our interviews talked about celebrity philanthropy as a way of making sense of the huge wealth inequality between their own lives and those of celebrities. Doing something ‘extraordinary’ could therefore be used as justification for wealth and power. I would argue, following Billig, that such rhetoric cleverly works to obscure and naturalise inequality. For example, the following passage from Hutchins’ biography describes ‘hard work’ that Harry did on a visit to Lesotho:
‘He helped dig trenches to divert water away from the crop fields at Ha Moekestsane and spent time sowing vegetable seeds for the garden at an orphanage. It brought back to him another saying he had heard from a counsellor at the Featherstone Lodge rehab when an addict was bemoaning the fact that he was low on self-worth: ‘If you want to regain self-worth go out and do something worthy’’
In both the stories about charity and army work, situations and people in Lesotho and Afghanistan become props for Harry’s journey into adult masculinity – he is ordinary – ‘just like us’ – he joins the army, he gets too drunk, he goes shopping in TK Maxx, he works hard.
There is a neocolonial narrative in the news stories about warfare and charity in which he is positioned as ‘helping’ and ‘saving’ people in Lesotho and Afghanistan, erasing the violence of British colonial history and ongoing warfare in favour of a rosier hue. It is such a construction of Harry’s ordinary masculinity that enables biographer Hutchins to write:
‘Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, who, only hours before meeting him, had said she wanted Queen Elizabeth replaced as her country’s head of state and called for Britain to apologise and pay compensation for the ‘brutal’ years of slavery in the days of the Empire. She changed her tune, however, after a hug and a kiss from Harry (‘Well actually she hugged me’, he said later), who throughout the tour proved to be every bit as tactile as his late mother.’
Harry’s ‘tactile’ and ‘ordinary’ masculinity therefore allows here for the brutality of slavery to be placed in quotation marks, erased in a flash by a hug with the ‘down to earth’ prince.
The power of language
So what’s the point of all this? Surely these are just stories?
The representation of Harry as an ordinary man – someone who just wants to ‘help’ (if only those paparazzi would stop following him) and live an ordinary life, obscures class and racial oppression and serves to justify the continuation of the very system such stories deny. Harry’s charity work is presented as a solution to poverty, his hugs as reparation for slavery and his military role as protection of the nation itself. While such stories of course do not always go unchallenged, they provide part of the fabric that we use to make sense of the world around us, encouraging us to conclude that our current state of affairs isn’t so bad after all.
Tags: case studies, charity, masculinity, Michael Billig, military, Prince Harry, royal family
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Slavery is irrelevant today.
Besides, the UK was the main force in eradicating it in the 19th century. The Royal Navy went to great lengths to stop the Atlantic slave trade. I’m proud of my country’s role in relation to slavery.
A REPORT FROM ‘A SENSE OF INEQUALITY’ WORKSHOP – MANCHESTER | ESRI Blog
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