Princess Catherine’s cancer news came as ‘a reckoning’ — Q&A with expert Justin Vovk

A screenshot from the beginning of the Princess of Wales video statement showing her sitting on a bench outside wearing a striped sweater and jeans.

Princess Catherine announced in a March 22 video that she is undergoing treatment for cancer. (Image from the Prince and Princess of Wales YouTube channel)

On March 22, after weeks of increasingly intense public speculation about Princess Catherine’s health, she disclosed that she is undergoing treatment for cancer. The announcement came some days after conspiracy theories escalated into a frenzy over a digitally altered photograph of the Princess and her children.

McMaster PhD student Justin Vovk, who studies the impact of royal ceremonies on ethnic and national identity, shares some insights on the effects of the royal announcement and how it serves as a reckoning for celebrity culture.

News of Princess Catherine’s cancer diagnosis came on the heels of some pretty wild speculation and conspiracy theories. What were your thoughts on that? 

It was very bizarre in terms of what we’ve seen with the Royals before. Conspiracy theories around celebrities are nothing new — and the Royals are celebrities now — but there was this way that they were these conspiracy theories were taking on a life of their own, divorced from any kind of objective facts or any kind of reality. It really took on this life of its own, that seems to speak to that desire for people to have all the facts.

We seem to have this mentality now in the age of social media, that we are entitled to all information and all facts about any situation.

And I think it led to this collision course with the announcement and this realization that there are real people involved in these situations and our desire for facts and knowledge don’t get to trump another person’s rights.

A lot of people were feeling a little bit silly after finding out about the news. 

I would say it was more than silliness, it was outright shame. We saw a lot of sort of mea culpas on social media from fairly big names who had been part of this “Kate-gate.” There was quite a bit of soul searching going on and we’re talking people like Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver.

There has been a little bit of a reckoning that has gone on now because of this.

Is it your impression that the Royal Family came out with the news because of all the wild speculation, or do you think they were always going to come out with it?

I think there was always bound to be some announcement, but I think if the preceding month or two hadn’t happened, it would have just been a statement the way it had been with the King. I think the way it was done, there was almost this bullying and this baiting to get her to say something.

So I think the nature of the public announcement, the fact that it was this video, everything about the way it was arranged and choreographed was a specific effort to respond and silence.

How did we get to this level of interest and the view of the Royal Family as celebrities?

We got here in sort of the 1970s, early 1980s and it was a combination of two factors. One in the late 1950s, we start to see the press move away from their traditional attitude towards the monarchy, which was one of deference and respect. We see that relationship start to shift with the whole issue of Princess Margaret and her relationship with Peter Townsend, where the media stops being purely respectful and giving the Royals their space with the rise of consumer and the development of the paparazzi industry.

That, combined with tremendous public excitement over the relationship between Charles and Diana, really led to this perfect storm of public and media interest in the private lives of the Royals. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg situation. We can’t exactly pin down what caused what. Was it the public interest or was it the media interest? But they both feed into one another.

If the Queen were still alive, would this have played out differently?

Things would have been done differently under the Queen, if for no other reason than she was an institution — her person alone commanded a degree of deference and respect. She was untainted by scandal in the way that the subsequent generations have been.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that if she were alive, it also means that William would be further down the line of succession. He would not be the Prince of Wales, so the protocols for handling it would have been different.

Where do you think we go from here?

I don’t expect to see the Princess of Wales publicly for quite some. She’s undergoing chemotherapy and nobody wants to be in the public eye when they’re undergoing chemo. Nor is it advised for people who are undergoing it to be in public just because of the level of health vulnerability.

There was very much a sense in her video message, even though she didn’t say it, that this was kind of like her last word on it, in a sense. She has disclosed that it was cancer. She did not say what kind it was, but she really put it front and centre that she does expect to beat this and expect to be back.

We’re probably going to see less of William because they’re going to have to be strategic in how they deploy him, making sure that he isn’t drained by duties and is able to still support his wife and children.

This is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the monarchy. We have never had a situation where two out of the four senior-most members of the institution are both dealing with cancer at the same time. There’s no precedent for this, so they’re kind of making it up as they go and historically, that has not always worked out well for the monarchy.

And we’re in uncharted territory on the world stage because people can tune into the personal lives of the monarch in a way they’ve never, ever been able to do before.

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