On the death of Prince Philip and how we don’t like to talk about the dead

It’s been two days since Prince Philip died and I’ve been observing how the media portrays him and his legacy, and I have thoughts concerning how we have this idea that we have to be respectful of the dead (especially if they were symbols) and so we can’t really talk about all the dark shit they did because we’re being “disrespectful”.

It’s like, because we have to be respectful, we put people in even higher pedestals after they die and create this idealized image of them, all the while glossing over and minimizing all the damaging things that they did and said. Since this is just a short entry, I just want to touch on two of them.

His «gaffes»

Something I’ve heard mainstream media do is say that Philip was appreciated in his country for his humorous –if sometimes insensitive– comments. And while I don’t doubt that, there should have been more emphasis on the fact that they were very racist and sexist.

You know, like saying during a visit to China that «If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.» Or that «If it has four legs and is not a chair, has wings and is not an aeroplane, or swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.»

Like asking a student who returned from Papua New Guinea if he «managed not to get eaten, then?» Or asking Australian Aborigines if they «still throw spears at each other?» — That one is from 2002, by the way.

Saying that they were «insensitive» and «politically incorrect» simply isn’t enough because they aren’t just offensive. They are damaging. I mean, we all know how the «quip» about Cantonese (and Chinese) people eating whatever has been brought up again and again during the ongoing pandemic, and used as a justification to be racist and violent towards Asian people.

Sure, we can stand there and say he was a “man of his time” but, to be honest, I’ve never been on board with that argument because there are enough texts and testimonies from people from «that time» mentioning how dehumanizing those attitudes were. The China comments? They were a scandal back then.

Simply put, many of his famous “gaffes” were damaging. And while some articles have discussed them in more detail, (like this CNN article or this abc article or this Guardian article), the coverage has been rather soft, in my opinion. There’s always someone saying that he was «a Victorian man in the 21st century» (which is really just a very overt racist) or that his gaffes were «disarmingly funny».

His almost-feminism (yes, apparently it’s a thing)

Then there’s the white feminist approach. The Guardian published this opinion piece on how Philip «defined a different kind of masculine ideal» by «allowing” the Queen to have the spotlight.

You know, the Queen of England.

Every time I read that, I get so uncomfortable with that assertion because he literally had no other choice. She’s the Queen. In that royalist mindset that so many people love, no person can be above her. How many times have we seen that, if a member of the royal family doesn’t fall in line, they get kicked out?

But these commentaries and opinion pieces are making it seem like he was some kind of «almost feminist» because he didn’t take the spotlight from the head of state. Why? Why are some people desperate to label everyone who is not violent towards his wife a feminist?

Screenshot from The Guardian

Philip was not any kind of masculine ideal in his relationship with his wife because, more than just a person, his wife is an institution and he married into that institution. He had to stick to the rules. In fact, he was so far away from said masculine ideal that there are enough comments and situations where it is clear how he viewed women.

Like, when he was comparing participation in blood sports to selling slaughtered meat, he said that he didn’t think «[killing animals] for money makes it any more moral. I don’t think a prostitute is more moral than a wife, but they are doing the same thing.»

Or saying that, «[when] a man opens the car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.»

So, while the columnist who wrote that Guardian piece thinks that «It’s a stretch to call him a feminist icon», I think that we should not even put him close to the discussion of feminism, except as an example of how to spot a sexist.

I do agree that it is sad for Elizabeth that her companion of 70+ years died and it is sad for the royal family that they lost a father and a grandfather, and I suppose it is sad for all the monarchists and royalists running around England who lost… a prince, I guess. But let’s stop falling into that trap of making people seem better than they were once they die because that is not good for anyone.

Let’s stop that thing that we do, where we «don’t want to speak ill of the dead» and so end up pretending like they were always good and nice, when they really weren’t. I know it’s somewhat against the idea of royalty, because their mere existence implies that some people believe themselves (or others) to be inherently better and more deserving than other people. But let’s just stop. Let’s be frank and open when we talk about the dead, instead.

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