Camillagate: Prince Charles and the Tampon Scandal
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- Linton, D. Sex Roles (2006) 54: 347. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9004-4
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In 1993 a magazine published the transcript of a telephone conversation between Prince Charles, heir to the British crown, and his lover in which the couple made joking references to tampons in an erotic context. The story quickly spread around the world and became a source of embarrassment for Charles and the Royal family. This article reviews the media coverage of the story and discusses what it suggests about attitudes toward menstruation and men's references to it.
Romeo, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand that I might touch that cheek!
Mention the names “Prince Charles” and “Camilla Parker-Bowles” or, more specifically, “Camillagate” or “the Prince Charles tampon scandal,” and those who remember anything about this 1993 piece of gossip will surely say something like, “Oh yeah, that's the story about the Prince of Wales wanting to be a tampon.” Thus the words “tampon” and “Prince Charles” have become inextricably linked in popular imagination and memory. In fact, if you list those two terms in a Google search, you will be told that there are more than 1,400 items to look at, though many are zany or weird personal web sites. Similarly, a Lexis/Nexis search will yield at least 200 hits, depending on whether you use the term “tampon” or “Tampax.”
Coverage of this story in the popular media went through twists and turns that offer a glimpse into one couple's intimate fantasies regarding the menstrual transaction, as well as a full frontal view of the larger society's public attitudes and assumptions about appropriate behavior when it comes to the topic of menstruation. It also illustrates how deeply conflicted menstrual values are and how the topic can be appropriated as a rhetorical weapon in social and political discourse. But before delving into the layered meanings of the story, it is necessary to review the details of the event itself.
Even before the marriage of Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, to his first wife, Diana Spencer, a relatively unknown 19-year-old, the British press, and to a lesser extent the celebrity press in the rest of the former British colonies, including the United States, devoured the tidbits of the couple's private life with an avidity matched only by the attention given the Kennedy family's travails in the United States. I wrote, “even before the marriage” because the first sexually titillating news item concerning the couple came with the announcement that before the marriage plans could be completed, Diana had to undergo a gynecological exam, conducted in order to assure the royal family that she was indeed a virgin. This in turn led to speculation about the possible effects of tampon use on the reliability of the intact hymen as an indicator of sexual innocence. The bride-to-be reassured the public, not to mention her fiancé and the Queen, that she was in fact chaste by saying, “I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead” (Arndt, 2002, p. 1). This quaint phrasing evokes provocative associations to aspects of feminine hygiene that would come to haunt her husband more than a decade later.
From time to time rumors surfaced that either Charles or Diana was involved in extramarital sexual relations. The men thought to be involved with Diana changed over time, whereas one woman's name repeatedly came up in association with Charles: Camilla Parker-Bowles, a married woman and mother of two children.
The lives of all three individuals, and perhaps even the nature of celebrity reporting and the status of British royalty, were radically altered in 1993. The impact of the story on all those involved, both at the most personal level and on a global media level, is testimony to the remarkable symbolic power menstruation has as a token of meaning. Beginning with a story in an Australian women's magazine on January 13, 1993, a date that the Royals quickly came to refer to as “Black Wednesday,” though “Red Wednesday” or “Bloody Wednesday” would have been more apt given the nature of the story, tabloids, followed by broadcast media and eventually even more moderate media outlets, reported summaries and some excerpts of a mobile phone conversation that had actually taken place more than 3 years earlier on December 18, 1989. The gist of the story, echoed repeatedly around the world, was that Charles had told Camilla that he fantasized about being reincarnated as a tampon so that he could live inside of her.
There are at least two especially interesting things about this reporting. First, despite the fact that anything related to menstruation, at least in 1993, was broadly seen as an unmentionable topic in “polite” company and certainly one that was never discussed in association with sexual practices, here it was being extensively covered in even the more established media outlets. The second, perhaps even more remarkable, detail is that virtually all of the reports got the story wrong, misreporting or misrepresenting the actual exchange between the lovers and completely reversing Charles's actual feelings and fantasies. I believe it is fair to say that whenever facts are sharply skewed or altered, it is probable that some vital social norms are being either challenged or protected or that lies are being told to promote the interests of those disseminating the lies.
Charles: Oh God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!
Camilla: (Laughing) What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers? (both laugh) Oh, you’re going to come back as a pair of knickers.
Charles: Or God forbid a Tampax. Just my luck! (Laughs)
Camilla: You are a complete idiot! (Laughs) Oh, what a wonderful idea.
Charles: My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round on the top, never going down!
Camilla: (Laughing) Oh, Darling!
Charles: Until the next one comes through.
Camilla: Or perhaps you could come back as a box.
Charles: What sort of box?
Camilla: A box of Tampax, so you could just keep going.
Charles: That's true.
Camilla: Repeating yourself … (Laughing) Oh, darling I just want you now. (Graham, 2001, p. 241)
The conversation went on for another 4 minutes or so of banter, gossip, and more longing before they rang off. Let us focus on the precise way the two references to Tampax, a specific brand name that got lost in most of the ensuing reportage, are used. First, when Charles said that he wants to live in Camilla's trousers, he had not identified himself as anything other than himself, presumable a tiny, sort of Lilliputian prince. Camilla introduced the idea of transformation to some other form, “a pair of knickers,” or, as Americans would say, a pair of panties. Charles, feeling glum and frustrated, responded, “Or, God forbid, a Tampax. Just my luck!” He made the picture even bleaker by seeing himself not as a fresh tampon entering her vagina but as a discarded Tampax, “chucked down the lavatory … forever swirling round the top, never going down.” Camilla demonstrated her loving kindness by trying to put a positive spin on this pathetic self-pity by saying, “… perhaps you could come back as a box, … a box of Tampax, so you could just keep going.” Camilla saw the metaphoric possibilities in the tampon as something that is always ready and able to be put to use, thereby countering Charles’ view of its—and his—disposability.
Now consider the way the story was reported. Here's a representative sample of excerpts from articles that appeared in the weeks following the transcript's appearance in the Australian women's magazine:
The Ottawa Citizen reported that the transcripts aroused intense debate Wednesday over whether he would ever become king … . Charles jokes that he wishes he could be turned into a Tampax … (The royal soap opera, 1993, p. 1).
MacLean’s magazine said that, “.’ … The awful … tapes indeed had Charles wishing he might be a ladies’ sanitary device in the next world … I couldn't ever take a monarch who thinks like that seriously. Why didn't he quote one of our great poets, Pope or Dryden perhaps, and come back as his beloved's handkerchief or flea?” (Amiel, 1993, p. 18).
Newsweek reported that, “In a phone call with Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince Charles fantasized about living ‘inside your trousers’ and being reborn as her tampon” (Howard & Cerio, 1993, p. 8).
In The Houston Chronicle we read that “At another spot Charles jokes that he wishes he could be turned into a tampon” (No 900 Number Necessary, 1993, p. 16).
The London Sunday Times said the transcript reads “Like a limp schoolboy attempt at erotica” (Samson, 1993, np). (What they mean to imply by the phrase “limp schoolboy” is both puzzling and suggestive.)
And in the South China Morning Post we read that “In the tape the prince is claimed to wish he could be reincarnated as one of Mrs. Parker-Bowles’ tampons” (Walen, 1993, p. 1).
Even one year later The Toronto Star asked its readers: “Did you know that the Italian press has christened Charles ‘Il tampolino’? That means the little tampon” (Smyth, 1994, p. 10).
It was also claimed that young women in America and Britain were going to pharmacies asking for a “box of Charlies” (Graham, 2001, p. 72).
As a media phenomenon, this is not a story that hit for a brief while and then quickly faded. As they say in the business, “This story had legs.” Reporters and columnists had no qualms about passing judgments on Charles’ alleged fantasies but went even further to offer opinions about what his fantasies suggested about his fitness to ascend to the throne. He was called “smutty and juvenile” in The Washington Post (Cohen, 1998, p. W20), and told that he “can't seriously be a king after that” by the South African Financial Mail (Wilhelm, 1999, p. 1). The Guardian in London asked, “Can this man ever be king?” (Hoggart, 1995, p. 17). In Hong Kong the South China Morning Post reported the “British monarchy was thrown into even deeper crisis” (Walen, 1993, p.1). U.S.A. Today suggested: “If that's his idea of romance, he should stick to chats with his plants” (Williams, 1993, p. 12). The New York Daily News added: “The prince apparently was so overwhelmed by his passion that two years ago he told [Camilla] he wished to be reincarnated as her tampon” (Tumposky, 1995, p. 5).
As it happens, the only time I’ve ever felt any affection for Prince Charles was when he told his beloved Camilla Parker-Bowles that he’d like to be one of her tampons. Apart from being raunchy, earthy and passionate, it suggested Charles doesn't share the ancient horrors of menstruation in many a major religion that denies women admission to church or temple when they’re ‘unclean.’ (p. R02)
One could go on at greater length with newspaper and magazine citations, but the story doesn't stop with print media coverage. For instance, 1 month after the scandal broke, Adweek magazine reported: “On Jan. 17, four days after publication of the piquant terms of a telephone conversation … an [ad] agency based in Sao Paulo-–published a newspaper ad for Tampax, with the headline ‘Approved even by the prince’” (Camillagate Faux Pas in Brazil, 1993, np).
There's more: In 1994 a play opened off Broadway called Loose Lips, which consisted in part of an enactment of the transcript. One review stated: “The biggest laugh comes as Camilla lustily suggests he ‘could come back as a box … a box of Tampax so you could just keep going.” The reviewer (Gardiner, 1994, p. 5) went on to quote the director as claiming that his goal was not to make fun of the hapless couple but to make a point about intrusive media: “The play is a warning to people to think before they open their mouths because everyone's privacy is so easily pirated these days.”
It wasn't long before American television got into the act with a sketch featuring Dana Carvey and Luke Perry on Saturday Night Live that replicated the famous announcement of King Edward VIII renouncing his throne “for the woman I love.” In this case, however, the Prince Charles character explained that he was doing so in order to have himself turned into a tampon. The sketch used actual footage from the December 10, 1936 newsreels of the time showing British families gathered around their radios listening to the abdication statement. Then it proceeded to a laboratory scene like those in science fiction films in which transformations take place, and we saw the Prince changed into a tampon with his tiny head on top. Finally, he is delivered to the Parker-Bowles estate and handed to his lover in a gift-wrapped Tampax box by a mincing butler played by Mick Jagger. Camilla, however, had reconciled with her husband and tossed the tampon prince to the floor where he was discovered by a sniffing poodle dog.
Even the famously careful New Yorker magazine got the story wrong in a review of a biography of Princess Diana with this catty remark: “So we come to 1992, … that November it was revealed that Charles had been recorded while having a[n] … intimate chat with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Long intrigued by the idea of the transmigration of souls, Charles saw himself reborn as, ‘God forbid, a Tampax,’ so that he could ‘just live inside your trousers” (Amis, 2002, p. 106).
What are we to make of this? Among the possible explanations, consider the following. First, we have a glimpse into the dark recesses of Western culture's misogynistic views as expressed via references to one of the unique features of women's biology, their menstrual cycle. Ironically, Charles himself felt that to be cast in the role of an object performing a common feminine hygiene service was something that God should forbid. Yet even to mention menstruation in the context of erotic relations was seen by the media establishment, which, at least in this case, probably accurately reflects more widely held views, as so repugnant as to warrant distortion and the employment of those most powerful instruments of social control and discipline: ridicule and disgust.
In Euro-American culture it seems that the worst wish a little boy could make, the most unacceptable fantasy ambition he could express, would be: “When I grow up I want to be a woman.” Tampons are such thoroughly “gendered” items, and so thoroughly beyond the pale of the male domain, that they represent some sort of essence of woman that men may have no dealings with. It is a commonplace that many men feel discomfort and embarrassment even shopping for menstrual products let alone having physical contact with them in use, and, by implication, with menstrual blood, the bodily fluid that they are meant to absorb.
avoidance … reflects larger cultural attitudes, not only toward menstruation but toward female sexuality. Because menstruation has been consistently silenced by institutions such as the family, the educational system, and the church, it is apt to be silenced in a theoretical work–-called by another name or otherwise disguised. (p. 3)
By even entertaining the thought of becoming a tampon, Charles had crossed a line; he had “gone over to the other side.” In effect, he had become that most vile of creatures, a traitor to his kind, in this case, a gender traitor. And for this transgression he received the same punishment that betrayers commonly encounter: he was shunned, banished, publicly denounced as severely as Hawthorne's Hester Prynn was, made to wear the bloody tampon around his neck. It remains to be seen if, when his mother dies, he will be able to ascend the throne without yet another review of this (to use appropriate British vernacular) bloody awful story.
Second, the story suggests deep feelings of ambivalence about class structure and its gender aspects. On one hand, the reporters took glee in this opportunity to pull the Prince off the throne by associating him with a woman's private product. The magazine New Statesman even ran a headline calling him “an amorous Tampax” (Riddell, 1996, p. 1). Yet at the same time the ire and ridicule seemed to suggest a conservative longing for the kind of royalty that always behaved well and provided sterling role models for everyone to look up to. Or, as The Guardian of London put it, condemning both Charles and Diana, “After last night will anyone in a dinner jacket lift a glass and say, ‘gentlemen, the King?’ Would Americans salute a flag with 13 tampons in the top left corner? Let us hope they sort it out and disappear gracefully before the Queen dies” (Hoggart, 1995, p. 17).
The idea of Americans saluting a British flag, with or without tampons, is an expression of nostalgia on a par with those Confederate flags that still wave over some sad Southern outposts. Or, perhaps the writer meant to say that the Brits were wimps for putting up with such unmanly doings because, after all, Americans (real men!) would never tolerate it. And that's probably right. President Clinton was forgiven (if approval ratings mean anything) for his crass cigar sex play with Ms. Lewinsky but surely would have been booted out if he had savored her tampon with the same gusto. However, despite the drubbing that Prince Charles took, it is conceivable that the “outing” of his and Camilla's tampon eroticism was a contributing factor in what has become a steady increase in the acceptability of menstrual references in public media including television drama and situation comedy references to menarche, PMS, and menopause, as well as satires and jokes on comedy programs.
Third, the story suggests that when it comes to menstruation and sex, the two don't mix. Of course, this is simply a reflection of strongly held Judeo-Christian beliefs. In fact, apparently Prince Charles's relationship with his wife, Princess Diana, was governed by those values as well for it has been reported that when Diana heard the story she told her private secretary, “God, Patrick, a Tampax! That's sick” (Work-and-Tell Author Still Defiant, 2000, p. 10). The nearly universal expressions of displeasure at what came to be the accepted story of the sexual fantasies of Charles and Camilla reveal a set of social values that Jonathan Dollimore (2001) has explored in Sex, Literature and Censorship. Though Dollimore concentrated on the “disgust” often expressed toward homoerotic practices, his analysis is apt: “Disgust is typically experienced at the boundaries of a culture, and of the individual identities of those who belong to it, and its focus is typically what is excluded by those boundaries and especially what is just the other side of them” (Dollimore, 2001, p. 47). What is “just the other side” of Charles's identity in this case is the feminine. As this story indicates, one crosses that boundary at one's peril.
Mee it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead (p. 53)
The poem repeatedly mentions mingling blood, as well as other suggestive imagery. Why the MacLean’s columnist finds this sort of poetic license attractive yet condemns the Prince and Camilla for their tampon reference tells us more about today's sexual values than it does about poetry. A more fitting literary allusion might have been to the Shakespearean lines that begin this article. Romeo Prince Charles and his Juliet Camilla have simply updated the medium through which their longing is expressed.