As we say in Ireland, Meghan is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, partly because she’s a woman and partly because she’s a human of colour, writes Joyce Fegan
The only misstep that Meghan Markle has ever made is the fact that she actually takes steps.
The critical reaction to her every move is proof that some people still strongly believe that women should be seen and not heard, compliant and not “difficult”, conform and not challenge, and be agreeable rather than have thoughts of their own.
This week when it was announced that the Duchess of Sussex had guest-edited the September issue of British Vogue, the public was given yet another stick with which to beat this woman of colour.
Meghan can do no right.
Princess Diana appeared on the cover of the magazine in 1981, and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, graced the fashion bible’s front page in June 2016. She also consented to a 10-page photoshoot inside the magazine.
In 2013, Prince Charles both appeared on the cover and guest-edited an edition of Country Life marking his 65th birthday. Many of the features revolved around him. He did it again last November to commemorate his 70th birthday. Prince Charles received nothing only praise for raising concerns about the environment.
As for Meghan Markle, she declined to appear on the cover of the glossy magazine and instead asked its editor if she could guest-edit the edition.
In doing so, she, as The Times journalist Helen Rumbelow noted, gave “herself the editorial voice that other royal women, such as the Duchess of Cambridge, have chosen not to exercise”.
And herein lies Meghan’s crime. It was fine for Prince Charles to exercise his voice, but for Meghan, was she supposed to just comply and pose and smile for the cover of a women’s magazine?
She chose not to, in the same way she chose to remain private about the details of her son’s christening and in the same way she has opted to not have a relationship with her father, due to several well-publicised missteps on his behalf.
Whether she acts or refrains from acting, Meghan Markle comes in for criticism, from the labels she chooses to wear to how she decides to birth a human.
This week, as the cover of September’s Vogue magazine was revealed, the Duchess of Sussex was described as being “hypocritical in some of her stances”, and maybe even worse, “not listening to the advice”. Who’s advice she should be listening to is anyone’s guess.
The former actress was also criticised for doing “the sort of things which get up people’s nose, they think: ‘here’s a woman who’s a bit up herself’.”
Is removing oneself from the picture to give space and voice to people of colour, climate change activists, and advocates of diversity really being a bit up oneself?
In this swell of criticism, which is becoming the norm any time Meghan makes a move, the actual 15 women who grace the cover have been mostly overlooked.
These women include Irish champion of diversity and equality, Sinéad Burke, who, standing at 3¢ 5² tall, has lobbied for change at places like Davos, the Met Gala red carpet, and in her column at British Vogue, or when she is meeting people like Joe Biden, Oprah Winfrey, and Victoria Beckham all while being dressed by the likes of Burberry and Vogue.
This is a woman who has given a TED talk, ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone’, that has been viewed more than 1.4m times, even though, as a child, she once considered having limb-lengthening surgery. It was surgery she decided against after having the following realisation: “I’m not changing for anybody.”
The cover also includes the political leader who governs with compassion, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. A day after the Christchurch shooting last March, which claimed 50 lives, she wore a hijab while meeting with the local Muslim community. Headlines, in reaction to her show of respect, included “how Jacinda Ardern showed the world what a leader should be” and “is there a ‘feminine’ response to terrorism?”
This is the same leader who took six weeks’ maternity leave last year after her daughter was born, when she became only the second world leader to give birth while in office.
The headline on the cover of the September edition of Vogue is ‘Forces for Change’.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also among the 15 women the Duchess has included on her cover. She is the writer of international best-selling and award-winning novels such as Americanah and Purple Hibiscus. All of her novels are set in Nigeria, and talk about issues of gender, civil war, race, and hair that needs to be chemically treated and tamed for Western acceptance. Adichie has also given TED talks, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ (18m views) and ‘We Should all be Feminists’ (3m views). The latter was turned into an essay and Beyoncé sampled part of her speech in her single ‘Flawless’.
“Beyoncé is a celebrity of the first order and with this song she has reached many people who would otherwise probably never have heard the word feminism, let alone gone out and [bought] my essay,” Adichie said when yet another controversy ensued over such a pop star’s song containing such lyrics.
It’s a bit like Meghan Markle’s Vogue cover and guest-editing, would many of us have heard of the names of Yara Shahidi, Adwoa Aboah, and Adut Akech, even Sinéad Burke, were it not for their inclusion in the magazine’s September issue?
Conor McGregor may have made a lot of money and a lot of noise, but has he tried to bring about change in the way that Burke has? Has he lobbied for equality on a global stage? But do most of the Irish public know his name?
As we say in Ireland, Meghan is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, partly because she’s a woman and partly because she’s a human of colour.
But mostly because she has chosen to live life on her terms, not on the terms that strangers have set for her. And for this, unless she decides to conform, she will be forever judged.