It’s the story everyone is talking about; countless lurid headlines and breathless opinion pieces, increasingly absurd conspiracy theories and wild speculation lighting up Whatsapp groups and Twitter threads. Yes, I’m talking about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and their decision to step down as senior members of the Royal family.
What else? As someone who, on principle, disapproves of everything the monarchy stands for — it perpetuates an unjust class system, celebrating a rarefied few because of birthright rather than merit — I still haven’t been able to resist this story. Like Love Island, it seems like superficial nonsense on the surface but dig a little deeper, and you quickly find a rather damning indictment of how gender, race, and class intersect in our culture.
Regardless of your interest in the royals, or lack thereof, the introduction of a bi-racial American actress into the family has caused an impact unlike any seen since Diana. And, just like with Diana, they seem completely incapable of harnessing Meghan’s natural charisma and using it to their advantage, or at the very least, managing to present themselves as anyway forward-thinking, inclusive, and relevant.
The queen is said to be ‘disappointed’ by the couple’s decision to step back, no doubt prioritising their own mental health after two years of non-stop abuse from the media, and one has to wonder why she wasn’t ‘disappointed’ by the racial undertones to much of the media commentary (the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Niggling Worry’ headlines) or when their baby was compared to a monkey on social media? More to the point, why wasn’t she ‘disappointed’ when Prince Andrew, reportedly her favourite child, remained friends with a man who was a convicted sex offender and said he didn’t regret said friendship?
There was more outrage over Markle wearing jeans to Wimbledon and eating avocadoes (actual headline — ‘How Meghan’s favourite avocado snack is fuelling human rights abuses, drought, and murder’) than the appalling accusations that Prince Andrew allegedly had sex with a trafficked teenager. Ultimately though, as much as we can legitimately criticise much of the media coverage of Meghan and Harry, we still know very little about the people at the centre of this uproar.
The royal family has become almost like a soap opera, we create a narrative in which there are villains and heroes, the good and the bad guys. We weave together a tale made up of half a dozen photos taken outside a church on Christmas day, a flinch as a husband touches a wife’s shoulder, a soundbite from a two-minute interview. Like any celebrity gossip, the stories we tell say more about us — our beliefs, our prejudices, our values — than it does about the stars themselves.
And so too, we can discern a great deal from the manner in which the two most popular women in the royal family, Kate and Meghan, are depicted in the press and how the public reacts to those portrayals. We don’t know either of these women but are all familiar with their images.
Kate; the future queen. Saintly, patient, long-suffering. The mother and the wife. Loyal, steadfast, and dutiful. Never complains; doesn’t talk much at all, actually, not in public anyway. She’s quiet. The English Rose who smiles for the camera and wears sensible, inoffensive clothes. That’s her brand in a nutshell — inoffensive.
And then there’s Meghan. If the papers are to believed, she’s the reincarnation of Lady Macbeth. Scheming, manipulative, calculating. She’s a wife and mother too, but that’s not her USP. Instead, she’s seen as controlling, ruthless, cutthroat. Demanding and ‘difficult’, she is always causing offence (in the media, at least) because she doesn’t seem to ‘know her place’. (A claim which is, in and of itself, also racially charged.)
What’s fascinating is how readily we accept these caricatures, even when we have no way of knowing the truth. Both women are undoubtedly multifaceted, complex people, with their individual strengths and weaknesses, the same as all of us. But as a culture, we seem incapable of allowing women to be real, to be fully fleshed out human beings. Instead, they are flattened into 2D shapes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It’s been disheartening to see how Kate and Meghan have been respectively rewarded and punished for their willingness to conform to societal expectations of how a woman should behave.
How Kate, through the media’s lens, has been celebrated for remaining silent, and fulfilling her duty through siring heirs to the throne. Meghan, impressive and articulate, who has used her voice to speak out against injustice and to proclaim herself a feminist, has been thrown to the wolves for daring to see herself as an equal to the family she married into.
In 1868’s Little Women, Amy says, ‘ambitious girls have a hard time’, and it feels depressingly antiquated to see that writ large across the world stage, to watch as the media attempts to browbeat a woman of colour into submission. They want to silence Meghan Markle as a lesson to all the other ambitious girls, especially the non-white girls; as if to say – see? See what we will do to you if you don’t play by our rules?