Royal Wedding Fever is in the air, although I seem to be immune to it. My American friends have been ecstatic at the prospect, sharing their excitement with me over the prospect of seeing Prince Harry hang up his bachelor life as he marries American actress Meghan Markle. One friend, possibly jokingly, said I should buy a life-sized Harry and Meghan cut-out for my flat. I respectfully declined.
This isn’t my first rodeo. I know what to expect in the lead-up to a Windsor wedding, especially one involving the offspring of Princess Diana. The headlines that await Meghan are eerily similar to those that followed Kate Middleton around before she officially became the Duchess of Cambridge. There’s a lot of diet talk - how will these two already conventionally attractive women get in shape for the big day? - and speculation over who will make the dress. Much emphasis has been put on how they want to make it ‘their day’, as if that concept is new to those tying the knot. Every now and then, a news show will interview some peculiar creatures, dressed head to toe in Union Jacks, for their opinions on the big day and the beautiful brides. Nobody ever says anything beyond fizzy platitudes. That would spoil the fun.
Yet the thing that gets me the most about this season is the prevailing narrative that plagues both Meghan and Kate: The notion that they’re ‘just like us’. Look at the princesses, whose downtrodden lives before they met their husbands were so humdrum and relatable to every woman on the planet. Nobody ever says ‘rags to riches’ but the idea is implied. The ultimate display of social mobility is made all the more palatable because, the media insists, they’re still as down-to-earth as the rest of us. They still go through the same stuff we all do. They are women to be looked up to, but we’re still on their level.
At best, this narrative is painfully naïve, and at worst it’s disingenuous nonsense.
The Just Like Us narrative is a curious creation as it manages to simultaneously normalize immense privilege and reject its entire existence. Kate Middleton is the daughter of millionaires, a former student of one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools, and a woman who had the ability to work part-time for the best part of a decade while living rent-free in Chelsea. Her circle of friends and acquaintances was chock full of double and triple-barrelled names, grand titles and impressive associations. Before her marriage, I somehow saw an endless assortment of cheaply made TV specials dedicated to telling her story and how her childhood was so different to her future husband’s. True, their family circumstances differed, but their schooling was near identical. They had the kind of education you can only get through immense privilege.
Markle’s life is different, but that’s in part due to the racial and class differences between herself and Harry. She’s a biracial American woman who grew up in showbusiness through her father’s work and was also educated at private schools. Even before she was an actress on one of cable TV’s biggest shows, she lived a thoroughly and excitingly unconventional life. It seems strange to me that such things are downplayed in favour of everyone pretending she’s just one of the gals. What’s wrong with being different in that aspect?
In my opinion, the Just Like Us narrative is a crucial part of the PR frenzy to make the monarchy seem modern and important for contemporary society. There really is no reason why we continue to fetishize this undemocratic institution beyond an increasingly crumbling sense of tradition. The current generation of British Royals aren’t especially inviting either: Charles veers between kooky and diva-esque, with rumours that he brings his own private toilet seat wherever he travels, and while Brits have warmed to Camilla, it’s hard to get out from under Diana’s shadow; Anne is hard working but proudly uncaring of people’s opinions; Andrew’s possibly corrupt and just awful; and nobody cares about Edward. Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall don’t do royal duties, Beatrice and Eugenie have real jobs but also like long holidays more, and the Wessex kids are still kids. It’s all up to the Cambridges, Harry and Meghan to justify the continuing existence of the monarchy.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone, but especially the women who are marrying into all of this. I’ve talked before about how utterly depressing the princess life seems to me, and it’s only exacerbated by how this false Just Like Us story forces them to walk this unbearably fine line between reality and fantasy. How do you truly maintain this idea of being the perfectly relatable heroine to the masses while wearing eye-wateringly expensive designer clothes and having people curtsy at you? We’ve already seen stirrings of backlash against Kate for not being Just Like Us, from the hiring of a nanny to help with her kids to the questions over her work ethic. The very things she was celebrated for - oh, she’s just taking time off to be with her kids like any working mum - were then fired back at her in scorn.
Being a princess is a job you must train at. The preparation that goes into excelling at that occupation would make most office training days seem like parties by comparison. For Kate, it meant essentially sacrificing a decade of her life, one where she couldn’t cut loose like a typical 20-something or truly invest in her career. She had to be ready for William whenever he needed her and keep out of anything that would remotely be considered scandalous. She couldn’t have opinions or support political causes, nor could she get angry or be spontaneous. Markle had more options, she had a whole life of her own that didn’t have to be dictated to by some prince, and that’s clearly benefitted her in ways Kate never had the chance. Her privilege and hard work allowed her to do things like slag off Donald Trump on a Comedy Central show, run a lifestyle blog, talk at the UN, have a short-lived clothing line, be saucy and silly and stir the pot. All of that also provided her with impeccable princess training. By not being Just Like Us, both women were able to take on the job at hand.
It’s for the best that Kate and Meghan aren’t just like us. If only we all possessed the boredom thresholds required to withstand several hours of polite smiling and hand shaking at the openings of whistle factories and public parks. If we are to continue being a nation that prizes its Royals, for better or worse, then it will be more palatable in the long-run for us to simply accept that they aren’t like us in the slightest. For now, the façade of normalcy is carefully maintained, to a degree. This month, invitations were sent out to the Royal Wedding. The media giddily reported on all the ‘normal people’ who received them.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)