In the space of a week, Meghan Markle has gone from a minor television star and dedicated humanitarian to one of the most famous and watched women on the planet. The engagement to Prince Harry was announced, the first photo-op and joint-interview conducted, and already she has entered the crush of royal life with her first official event as the future Duchess of wherever. The routine is familiar to anyone who saw the narrative play out with Kate Middleton, now known officially as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but it’s in the differences where the tale becomes truly intriguing. By the time Kate sat down for her engagement interview with William, she was an omnipresent figure in our press, but only as an image. Very few of us had even heard her voice until that point, and she sounded posher than we’d imagined. Really, we knew so little about the woman who would be queen beyond her hair, her clothes and the nightclubs she frequented before she got Diana’s ring on her finger. With Markle, the puzzle does not need to be solved. This is a woman who put herself out into the world for business and charity and navigated it with the kind of Hollywood pizazz that the House of Windsor wishes it could harness. She spoke, and she did so loudly, navigating the intersections of fame and humanitarianism with exceptional panache, the modern woman of glossy magazines made flesh. Really, it only makes sense that she’d become a future princess.
I have spent the past week in flux about Markle and her future: I think the monarchy is an archaic institution that should be abolished but I take immense joy in watching conservative traditionalists who have fetishized the royals for decades contend with a divorced biracial American actress entering the Firm; I find our fawning adoration for royalty exhausting but am intrigued by the possibilities to modernise that Markle and Prince Harry could bring; I wonder if the pair could beckon in a new future to the occupation of royalty, but know that inevitably such dreams will be crushed, and more often than not the women are crushed with them. There is undoubtable joy to be found in seeing two people be happy together, but the reality of life as a royal woman, one who married into the most famous family on the planet, is not one with a pleasant history, and that shadow looms overhead in every shot I see of the pair.
Already, Markle has had to contend with the loathsome barrage of racist and sexist harassment from the press, along with her half-siblings scrambling to any outlet who will pay them to spin yarns that verge from ‘my sister’s a spoiled royal obsessed schemer, buy my book’ to ‘my sister’s so wonderful and I hope to get an invite to the wedding, buy my book’. The sniping over her fashion choices has begun, the intense dissection of every move she makes in public turned into a game, and even the simplest actions like waving enthusiastically are shamed as unsuitable choices for a future royal. It strikes me how familiar this tune is, and how nobody seems to learn that playing it so often results in inevitable collateral damage. Or perhaps everyone already knows that and feel it’s a worthy sacrifice. They love you until they don’t.
Even that love is a parasitic bombardment of ever-changing conditions and stratospheric expectations. Royal brides aren’t just loved: They’re deified to the point of being utterly inhuman. For a period between the Royal wedding and the birth of Princess Charlotte, everything Kate Middleton did was a sign of the revolutionary force she had become in the monarchy, a glistening beacon of normalcy and reminder that hey, she’s just like us. Wow, look at her wearing a £250 dress she previously wore in public only two short months ago, isn’t that magnanimous of her? Isn’t it stunning how she effortlessly shakes the hands of the common folk and deigns us worthy to be in her presence? Oh goodness, her baby bump is perfect and her children and perfect and she’s the perfect mother, aren’t we lucky? I sound glib here, but you’d struggle to find press cut-outs of Kate’s life and work that treat her as an actual person. When Hilary Mantel dared to be critical of the system that dehumanises women like Kate, she was torn to shreds and accused of bullying Kate by people who saw no irony in being called out for reducing her to a baby bump and some clothes as they did just that in their reporting of the Mantel fallout.
And then there was something of a shift.
It wasn’t like Sarah Ferguson’s downfall, where her indiscretions were laid out across the papers for all to condemn. Rather, the press seemed to decide it was now time to turn on Kate. They never did so as violently as they’d done with her predecessors like Sarah and Diana, but the snide comments became louder - Does she ever work? Why does she have a nanny? Why won’t she let the press see more of her children? Oh lord, she’s wearing that coat again? - and the very things she was praised for were now reason to revolt. Kate became boring, but nobody seemed open to dissecting why she had to be so mundane. Having a personality, or political opinions, or even a major pre-marriage career in the public eye would have opened her up to further scrutiny than she was already facing. From an early point in her relationship with William, Kate seemed to understand that she had to be a blank slate, because anything less than spotless would condemn her to a lifetime of scorn.
Meghan has things a little differently - for one, she doesn’t have to deal with the pressure of one day becoming not only queen but the mother of future monarchs - but her induction into the public spotlight of the British upper classes has only further exposed the rot of racism and classism that dominates every aspect of our lives. European royal families are almost exclusively white in their ranks, and Markle being on Harry’s arm, talking confidently and expertly on various topics, is completely new to them, and to us in the general public. The publications that document every aspect of the Windsors’ lives seem painfully ill-equipped to discuss a biracial American woman whose life is not exclusively defined by her partnership. There have been wonderful pieces written by British women of colour on what Markle means in terms of representation, and I heartily recommend you seek those out, although it’s tough to ignore the further pressure that puts on her shoulders: She’ll be the only non-white face in the British royal crowd, and as the only one, there will be too many dreadful racists ready to condemn everything she does as an example of her entire demographic. There are already screeching bigots claiming she’s just not ‘classy’ enough to be a duchess, comparing her to the white blonde society women Harry used to date, with the implication left unspoken but clear as day.
For some people, Meghan Markle means a lot, and her mere presence in a world where people are told to ‘know their place’ could potentially shift how we talk about issues of race, class and the monarchy. It’s a lot to ask from just one woman, and we’ve seen what happens when we ask just one woman to handle the weight of the world. When Markle becomes Her Royal Highness Princess Henry of Wales, better known as Meghan the Duchess of Sussex or Windsor or wherever, I hope she is seen as a woman and not an abstract.