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How Meghan Markle Woke Up the Royal Family

The Duchess of Sussex’s appearance on the royal scene represented something layered, complex, and intensely appealing. But the aura of optimism and progress that accompanied her marriage to Prince Harry slowly disappeared in 2019 amid a thundercloud of tabloid gossip, online slurs, and general resentment.

Michelle Rohn

Didn’t we fight a revolution over this? Among the many outlandish plot twists of the late 2010s, the emergence of the British royal family as a source of inspiration for American progressives was surely one of the most astonishing. Every cultural entity eventually becomes its own opposite, but you don’t expect the Borgias to be woke. Still, for a moment there, with the 2017 engagement and 2018 wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the royals really did seem to offer a lovely sort of semi-alternative to the poison rotting many (most? all?) other elite institutions. The president of the United States was a blatant racist, Western democracy was being swallowed by right-wing populism, the news was fake, the elections were rigged, the billionaires were building launchpads in New Zealand, and in the middle of all this, the House of Windsor put on some really fun hats and welcomed an intelligent, accomplished, opinionated American woman of color into its ranks. What was there not to celebrate? (Well, OK, yes, there was the entire underlying premise of monarchy itself. But besides that?)

It wasn’t that pro-democracy Americans became royalists, exactly. It was more that the conditions of the moment made it weirdly easy to dissociate emotional allegiances from political first principles. “I disagree with the core idea underpinning your existence, but I love what you’re doing with it, and also your jacket” is a pretty accessible place for the human brain to retreat to in an era with few political role models. And the language through which royalty projects itself—symbolic, gestural, based on a carefully constructed balance of enviable luxury and approachable humanity—is gorgeously suited (literally) to our Extremely Online world, in which images outrank arguments. Of course we’re susceptible to the royals. They’ve been influencers since Instagram was a unicorn tapestry.

What Meghan Markle represented when she first appeared on the royal scene was layered, complex, and, for the right sort of American royal-watcher, intensely appealing. Myself, I’d been in a strange place, Windsor-wise. For several pre-Meghan months, I’d been following the family for an article I was writing. I’d lived through the highs of royal obsession—there’s no thrill quite like dropping £37 on cocoa and cakes at the Windsor Castle tea shoppe while knowing you’ll be reimbursed by a major news organization—but I’d recently started to wonder whether the endeavor was not in some way fundamentally demeaning. (The cocoa was lukewarm, and also I believe in the equal dignity of all human beings?) I was on the verge of putting my extensive collection of 147-page unauthorized biographies of Kate Middleton written by “Blythe Oakforth-Cornbidden, official palace correspondent of the Sunday Smack” up for sale when Her Majesty’s new granddaughter-in-law appeared and made the upper-upper-upper-upper aristocracy much more interesting.

Meghan was so unlike the rest of them. I don’t mean racially, though obviously there was that; she was also from an entirely different cultural universe. Kate had grown up as a commoner, but she came from the sort of upper-middle-class English family background in which the royals were the fixed magnetic north on the aspirational social compass. Marrying William represented a change in degree—a much bigger leap, in a way, than the one made by Meghan, who was already a millionaire and a celebrity when she met Harry—but not a total recalibration of internal logic. In fact, you could argue that Kate simultaneously being inside and outside the royal system gave her such a startling genius for managing it. She knew how the machine operated, but unlike the born royals, who require frequent luxury skiing trips in order to feel human amid the crush of their daily duties (which, same), she didn’t need a vacation. Being royal was her vacation—a vacation from not being royal.

With Meghan, things weren’t so clear-cut. She was from California, for one thing. Had Prince Charles even heard of California? (“Yes,” you imagine him drawling in a vast, freezing room, aggressively crinkling a newspaper before an unlit fireplace. “Rather a pity about all the earthquakes.”) She was divorced, which was a whole historical box of wasps in its own right. I’m not sure how up to date you are on the legacy of English beheadings. Basically Henry VIII was so eager to get rid of his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn that he severed England from the Catholic Church. This then led to the creation of a new church, the Church of England, which, with unassailable logical consistency, refused to let anyone else get divorced or marry a divorced person for approximately 450 years. Fast-forward to 1936, when King Edward VIII had to give up the throne just to marry a divorced American woman (they were both Nazi sympathizers, so cue up a chorus of very sad, very evil violins). And now Harry, who was not a Nazi sympathizer (although, OK, yes, he was photographed wearing a Nazi uniform once for a costume party, and even royal 20-somethings have bad ideas) was going to marry someone with a living ex-spouse, and no one was asking him to give up the throne. Which he was never going to inherit anyway. Still! It was a lovely, and humane, change of principle.

As the daughter of a black mother and a white father, Meghan was also less white than the other royals. That might be a bad way of putting it. Bing Crosby clutching a Decemberists album in the parking lot of Whole Foods is less white than most of the Windsors. But the entrance of a woman of color into the family of the reigning queen of England struck a deep chord with many people. I know I felt it. It wasn’t an uncomplicated feeling—an institution whose entire operating rationale is that some people are better than others based on their bloodlines is a strange venue for a blow against racism, and the royal family can never, by definition, be inclusive. But as long as the royal family exists, its composition will say something about how British society sees itself, who’s inside and who’s outside; and in that sense, there’s enormous symbolic power in it becoming more representative. I think that’s true even if the means of expanding the circle are a little arbitrary (“this woman and a prince happened to fall for each other”). It is a weird but persistent feature of British history that the question of whom the royals are allowed to love is profoundly tied up with the problem of national identity.

If you were American in 2017 or 2018, and the imagined circle of your own society seemed to be shrinking rather than expanding, and a lot of not-so-unfathomable-as-it-turns-out crimes were blotting out all sense of progress at home, it felt good to watch this, and be tangentially part of it. I’ve been to California! It felt good to have grounds for some optimism. Meghan didn’t fit the profile of the typical British royal, but she seemed so sharp, cool, and stylish, and the royal era seemed so far advanced from the nightmare that claimed Princess Diana, that it seemed like things could work out.

What’s been so terrible about the royal year of 2019, and specifically the royal year as it’s pertained to Meghan, is not just that things haven’t worked out. It’s that they haven’t worked out in ways we ought to have been able to predict. (This is also true, though for wildly different reasons, of the royal year as it’s pertained to Prince Andrew.) The British tabloids did not, simply because the Duchess of Sussex had cool political opinions, decide to stop their long elevator ride through the sub-basements of human decency. As was the case with Barack Obama in the White House, the mere presence of a person of color in the royal family drove a lot of people who don’t think they’re racists out of their minds in some transparently racist ways. Around the time Meghan’s son Prince Archie was born, a beloved BBC radio presenter named Danny Baker was fired for tweeting a photo of a man and woman escorting a monkey down a flight of steps. Under this he wrote the caption “royal baby leaves hospital.” Many, many non-BBC personalities tweeted worse.

The aura of optimism and progress that accompanied the royal wedding slowly disappeared in a Brexit-maddened thundercloud of tabloid gossip, online slurs, and general resentment. Meghan and Harry sued the Mail on Sunday for reprinting without permission a handwritten letter Meghan had sent to her father. Meghan spoke openly about the pain all this had caused her, thereby occasioning further furious criticism from the people who were causing her pain. Harry directly compared the level of scrutiny and animosity Meghan faced to the ’90s frenzy that preceded the death of his mother.

If you believe in freedom of the press and find the idea of royalty off-putting (even if you love their jackets), this feels like a backward reality. Reactionary democracy is holding back a progressive monarchy! Free speech is oppressing the tyrants! But this is the backward world we have been given in 2019. I honestly can’t tell whether wishing good things for the British royal family is a good or a bad thing for an American—or for anyone—to do. But I wish for better things for Meghan in 2020. Under the circumstances, it seems like a way to wish for better things for us all.