In looking at royalty we are always looking at what is archaic, what is mysterious by its nature, and my feeling is that it will only ever half-reveal itself…Royal persons are both gods and beasts. They are persons but they are supra-personal, carriers of a blood line: at the most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.
On May 19th, Meghan Markle will become a princess. She’ll go by the very serious-sounding “Duchess of Sussex,” but she will technically be an actual, real-life princess.
My name is also Meghan, and on May 19th, I will also marry my very own prince (not in line for a throne, though he did once make me a grilled cheese at 11 p.m.), so I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in Meghan’s beautiful noggin. She’s trying to get Harry to focus for literally just one second so she can figure out if his cousin can sit next to his grad school friend and if “vegan-ish” is really a dietary restriction and also should she lose a few pounds or is that just an empty gesture to a patriarchy that has never given her anything in return?
Also, an estimated 2.8 billion people watched the last British royal wedding, which is close to my headcount give or take a third of the world.
Today, the British monarchy is more an idea than anything else, but it is a very powerful — and very old — one. And while it’s possible someone fibbed on an application, Meghan is likely to be the first member of the British royal family who is divorced, American and biracial. (Edward VIII famously abdicated the throne in order to marry the American-born, twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.) Harry’s proposal didn’t come as a surprise given their public courtship, but was nevertheless seen as a dramatic gesture for an institution that does its best to avoid rocking the boat (even if it does not always succeed).
“Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement represents something genuinely different from everything that has gone before,” said Afua Hirsch in The Guardian. “Their marriage will bring into reality what the British establishment lacked the imagination to even conceive of as possible 17 years ago – that a senior royal can love, and marry, someone whose ethnic heritage is not just different to his own, but the heritage that has always been most othered in Britain – black and African.”
It’s a heavy tiara to wear: to represent, by virtue of the color of your skin, the hopes of generations of disenfranchised British citizens — especially within the royal tradition of locking women into a certain role. Meghan will leave the career she built to devote herself to a royal agenda and, one expects, to fulfill the biological imperative of making more royal babies, as did all the princesses who came before her.
“Meghan and Harry’s engagement is a sign of changing times, yes, but that is just one part of the story,” says modern British royal scholar and historian Arianne Chernock, PhD. The monarchy is representative of Britain as a whole, its moods and fixations. Chernock tells me that she sees Meghan’s inclusion as a nod to Elizabeth II’s vision of the Commonwealth, which includes a diverse, tolerant and egalitarian nation — the pastoral ideal of The Great British Bake Off, where people of all backgrounds come together under Union Jack bunting to bake a firm-bottomed, progressive tart. It’s a vision of Britain that was violently shattered by the xenophobic campaign leading up to Brexit (and some of the vile reactions to the engagement invoked those same attitudes, from the newspaper that proclaimed Meghan “(almost) straight outta Compton” to the racist brooch worn by Princess Michael of Kent to the engagement party). While the government is responsible for negotiating political policy, the monarchy is still seen as setting the tone for the nation. So Meghan and Harry, in that context, could represent a positive rebuttal to those who assert that Britain is incapable of social progress. It’s worth noting, however, that while Meghan will be close to the crown, she’s not in line to be the mother of the future monarchs of England (barring some preternatural disaster).
“I do wonder if we were talking about William and not Harry, how that might have changed the conversation,” Chernock says. “William is much more bound by tradition, and would likely have closed off the possibility [of marrying a woman of color].”
Chernock also notes that while Britain’s monarchy has historically been one of the more egalitarian, ever since Queen Mary I ascended the throne in 1553 (the rules of succession were officially altered in 2015 to abolish male-preference primogeniture), the women who marry into the royal family are still required to give up their professional lives in order to a) further the bloodline, and b) properly “represent the dignity” of the monarchy. Through that lens, a woman’s other qualities, however impressive they might be, don’t matter nearly as much as what her ovaries bring to the table. As Prince Phillip begrudgingly said of Diana and Charles’ engagement: “At least she will breed height into the line.”
“Yes, there is a traditional and biological understanding of the role women play in the royal family,” says Chernock. “They are there to reproduce, to fulfill these biological obligations — but they don’t have to be defined by that.” These women occupy a uniquely powerful place in the British imagination, one they can use to shape public opinion. “Diana was adamant about using the monarchy and the royal family as a platform for shining a light on things that were seen as taboo,” Chernock says. “That really did include some incredibly brave work around AIDS, around landmines. She used her soft power to make headway in terms of the public perception of these issues.”
And while Meghan is giving up her acting career, Chernock points out what she will gain “personally as well as professionally” by stepping into this role. “She’s a philanthropist,” Chernock notes, “and that’s one of the ways she and Harry bonded, over public service. She must realize that if that is a passion, this will be the ultimate platform for her.” Meghan herself has said that’s she’s excited to transition out of her acting career to focus on “the causes that have been very important to me.” As she (very diplomatically) put it: “I don’t see it as giving anything up. I just see it as a change.”
Still, I’d posit that most women prefer not to be judged on the potential of their uterine lining — so what is it about the princess myth that beguiles us? The adoring fans and quiet power? The velvet curtains to block out the noise and little bells to ring when you want breakfast in bed? The wardrobe to end all wardrobes? It does seem quiet and sumptuous and like it involves a good amount of dozing prettily. And perhaps the rapturous fairytale of being plucked from a crowd of millions to wear the glass slipper still makes our hearts race, despite all we know about why it shouldn’t.
What do these women relinquish in return? For Diana, it was privacy, autonomy and love; for Kate, the freedom to sing off-key in public, to try out a pixie cut, to do ayahuasca on a girls’ backpacking trip to Peru. In being lifted out of her old life and thrust into the public imagination as Britain’s “first black princess,” Meghan, on top of everything else, will no doubt be expected to represent a world of underrepresented women, a likely impossible task.
“For all the excitement about the precedent-breaking royal wedding,” writes Karen Attiah in The Washington Post, “black folks across the pond know full well that having a person of color at the top of the social ladder in a country steeped in racism and white supremacy won’t be enough to undo that legacy. Black people here in the United States know that having Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House for years did not usher our country into that much-hyped ‘post-racial era.’”
Many may hope Meghan’s induction into the royal family signals progress — or that she alone can hurl an archaic institution into the 21st century. But expecting her to save Britain from racial inequity is a bit like hoping a prince is on his way to break us out of our tower. The most we can hope for is that she might continue, by small measures, to bring incremental change to an institution that continues to hold so much sway.
“That’s the ultimate challenge for the modern monarchy: striking that right balance between tradition and innovation,” says Chernock. “They can’t be so bound by the past that they appear out of touch or closed-minded, but can’t be so innovative that what the public admires or embraces about the monarchy becomes foreign or unrecognizable. It is their very tradition that makes them distinct.”
Photo by Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage via Getty Images.