Meghan Markle
Meghan Markle (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINION

Meghan Markle and the sexist stigma attached to being a young divorced woman

The future royal isn’t having a discreet second wedding; instead she’s marrying a beloved prince. And some people can’t handle that, says Bella Mackie

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By Bella Mackie on

When the world found out that Prince Harry was dating the American actor Meghan Markle, the press had a field day. Some of the reporting was straight-up racist – her mixed race heritage was brought up slyly and frequently – and prompted articles about how the actor had grown up in a neighbourhood “straight outta Compton” – a reference to the infamous feud between LA gangs the Bloods and the Crips. The coverage was so bad, Prince Harry took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning the racism and sexism that she had suffered at the hands of the media.

This week, the couple announced their engagement, and the reaction was mostly one of celebration. After all, they seem genuinely in love, and many have written about the positive impact Meghan Markle could make on one of our most old-fashioned institutions. And yet the coverage from some quarters was still disappointingly out of date. Markle had a brief marriage which didn’t work out some years ago, and from which she has now obviously moved on. It should be utterly irrelevant, and yet headlines still announced news of the engagement by referring to Markle as “divorced”. With amazing rudeness, one website posed the question: How can Harry marry a divorcee?

The Spectator went even further, with an article which dismissed Prince Harry’s future wife, saying: “Obviously, seventy years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the Prince would have had for a mistress, not a wife.” This cheap shot was presumably in reference to Wallis Simpson, an American woman who fell in love with King Edward VIII while still married. The affair horrified sections of the British press and public, and Edward felt forced to abdicate in 1936. Simpson, who was divorced twice, has long been painted as manipulative and ambitious, a tainted woman who almost brought down the British establishment. She has never been forgiven for it.

Thankfully, we live in a different age and Markle and Prince Harry can marry without legal issue. But that hasn’t stopped numerous articles questioning whether the “controversial” marriage can go ahead in a church (it can and will), and digging up irrelevant details about her ex-husband.

It’s a funny thing, being a young divorcee. The word feels old-fashioned and loaded, as though your romantic life has come to an end and your one shot is over

I suppose this isn’t much of a shock. Divorced women have been made into several stereotypes and none of them is appealing. There’s the glamorous predator, looking to steal your husband, the sad failure who collects cats and never remarries, a vengeful and crazed ex (à la Mrs Rochester shoved up in an attic in Jane Eyre). The stigma persists.

I was divorced by 30. Like Markle, it was a very brief relationship that produced no kids and ended painfully but cleanly. I fit very neatly into UK statistics on the subject – in 2016, the divorce rate for heterosexual couples was highest among men aged 45 to 49 and women in their thirties (ages 30 to 39).

It’s a funny thing, being a young divorcee. The word feels old-fashioned and loaded, as though your romantic life has come to an end and your one shot is over. Those who get divorced in middle age are more commonly understood – the assumption being that a properly serious attempt at a relationship was made. But when you’re not at that age and most of your friends haven’t yet headed down the aisle, you tend to hear remarks about “young people not taking marriage seriously”, as though you headed into the church solely for the chance to wear a nice dress.

A lot of people just didn’t know what to say to me when I told them my marriage was over. Some would minimise my sadness by telling me it was a relief I had no children. Some would reassure me that a “starter marriage” was a blessing in disguise. One person bluntly told me that any second wedding I had would need to be small and understated, as though my previous failing would tarnish such an event. I felt like a bad omen at other people’s weddings too, like I was the ghost at a feast and bound to bum everyone out. Dating was awkward too – when do you tell someone that you’ve already been married? Most people took it with a look of surprise and gave a reassurance that it didn’t matter. But one man made a joke about Elizabeth Taylor (married eight times), as though I was looking to collect husbands and he was a target.

It’s been several years since I got divorced, and I don’t normally feel shame when I mention it anymore. But the headlines about Meghan Markle’s engagement have surprised and disappointed me. My sexism antennae prickle – a woman opting out of a marriage goes against the historical norm of wedlock asserting total male dominance and women being grateful for the chance to escape spinsterhood.

The implication in some media coverage seems to be that Meghan Markle has been shamelessly unapologetic about her divorced status. Instead of quietly atoning with a second marriage at City Hall, she’s going to marry a beloved prince, and she’ll do it in spectacular fashion. Does she seem too empowered? A bride with past mistakes and baggage; forging ahead and seeking new happiness, instead of some mythical virgin, untouched by another.

We have moved on somewhat from the days of seeing divorced women as used goods. But we haven’t moved on nearly enough. Meghan Markle is not merely somebody’s ex-wife, and people’s past relationships are none of our business. Getting over a divorce was one of the most positive learning curves of my life, not a scandalous incident that lessens me. Marriage, successful or failed, does not define us. Nevertheless, I hope Ms Markle has exactly the kind of wedding she wants. And if I choose to do it again, I’ll be unapologetic about it, feathers and disco balls and all.

@bellamackie

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Meghan Markle (Photo: Getty Images)
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meghan markle
royal family
divorce
Marriage
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