A royal rebel. That’s what Meghan Markle was called after she apparently broke protocol by voicing support for the #MeToo movement this week. Joining her fiancé, Prince Harry, and her future in-laws, William and Kate, to update the public on their charitable projects, Markle made the sensible – and quite obvious – point that we are living through an interesting moment for women’s rights.
She urged us all – and men especially – to listen to women as they relay stories of abuse, harassment and the struggle to achieve gender equality. “I think right now, with Me Too and Time's Up,” she said, “there's no better time to shine a light on women feeling empowered and people really helping to support them."
It was an eminently reasonable take – calling for the empowerment of girls and women should be about as non-partisan and common sense as it gets – but it comes at a time when questions are being raised about how much the royal women can be seen to support #MeToo and Time’s Up. At the Baftas last month, much was made of the fact that Kate Middleton didn’t wear black, like most of the women attending. She had to wear green, the thinking went, because if she had worn black she would have been supporting a political cause and flouting royal protocol.
The media treats the royal women as insentient dolls, projecting on to them our insecurities, our jealousies and our quite mad theories
And so, Meghan Markle’s comments about the rights of women and girls were deemed controversial, with one website deciding that the remarks make her the perfect “partner in crime” for Prince Harry. He has shown himself to be a “royal renegade” by, um, dressing up as a Nazi and being photographed naked; she has proven herself to be nonconformist by saying perfectly reasonable things about equality. It’s all quite depressing, this disingenuous dumbing-down – but it’s a standard media approach to anything royal-related.
It reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s observation about a BBC segment that had several commentators trying to decide whether it was safe for a pregnant Kate Middleton to wear heels and jog a little bit. “It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow,” Mantel wrote, “but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken.”
Basically, the media chats nonsense about royal women, inventing feuds and rivalries when there are none, second-guessing their motivations. If Meghan Markle raises the issue of gender equality, she is being rebellious; if she hugs a woman who has survived a tragedy, she is uppity and conceited.
The media treats the royal women as insentient dolls, projecting on to them our insecurities, our jealousies and our quite mad theories. Sometimes, it seems we barely consider them human. Take, for example, the way People magazine analysed Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton’s sitting positions at this week’s charity event. “The duo were both implementing the ‘duchess slant’, a distinctive move, in which the knees and ankles are clasped firmly tighter and the legs are slanted to the side, creating a flattering silhouette,” the magazine told us, breathlessly. “The unofficial term, first coined by Beaumont Etiquette, is named after the Duchess of Cambridge and her now go-to pose. (Her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, was also a fan of the pose.)” The “pose” is really just “sitting down in such a way as to not display your knickers” – but People devoted hundreds and hundreds of words to it, calling on etiquette experts, remarking on how it contributes to the appearance of longer legs, praising it as “sophisticated” and “fabulous”. It’s startling, really, to read so many words about nothing, to see so many letters come together so uselessly – but it is a perfect example of the “discourse empty of content” we see surround the royals.
We’ve always preferred to guess at the royal women’s thoughts and motivations. We didn’t really want to know what was going on behind Princess Diana’s huge blue eyes – it was far more fun to engage in silly conjecture about affairs and bad marriages than to talk openly and seriously about mental health and eating disorders. The royal women have been presented to the media as silent – they have been made voiceless by the constraints of protocol and respectability. And in that void, columnists and commentators and magazine writers have created their own empty dramas and narratives.
But maybe Meghan Markle is about to change that. If she can continue to use her voice to highlight issues she cares about, she will begin to quiet the wittering of journalists who seek to undermine her. Every time Meghan Markle opens her mouth to speak, she makes those useless words about poses and feuds even more irrelevant.