I carefully watched the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan, the new Netflix docuseries starring The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. I am an authority on the modern British monarchy.
What stood out the most was how Meghan’s gender, color, and class intersected in how she was treated by the media as well as by “the Firm,” the British monarchy’s unofficial moniker for its employees that refer to the institution as a business.
This documentary serves as a venue for the couple to defend how the Firm treated them, similar to their 2021 Oprah appearance. These types of royal confessionals run the risk of undermining the monarchy because they reveal what goes on “behind the scenes” of an organization that depends on mystery and majesty to uphold its reputation.
Patriarchy and the bodies of women
The hardships Princess Diana experienced while growing up in the royal family have been extensively reported throughout the years, notably in the 1995 Panorama documentary she used to share her tale. Diana discussed her mental health and a lack of help from the Firm, similar to how Meghan did. Harry & Meghan also draws parallels between Diana and Meghan, asserting that both women endured constant paparazzi harassment throughout their time as royals.
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Men “sitting in automobiles all the time” outside Meghan’s house, she claims, waiting for her to go. She claims that in any other circumstance, this would constitute stalking. Gender matters in this situation, as Meghan explains. Celebrities such as Britney Spears have spoken out about the particular demands that tabloid intrusion places on women.
The economy surrounding these ladies includes a variety of sectors, including fashion brands and cosmetic surgery, both of which profit from paparazzi exploitation. Because the value of the paparazzi photos of Britney Spears was so high, her body became an economy in and of itself.
This becomes more crucial for women in royal positions. The reproduction of the monarchy—literally, the reproduction of heirs—depends on the bodies of women. The bodies of royal ladies are idolized as the wombs of the country, bearing the next “symbol” of Britishness. This explains the subtext of the royal family members’ inquiries regarding skin tone of Archie, questioning how “British” (or rather, how white) her unborn child may appear.
It is about how the bodies of royal women take on a meaning that connects femininity and the country, not just about dress and branding. This is a patriarchal organization that exploits the bodies of women.
The documentary demonstrates that this is not only a gender issue for Meghan. She was subjected to intersectional pressures that included considerations of race and class. When discussing the racial reporting of the couple’s early relationship, headlines like the Daily Mail’s “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton” are brought up.
Meghan also brings up how uncomfortable the Firm is with her acting endeavors. She argues that presumptions are made about Hollywood and its inhabitants. Even though acting is seen as a vocation too derogatory to enter the royal family,
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Around the time of their wedding, tabloids were also portraying Thomas Markle, Meghan’s father, and his family in ways that evoked “white trash” arguments. White trash is an American insult for a deplorable working-class person (similar to the UK’s “chav”).
According to a report in The Daily Mail, Meghan’s aunt and cousin attended the royal wedding while dining at a Burger King, a fast food restaurant known for its working-class stereotypes. Their dinner was positioned in opposition to the affluent and ambitious one occurring simultaneously in Windsor.
Black studies experts like Brittney Cooper have called the criticism of people of color’s behavior “respectability politics.” Following white, middle-class norms, such as being “mainstream, eloquent, and clean cut, black but not too black, cheerful, peppy, and accommodating,” is one way to achieve inclusion into traditionally white areas.
Of course, the monarchy is revered as the pinnacle of British society and is arguably the epitome of “respectable.” Meghan’s experience with racism and the fact that she was never permitted to advance in her race show how upper-class status, gender, and whiteness are utilized to define what is acceptable.
Nationalism and femininity
In the royal family, women are almost always the focus of greater attention than males. From what they say and wear to rumors about what’s happening within their wombs, Princess Diana and Kate Middleton have been the subject of intense scrutiny.
But Meghan’s position was special, as Harry notes in the film. Our understanding of the British monarchy’s ties to racism and patriarchy and how they are intertwined is fundamentally altered by Meghan’s experience.
Additionally, white femininity “is always a doing and not a being,” according to media historian Raka Shome in her book Diana and Beyond. It is constantly pulled, redirected, and rerouted to script national objectives.
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One manifestation of this push and pull is the pursuit of Meghan. Over portrayals of her, battles over the narratives of white femininity and, by extension, of the nation, have been and still are being waged.