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How the British Royal Family saw Meghan before her marriage to Prince Harry

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Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary series was released on December 8. AFP

As an expert on the contemporary British monarchy, I watched closely the first three episodes of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new Netflix docuseries, Harry & Meghan.

What stood out the most was how Meghan’s gender, race and class intersected in her treatment by both the media and ‘the company’ (an unofficial nickname for the monarchy UK and its staff who describe the institution as a business) itself.

As with their interview with Oprah in 2021, this documentary is a forum for the couple to report on their treatment by the Cabinet. These kinds of royal confessionals risk harming the monarchy, as they illuminate “behind the scenes” of an institution that relies on magic and majesty to maintain its image.

Patriarchy and women’s bodies

Princess Diana’s traumas in the Royal Family have been well covered over the decades, including the Panorama documentary which she used to tell her own story in 1995. Like Meghan, Diana has opened up about her mental health and lack of cabinet support. Harry & Meghan also draw comparisons between Diana and Meghan, saying the two women were hounded by paparazzi throughout their royal lives.

Meghan talks about “men sitting in cars all the time” outside her house, waiting for her to leave. In any other situation, she said, it would amount to harassment. As Meghan mentions, gender matters here. Celebrities like Britney Spears have spoken of the unique pressures women face due to tabloid intrusion.

The economy surrounding these women encompasses multiple industries, from cosmetic surgery to fashion brands, which benefit from the exploitation of the paparazzi. Britney Spears’ body became a saving in itself because the paparazzi photos of her were worth so much money.

For royal women, this takes on a new imperative. The monarchy depends on women’s bodies for its reproduction – literally, the reproduction of heirs. The bodies of royal women are fetishized as breeders of the nation, as they give birth to the next “symbol” of Britishness. It also explains the hidden meaning behind these questions within the royal family about Archie’s skin color – they ask how “British” (or rather white) his baby might be.

It’s not just about clothing and branding, but about how royal women’s bodies take on meaning that connects femininity and the nation. It is a patriarchal institution that uses women’s bodies for its own ends.

Respectability Policy

As the documentary shows, for Meghan, it’s not just about sex. Race and class come to play a role in the intersectional pressures she has been subjected to. Headlines like Daily Mail’s “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton” are discussed as evidence of racist coverage of the couple’s early days of relationship.

Meghan also mentions the firm’s discomfort with her acting career. She explains that there are assumptions about Hollywood and the people who work there. Acting is considered too much downgraded a profession to marry into the royal family, despite the fact that society operates as a celebrity industry in itself.

At the time of their marriage, the tabloids also portrayed Meghan’s (Thomas Markle) father’s side of the family in a way reminiscent of ‘white trash’ talk. “White trash” is an American slur (equivalent to British “chav”) for an abject working-class figure.

The Daily Mail reported that Meghan’s aunt and cousin spent the royal wedding wearing cardboard chestnuts at a Burger King, a fast food chain associated with working class stereotypes. Their meal was positioned in contrast to that of the upper class and aspirations taking place at the same time in Windsor.

Black studies scholars like Brittney Cooper have called condemnation of the actions of people of color a “politics of respectability.” Inclusion in typically white spaces is undertaken by observing white middle class norms, including being “mainstream, articulate and crisp, black but not overly black, friendly, upbeat, and accommodating.”

Of course, the monarchy is perhaps the pinnacle of ‘respectable’: an institution enshrined as the pinnacle of British society. The racism that plagued Meghan, and the fact that she was never allowed to achieve racial upliftment, shows how whiteness, gender and upper class are used to control the boundaries of respectability.

Femininity and nation

Women in the royal family are still the subject of more pervasive attention than men. Princess Diana and Kate Middleton have come under scrutiny, from what they say and carry to speculation about what’s going on inside their bellies.

As Harry points out in the documentary, however, Meghan’s situation was unique. Meghan’s story tells us something fundamental about the British monarchy’s relationship with patriarchy and whiteness, and how the two are inseparable.

And media scholar Raka Shome writes in her book, Diana and Beyond, white femininity “is always a doing and not a being. It is always pushed and pulled, routed and redirected to the scenario of national desires.

One site of this push and pull is Meghan’s stalking. Scripts of white womanhood, and therefore of the nation, have been fought, and continue to be fought, over representations of her.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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