A divorced, mixed-race American who had a Catholic education and has since made her name as a Hollywood actress, outspoken feminist and activist for racial equality… It doesn’t exactly scream House of Windsor, right?
This week’s announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle has seen the usual flurry of non-stop media attention that accompanies a royal announcement. Some of it flattering, some less so, but there is a consensus that Markle’s entrance into the House of Windsor marks a new departure.
The Guardian reported one reader as saying: “I love the idea of a mixed-race princess”. However, Markle was branded “unsuitable” by the Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh for the conflict her divorce would mean for the Queen’s position as a Supreme Head of the Church of England. McDonagh also took issue with the actress’ showbiz past: ‘Seventy years ago, Meghan Markle would have been the kind of woman the prince would have taken for a mistress, not a wife”.
Snobbery, it seems, dies hard.
Yet the news could also be seen as entirely unsurprising, and perhaps this is where the British press – fawning and hysteria aside – missed the real story.
What is modern about Meghan Markle is not her skin colour, heritage or status as an American divorcée, but the increasingly critical voice that she and her fiancé have recently carved out for themselves in the public domain.
The most recent example of this was in November 2016 when Prince Harry launched an unprecedented attack on the British press for introducing “racial overtones” into the reporting of the start of their relationship. Markle has also actively sought a public platform for the causes she believes in, notably penning an article for Elle magazine in December 2016 on her experience as a child of mixed-race parentage.
When asked to describe her ethnicity as part of a census in school, Markle was encouraged by a teacher to put Caucasian “because that’s how you look”. She chose not to respond. Although personally conflicted at the time, she says she has since learned to own the “in-between”. On telling her father of the episode later on, he responded: “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”
In 2017, the breaking of taboos by Britain’s younger royals seems almost run-of-the-mill. We forget that, as recently as 2010, headlines were equally obsessive of Kate Middleton’s status as a middle-class girl from Berkshire – a ‘commoner’ under another guise – on news of her engagement to Prince William.
Since then, Prince Harry has spearheaded the Invictus games, and alongside William and Kate has made waves by launching the Heads Together campaign, tackling the stigma surrounding mental health. On a more controversial note, questions still remain about the level of interference that Charles, previously active in writing to government ministers on his preferred causes of agricultural and environmental protection, might assume as king.
In this sense, the royal engagement only confirms what is the new status quo for Britain’s royal family. It has manifested itself in the younger royals striking a more outspoken and – whisper it – even political tone for progressive causes in the UK. Depending on your stance, this could either be seen as refreshing, or the royals over-stepping the mark.
Of course, royal protocol on impartiality prohibits any interference in politics in a party sense, but that doesn’t mean the younger royals’ gestures aren’t political. It is hard to imagine that Markle, who previously described Donald Trump as “divisive” and “misogynistic”, and stood on a public platform in support of Clinton, would happily invite him to her wedding day. Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, however, both liberal leaders who are known friends of the princes, might be a different matter.