When Megan Markle and Prince Harry became engaged, feminist commentators opined what basically amounted to a collective grin. While there is generally little to be said for women’s rights within an outdated patriarchal institution like the British monarchy, this future member of the royal family was different. Markle had a career, she’d been married before and she is (gasp!) older than Harry. She is a woman of colour who has spoken openly about race and sexism; an ambassador for UN Women.
In her previous life as an actress, Markle reportedly pushed back against gratuitous sexualisation of her character in the television series Suits, objecting when she was expected to wear next to nothing in the absence of a plot driven reason. Several of her previous media appearances suggested all-around excellent feminist credentials. Rubbing our hands together in anticipation, progressive women in press (myself included) were all thinking ‘now here is a princess (or duchess, whatever) who might shake things up’…
Almost half a year on from her wedding however, hopes that Markle might rock the royal boat have all but faded. On their recent tour of Australia, the young royal couple were the utter definition of traditional. Following the announcement of Markle’s pregnancy, her role during she and Prince Harry’s visit down under amounted to nothing more than being a beautiful clothes horse, politely nodding and smiling generously for crowds. Praise for her truly ground-breaking choice of switching from heels to ballet flats at the beach (seriously, someone get the girl some Havianas) and legitimately admirable efforts hand-balling a sherrin is all well and good – but where did our feminist princess go?
“There were positive signs that Markle would depart from the Kate Middleton model of unmitigated compliance with convention.”
Around the time of the royal marriage, there were positive signs that Markle would depart from the Kate Middleton model of unmitigated compliance with convention. During her engagement Markle spoke in support of her colleagues in Hollywood and the importance of the #MeToo movement more broadly. During the wedding ceremony itself there were some exciting symbols indicating a departure from the norm. Markle chose to walk part of her way down the aisle alone, the traditional vows of obedience were removed from the ceremony, and the priest pronounced the couple ‘husband and wife’ not ‘man and wife’. The bride reportedly even gave a short speech at the reception. Speaking on her own behalf? Oh my!
Following her wedding, Markle’s transition to the house of Windsor has been – seemingly -seamless. Despite being in possession of her own weird and cranky family, Megan has managed to sail above the chatter. She waves, wears hats and carries a handbag with appropriate aplomb. She is demure, generous and polite. Her social media accounts have been shut down. All traces of her former life have, where possible, been removed from the internet. She is mastering the ways of the royals and even manages to make the Queen laugh. The odd door opening and clutch purse related errors aside, Markle has emerged as the perfect princess. Along with that, thought, traces of her previous passion for and outspokenness about feminist issues has all but disappeared.
I don’t say this as a criticism or to lay blame at the ballet-flat clad feet of the now Duchess of Sussex. The pressure and expectations that Markle is under are absolutely astronomical. She’s on the steepest of steep learning curves and human nature dictates she go with the flow rather than make her own circumstances even more challenging. And what newlywed doesn’t want to befriend and fit in with their new family? It just so happens that this new family have rather a lot of rules. The foremost of which is that they are not supposed to ‘get political’ and the rights of women remain some of the most politically contested in the world right now.
As Kathryn Cullen writes for Fairfax, despite having a woman at the helm for more than six decades, the royal family is steeped in deeply patriarchal traditions. Nothing can take away from the fact that to marry the man she loves, Markle has been required to give up her career, her privacy, her choice to dress as she pleases and her right to publicly express political opinions. While Markle is no doubt a clever, warm and accomplished person in her own right, her value to the Royal Family lies in none of these things. Her job is to smile prettily and produce heirs – which is exactly the business that she’s getting on with.
Markle seems to have fallen into the role of dutiful wife and serene baby maker without displaying any of the fight previously indicated. She has acquiesced. The press fawned over her holding an umbrella to protect her beloved’s red head while he made an address in Sydney. The focus was of course on how humbling it was for a royal to hold their own rain protection device (she’s just like us!) but why wasn’t anyone questioning the absence of Markle speeches in Australia? Pregnant and about to embark on new motherhood, why not use the opportunity to speak about maternal health, child care, parental leave or pregnancy discrimination?
Are flat shoes and the occasional pant suit really worthy of lauding Markle as a modern royal, with genuine feminist credentials? Because what are those feminist credentials really worth if they’re simply left on the shelf. For feminism to be worthwhile and meaningful, it has to be about more than symbols, more than a hashtag, more than a slogan or throwaway line. Feminist values have to be worn, they have to be seen and practiced daily if they’re to be of any use to anyone.
Now does Markle have to be an activist, or even an exhibitionist about her feminism? Of course, the answer is no. Is she obliged to? Not at all. However, it would be foolish to deny the enormous platform this one individual now has. Markle has married an opportunity for influence that the vast majority of feminists around the world couldn’t possibly imagine. She can use that platform to sell out chic dresses and champion acceptable, unobjectionable social causes, of course. But doesn’t she also have a responsibility to use her megaphone for more than that? To call for and make genuine change for women in Britain and beyond?
There is legitimate debate over where she can even do both. Is it possible to balance the laser-focused spotlight of being a royal, with a desire for independent thought and expression? Or is the very definition of Markle’s ‘job’ to remain passive, likeable and unobjectionable. To be an acceptable royal requires that she is all things to all people. An heir-producing blank slate onto which every member of the public can project their own version of who she ‘really’ is. This isn’t an easy series of choices that Markle is making by any means, and being four months pregnant, she’d be forgiven for wanting a few more lie ins and less state dinners.
“There is one thing that seems to be without doubt when it comes to Markle’s feminist future – and that is the bloke she’s married.”
Her predicament is comparable to that of American first ladies who hold similarly visible positions that are inextricably linked with tradition and convention. Generally, the wives of presidents are actually more popular than their husbands. It’s not an elected role and has no constitutional function, yet it comes with many of the trappings of high office. Like the wives of princes, first ladies are highly visible. And while some have used that public interest to champion non-controversial charities, the job is first and foremost to be the hostess of the White House. How antiquated…
Hillary Clinton, who broke the traditional First Lady mold by declaring she wouldn’t stay home and bake cookies, was derided for it at the time. In her biography she confesses to giving up a lot of who she was to fit the expectations placed upon her as wife to the President. Michelle Obama, an ambitious and successful lawyer who met her husband when she was his boss, also had to quash that firey personality upon relocating to the White House. Calling herself ‘Mom in Chief’ and trying to get American kids to exercise and eat more vegetables were Obama’s primary focus during her husband’s term. However her more open and proactive feminist speeches since, reveal that she must have spent an awful lot of time biting her tongue. She and Markle might want to compare notes one day.
There has been the occasional glimmer of her former passions in Markle’s public activities. She supported a charity cookbook in aid of the Grenfell Tower fire victims and their families. Following the Australia tour, she spoke briefly in Fiji about girls’ education. The presentation was short and sweet and included nothing particularly groundbreaking. However, Markle did recognise the importance of investing in women and girls to help lift entire communities out of poverty. It was a point eloquently made and a case not heard enough on the global political stage. Most importantly, this was Markle speaking on her own behalf rather than confined to the supporting role she’s adopted of late. It was refreshing. It renewed my optimism that she might still emerge as the feminist princess we so desperately need.
A final thought. There is one thing that seems to be without doubt when it comes to Markle’s feminist future – and that is the bloke she’s married. Prince Harry has been a staunch supporter of his wife, protecting her from the ferocity of the British tabloid press and demonstrating genuine pride in her professional achievements and political beliefs. Ultimately it may be his feminism, and not hers, which makes all the difference. Will he support and usher her towards a more vocal and active role? Will he encourage her to break with tradition and vocalise her beliefs and values? Will he back the confident, capable woman he loves over the expectation laden formality of his family? Let’s hope so.
Main Image Credit: Max Mumby / Indigo
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