Until the 20th century, monarchies were the rule rather than the exception. The pleasures of being a member of a royal family are obvious — their countries are organized according to the whims of a single leader who, at least for the British constitutional monarchy, believes their power is ordained by God and an unbroken line of succession.
This is, of course, absolute nonsense. What’s more, monarchies are almost never benevolent, even if they have no political power. They are often upheld with one form of violence or another, and their gilded existence is subsidized by the people they rule. In exchange, the titled surrender most of their privacy and lead lives of service to the crown.
Lots of people fantasize about royal life, but when you look past the obscene wealth, pomp and circumstance, the day to day seems absolutely miserable. There is so much demanding protocol, and so little room for individuality or humanity. Marrying into a monarchy comes at an incredibly high cost. When Prince Harry met and married the American actress Meghan Markle, we saw, in real time, just how high a price the crown was willing to extract from an outsider, up to and including her life.
In “Harry & Meghan,” the Netflix documentary, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex share intimate details of their lives, from their courtship to giving up their royal duties and privileges and moving to California to raise their young children. Using a combination of historical footage, family photos and videos, and stylish confessionals from scholars, friends, and family, the Sussexes tell a story that, frankly, we mostly already know. You might be surprised to hear that the trilogy of Lifetime movies about Harry and Meghan’s courtship are fairly accurate.
There is no mystery as to why Harry and Meghan decided to step away from their royal duties. They were saving their lives and preserving what peace of mind they could salvage from the wreckage of the almost three years they spent trying to solicit support from the royal family.
Even in royal exile, Meghan plays the part of a perfect princess. As she speaks, she looks flawless: graceful and poised, even when discussing the most difficult aspects of her life as the Duchess of Sussex. When discussing Harry’s family, she is surprisingly diplomatic. She is at her most natural in the moments she shares with her mother, Doria, or her husband and children.
As for the Duke of Sussex, he too is graceful and poised — but in the way of someone who has lived his entire life as an heir to the throne. He speaks with the zeal and conviction of the newly converted when damning the unholy alliance between the royal family and the British press, when advocating for mental health, when explaining the clear trauma of losing his mother and when making it crystal clear that he will protect his family, at any cost.
When Harry and Meghan discuss their relationship and share intimate footage of their private lives, it’s clear they do love each other. Harry seems incredibly content, often walking around barefoot, in cargo shorts, playing with his dogs and his children and beaming uxoriously at his beautiful wife. When he smiles as he walks along a sandy beach or lifts his son onto his shoulders, it’s clear that Harry most likely would have left the royal family one way or another. Meghan wasn’t the reason Harry left. She was the doorway through which he exited.
It would be easy to dismiss the Sussexes and their plight. But their immense privilege could not shield them from racism which, ultimately, forced the wedge between them and the royal family. In the end, racism was more powerful than familial bonds. The monarchy’s consistent unwillingness to protect Meghan Markle in the face of truly horrific tabloid coverage and online harassment was indefensible.
“Harry & Meghan” is interesting if you want nearly six hours of granular information about the Sussexes’ marriage and how their relationship with the royal family fractured irreparably. Though Liz Garbus is credited as director, the Sussexes were clearly in control, at all times. I don’t begrudge them that. For the past several years, they have been subjected to an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny and cruelty, much of it from the merciless British tabloids. It makes sense that for once, they wanted absolute control.
But the problem with wielding that kind of control is that it can work against your own interests. In one of the early episodes, Meghan discusses being biracial and says, “People don’t talk about what it’s like to be mixed race.” I was so perplexed by the statement that I turned on the captions and went back to be sure I heard her correctly. There is a robust and longstanding discourse about being biracial or multiracial. How could she not know that? How could no one protect her from such a wildly inaccurate statement?
Given that there aren’t many grand revelations in “Harry & Megan,” it seems clear that the Sussexes made this project, in large part, because they needed the money. A prince is accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Security details are costly. The mortgage must be paid. Exiled from the royal family, the Sussexes know that their story is, for now, their most valuable asset. When you’ve been misunderstood and maligned, you want nothing more than for people to know the truth as you’ve experienced it. Because you want to be seen and understood, you wrongly assume that if people know every last detail, finally they will empathize with your suffering. Alas.
The British monarchy is an aging institution defined by tradition, delusion, even hubris. However popular royal gossip may be, the monarchy’s power, influence, and relevance are waning. When Harry met Meghan, the royal family had a unique opportunity to evolve and modernize a deeply problematic institution. They could have made it relevant in a diverse and complicated world. While the Commonwealth comprises 56 countries, King Charles reigns as monarch over the United Kingdom and 14 Commonwealth realms, lingering vestiges of British imperialism. The people of the Commonwealth are, as the documentary notes, largely people of color. Here, the royals had a biracial woman joining their ranks. For many Black Britons, Markle was something of a beacon, a sign that the power and reach of the monarchy could extend to them, too.
It’s chilling to realize that racism is so powerful that the royal family would ruin what is for now the one opportunity they were given to reach the hearts and minds of the very people who make their lives possible. They had a gift — in Meghan Markle they had a woman who is intelligent, poised and largely able to live in the public eye, play the role of princess and give the best of herself in service of something bigger than herself.
As if to substantiate the Sussexes allegations, the British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson unleashed an incoherent, rage-filled rant about Meghan in a column for The Sun. He said, among other things, that he hates her on a “cellular level,” and was “dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.” It’s worth noting that Mr. Clarkson joined the Queen Consort and others for a Christmas lunch days before he penned his vile thoughts. And thus far, the royal family has said nothing about Clarkson’s words. They still refuse to protect her.
In the documentary, Harry and Meghan both say they would have worked on behalf of the monarchy for the rest of their lives if the royal family extended them a modicum of consideration and safety. They wanted the royal family to embrace Meghan’s role in Harry’s life and to use it — to use her — to their advantage. Instead, they did the exact opposite time and time again.
“Harry & Meghan” is best understood as an indictment of what they left behind and a declaration of independence. If even a fraction of the couple’s claims are true, and I do believe all of them, the British monarchy’s treatment of Meghan will mark the monarchy for however long it persists.
There are always two sides to a story, but it’s hard to care very much about the side that exploited every vulnerability in the name of self-preservation. In one of her commentaries, the British journalist Afua Hirsch said, of Harry and Meghan’s departure from the royal family, “Their departure felt like the death of a dream.” For a few moments, there was hope that the monarchy could speak to a much broader range of people and in so doing, change.
If they had been allowed, I think Harry and Meghan would have led that change, which is also probably part of why they were pushed out. The Sussexes were incredibly popular in Britain, in Australia, in South Africa and throughout the Commonwealth. Had they stayed in the monarchy, they may have become more and more of a threat.
And yet, I also have this on my mind: Harry and Meghan did seem content to be part of the royal family if only the royal family was willing to embrace change. But the monarchy doesn’t need to be changed. It needs to be dismantled. If Harry and Meghan were to have acknowledged that, it would have made their story infinitely more interesting.
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