Invalidating the Fairy Tale

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Royal TeaRoyal TeaNotes on monarchy from an unsourced obsessive

There are two dominant stories emerging from the house of Windsor. One is that of Harry and Meghan and their war with the press. The other is Prince Andrew and whether he will face any serious consequences for his connection to Jeffrey Epstein. They are intrinsically related, but they rarely directly interact, twining around each other without touching. One of these stories is winning out, and it reveals a lot about why the second is dropping from sight, once again.

Harry and Meghan came out of the slow end of summer swinging. Their whirlwind royal tour of Africa was essentially their first major outing since Meghan returned from maternity leave. But rather than take their positive headlines and return home to Frogmore, on the last day of the trip they dropped major news: They were suing the publishers of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, announcing with a fierce and condemnatory statement by Harry himself: “Unfortunately, my wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences–a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son.”

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The announcement came as they were traveling with members of the very same press they were criticizing. Not long afterward, ITV released a short documentary about the trip, including an interview where Meghan spoke frankly about the negative impact the negative coverage was having on her wellbeing.

“I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of the stiff upper lip,” she told Tom Bradley, a reporter sufficiently friendly with Harry that he was invited to their wedding. “But I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.” Harry told Bradley: “I will always protect my family, and now I have a family to protect.”

The Windsors have spent decades negotiating with the press and the wider world about the line between their public and private lives. Sometimes they’ve let the world inside; sometimes they’ve slammed the gate in the harshest terms possible. Harry & Meghan: An African Journey recalls another time the royal family briefly dropped the public stiff upper lip, as historian Carolyn Harris pointed out on Twitter: The 1969 documentary The Royal Family, which followed the Firm for a year and a half and offered an unprecedented glimpse behind the scenes, showing the family as just a family, sitting around the breakfast table, the Queen telling a funny story about meeting a gorilla. While it was well-received at the time, it hasn’t been shown in its entirety for decades, at the risk of dissipating the mystique the Windsors work so hard to cultivate.

On the other side of the coin, while Harry’s blistering statement accompanying their announcement of legal action is largely a break with decades of buttoned-up royal presentation, it’s certainly not the first time the family has turned to the courts to enforce much-contested boundaries of their private lives. In 2012, Will and Kate successfully sued a French magazine that published topless photos of Kate. Further back, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert successfully sued to prevent the publication of etchings of their private family life. Victoria and Albert’s childbearing was a public matter, tied up with the future not just of Great Britain but Europe more broadly, yet the couple insisted on a distinction between their family as a matter of state and their private family life. This served multiple purposes: the creation of some living space out of the public eye, but also the maintenance of the majesty of the monarch and the simultaneous position of the Saxe-Coburgs as a morally upright, bourgeois family unit. The Windsors still operate with the framework Victoria created, establishing their right to a private life even as she raised the stakes for any outward signs of a private life that deviated from, well, Victorian wholesomeness.

If Harry and Meghan are negotiating the boundaries of their private lives as public figures, Prince Andrew is engaged in a very different struggle with the press, attempting to whitewash his doings out of the public eye by distancing himself from his dead friend Jeffrey Epstein and his well-known predation of young women. Damning visual evidence appears in every story about Andrew, particularly the photo of Andrew with Epstein accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre, which definitively links Andrew to the woman who has said that she was forced at 17 by Epstein to perform sex acts with him. The Daily Mail reported that Andrew’s “inner circle” has hired forensic investigators to look into whether this photo might be faked; sources also told the Sunday Times that Andrew was merely a trophy friend for Epstein, and Andrew’s 2010 visit to see the man was to break off the friendship.

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Ultimately, the story of Meghan and Harry has the potential to redound the monarchy’s benefit. Even when they are positioned as in conflict with the institutional royal press or stuffed-shirt courtiers or even members of the family proper, it’s still within the basic structure of the institution. Their public presentation has very much played to the idea of modernizing the monarchy—for instance, going straight to the public via social media and adopting a much less formal tone, even as that tone is, make no mistake, very deliberate. They’re attempting to carve out an international role for themselves as forces for good on topics like mental health, contrary to the image of royals as impossibly stuffy and emotionally cold. But structurally, there’s only so far they can go toward outright subversion before they begin to call into question their own platform.

But to suggest that you are modernizing the monarchy is to be self-referential; it’s a conversation about the monarchy. As much as they are “Harry and Meghan” in the public eye, the couple is equally the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. It’s right there in that oh-so-casual Instagram account, which nevertheless has the handle of @sussexroyal, a little crown sitting on top of their joint initials. They are in a power struggle with the tabloid media to determine the terms on which they will be public figures. Depending on who you believe, they are maybe in a power struggle with other factions within Buckingham Palace about how they should proceed as public figures. But there’s no question that they are royals. And the monarchy can fold almost anything into its long-running, ongoing narrative. (Despite the nadir of the early 1990s, Prince Charles managed to marry Camilla and rehabilitate his image to an astonishing degree.)

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The story of Andrew and Epstein is different, though, because there’s no way to romanticize it, or spin it, or incorporate it into even a neutral narrative about the monarchy. There’s no easy way to bracket out Andrew. He didn’t marry into the family and can’t be booted out—he was born a royal, not made one. And what’s he done with that privilege? At best, nothing impressive; at worst, he’s abused it, revealing the fundamentally rotten nature of his position. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Channel 4's documentary on Andrew, “The Prince and The Pedophile,” which aired the following day, has gotten much less attention than Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, as WWD noted. 

“He’s a hideous dancer, and he was sweating profusely all over me. I grew up watching Disney just like most little girls grew up watching Disney, and princesses and princes were the good people of the world—and he wasn’t,” Virginia Roberts Giuffre said on the program. The image of the teenaged girl in this moment is so dark, and so deeply sad. Harry and Meghan, even as you see them visibly struggling to live in the glare of overwhelming media attention, are still basically a fairy tale about two noble lovers facing adversity. Andrew represents the complete invalidation of the fairy tale, and it seems like nobody is ready for that.

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