It was supposed to be a fairy tale for the contemporary age, a media-savvy biracial American professional woman who could charm a willing institution into a new era with the support of her loving Prince Charming. It was the narrative climax of two important connections to the princess mythos for a generation of American women: the Disney renaissance, and the prospect, however faint, of William and Harry, our contemporaries, the handsome young sons of the most famous woman in the world, Princess Diana. That combination was an essential element in Harry and Meghan’s love story, alongside the fact it offered commentators a chance to tell a rosy story about the prospect of “modernizing the monarchy.”
But now, here is Meghan just a few short years later, telling Oprah Winfrey that while pregnant with the Queen’s great-grandchild, she was frighteningly depressed to the point of suicidal thoughts and got no help whatsoever. Harry’s marriage was supposed to close the narrative rupture opened when his beautiful mother so publicly did not live happily ever after; instead, here he was, telling Oprah that he was scared of history repeating itself. Once again, marrying into the Windsors had made a woman dangerously miserable. Sunday’s interview neatly punctured the princess story, in which a virtuous woman is warmly enfolded into a power structure to her enduring happiness. But that story has conditions; “virtue” means self-effacement and the princess is expected to be young, virginal, biddable, and white. Anything else presents a destabilizing problem. This whole episode in royal history has once again exposed the role of princess for what it really is: reproduce the dynasty, shore up the institution through your proscribed (and carefully circumscribed) role, and don’t put a foot out of line.
The story of the British monarchy is the story of one controversial woman after another, going back centuries. Of course, when royals married royals, they often went abroad to find spouses in foreign courts with different customs, who spoke different languages, who worshipped differently. Women like the French Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated Charles I, and the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, could easily find themselves the focus of political discontent. Catherine was even accused of treason as part of the intense fear of Roman Catholicism returning to Britain, but the king intervened. Of course, she also spent her life with the entire world watching her belly as a matter of state, waiting for a successful pregnancy that never came, as her husband publicly cavorted with glamorous woman after glamorous woman.
As the monarchy’s formal power was waning, the mass media was emerging as a powerful phenomenon. Consequently, while the women who married in were less likely to find themselves involved in life-or-death political intrigue, they were liable to find themselves the subject of intense, invasive, high-stakes scrutiny. That could take the form of something like fandom, in the case of Edward VII’s elegant Danish wife Alexandra, but it was increasingly intrusive, even obsessive. At the height of the abdication crisis, Wallis Simpson was essentially painted as a vile, somehow monstrous woman who dared to pollute the institution of monarchy. (To be clear, Wallis Simpson was terrible—but it’s because she hung around with Nazis, not because she slept with Edward VIII, much less because of some wild rumors about her sexual prowess.)
Some royal women migrated between approval and rancor; Princess Margaret got both sides of the public attention over the course of her life. Her relationship with Peter Townsend became a media cause célèbre, but the institution required her to choose between him and her position as princess and she chose the latter. When she married Anthony Armstrong-Jones, theirs was the first royal wedding that was a televised media event. Later in her life, however, she became a scandalous tabloid fixture, made a blowsy figure of fun for her relationship with the much younger Roddy Llewellyn.
But nothing quite compared with the story of Diana, who arrived on the scene as a 19-year-old Barbara Cartland-reading virgin princess just as the culture was taking a conservative turn into the 1980s. She was a beautiful media sensation, her every move watched and parsed with the fervor of Biblical exegesis, dominating media all over the globe. She was also, as we now know, suffering immensely. She was still dealing with the emotional fallout from her parents’ ugly divorce; she was struggling with bulimia, which the Queen herself reportedly saw as a cause, rather than a symptom, of the Waleses’ marriage troubles. In fact, she began to get cold feet before she even married Charles; she told Andrew Morton that her sisters told her she basically had no choice: “They were wonderful and said: ‘Well, bad luck, Duch, your face is on the tea-towels so you’re too late to chicken out.’”
Those tea towels symbolize the sheer magnitude of the monarchy and the weight of its fraught relationship with the public. The monarchy does, in fact, exist with the continuing permission of the British public, and the British press is the self-appointed gatekeeper of that permission. The monarchy is therefore in a complicated relationship with the British press, subject to their judgments. Harry went so far as to suggest his entire family lives in outright fear of the British media and the havoc they could wreak should the switch flip from reverence to attack mode. At the same time, the monarchy and much of the British press have very specific and gendered expectations for the appropriate behavior of women. Other than Queen Elizabeth II, whose position is different by virtue of her sovereignty, they’re a supporting act; their appropriate concerns are the welfare of women and children. They are expected to be polished and occasionally even glamorous, but not daring or flashy. They are not celebrities in their own right; rather, their fame is in the service of the Crown.
Meghan alleged in her interview that the British press wants a hero and a villain, suggesting those are the roles into which she and Kate were cast. Whatever the specifics of their relationship behind closed doors, there’s no question that the tabloids were quick to play the two off one another. Part of it is race; Kate conforms to the centuries-old mold of the British princess, white and slender as her predecessor Queen Alexandra. Part of it is Meghan’s background (American, divorced, actress); part of it is likely the fact that Kate is married to the man who will be king and therefore more vital to their dysfunctional long-term relationship with the institution they both love and loathe.
But part of it, too, is that Kate and her advisors have correctly assessed what the press and the public want from her, and she has molded her exterior to conform to those expectations. She smiles; she works with children; she dresses increasingly like her grandmother-in-law; she stays on the preapproved script. She diligently colors inside the very, very gendered lines that she has been provided, and the flag-waving British press lauds her for it. And there is absolutely no question that should she ever forget the importance of staying within those lines, there are legions of courtiers ready to remind her. And, too, any criticism would lack the racial dimension so omnipresent with Meghan, which isn’t simply a matter of bad press, but actually elevates the security threat level for the Sussexes.
Diana was a 19-year-old absorbed into an ancient system without much life experience to guide her through the trials she would face. Meghan, meanwhile, knew a whole lot more about the world and how it worked than the sheltered Diana. But that worked against her, too, in a way: Meghan was fundamentally accustomed to running her own life. She was used to making her own money; she was used to doing what she wanted and saying what she wanted. She was accustomed to a fundamentally different model of celebrity, where the personal brands of individuals rise and fall in a chaotic marketplace of fame.
But monarchy isn’t about the individuals who orbit around the Crown. It’s about the Crown itself. Built to support the person who wears that Crown, and to produce future wearers of that Crown, it’s like a virus: its goal is to reproduce itself. Everything and everyone is subordinate to that very simple ultimate goal. And the chain of transmission works according to a very simple system of blood inheritance. Sure, with George’s generation, they’ve changed the succession so it’s not purely primogeniture anymore, but the Crown still goes to the eldest child of a monarch’s loins. The entire system is based on the proposition that some specific Windsors are anointed by God; everybody else is there to continue that process, and what they want or need does not matter. It’s absolutely no surprise that Meghan told Oprah that she had been advised to be “50 percent less.”
The real face of the monarchy is shrewd, and it is implacable, and it is often cruel. And so, Diana’s bulimia was an open secret among the royals, and despite all their resources, there was no effective help for her, just gradually intensifying media coverage until she was chased into that tunnel in Paris. And then—even after that—you have Meghan in crisis, and again, no help. A high-profile member of the royal family simply cannot be seen to check into inpatient psychiatric care; even as Harry and the Cambridges have preached mental health causes for years, anything beyond vague mentions of therapy would disrupt the public face of the princess myth, which must smile at all times. Any problems to which they might confess must be safely in the past, already handled.
The realities of royal courts suggest that Cinderella’s “happily ever after” was no such thing, and she probably should have taken up with the miller or perhaps the local butcher’s son. But of course, the modern notion of a “fairy tale” is wildly oversimplified, a creation of Walt Disney and his corporate successors. In fairy tales, a desperate woman makes a deal with an imp and nearly loses her firstborn child, and a father trades his unborn child to a witch to feed her pregnant mother. Parents abandon their children in the woods to starve; wolves disguise themselves as grandmothers. The stories are full of bad bargains and magical traps and terrible, terrible consequences. That’s true of real-life princesses, too.