Brexit is roiling Britain. Prince Andrew has been accused by a woman of abusing her as a teenager in Jeffrey Epstein’s child sex-exploitation network. Yet the British tabloids are obsessed by another royal: Meghan Markle, the most high-profile woman of color in Britain.
Why Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, has become the reigning royal chew toy isn’t obvious. She is a self-made professional who has eagerly become a royal champion of charities benefiting girls and women. She quickly accomplished the traditional job of female royals: providing a male heir. Among British millennials, she is more popular than Prince Charles, and she shares his 46% positive rating among Britons overall, according to a recent poll. And she’s married to the most popular male royal, Prince Harry.
Markle’s ascendance was an inspiration to many black girls and women. Yet the duchess has acquired a virulent mob of media detractors who provide a megaphone for attacks from estranged relatives, snipe at such non-offenses as Markle cradling her baby bump, and single her out for the luxurious lifestyle she married into — though she hardly invented British royalty and its costly trappings.
Perhaps a Department of Meghan Studies will someday ponder why Markle is endlessly jeered for things that win other royals applause, like one-shoulder gowns, jewels, expensive parties and vacations. Or explain how, after tabloid reports that Markle has brought discord into the royal family, the British monarchy remains strangely intact.
Those wondering what Meghan and Harry have been thinking about this onslaught got their answer last week, when Markle filed a lawsuit against The Mail on Sunday newspaper for publishing a private letter she sent to her father.
“I have been a silent witness to her private suffering for too long,” Prince Harry wrote in a statement, decrying “relentless propaganda” by a “press pack that has vilified her almost daily for the past nine months.” He further elaborated, “I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces,” referring to his mother, Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris while being chased by paparazzi on motorcycles.
To some, the takedown of Markle is all about race. “Dear England and English press, just say you hate her because she’s black, and him for marrying a black woman and be done with it,” tweeted British actress Jameela Jamil. “Your bullying is so embarrassing and obvious. You’ve all lost your marbles.”
Markle’s biracial heritage has been mocked since the day The Daily Mail’s headline announced “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel described Harry’s then-girlfriend as the daughter of a “dreadlocked African American woman” who would bring “rich and exotic DNA” to the royal family. “The problem is that Meghan Markle is a mixed-race woman, occupying a space which was presumed for a white woman, in a notoriously white institution,” journalist Ilayda McIntosh wrote on the online Common Sense Network.
As the razzing grew, actor George Clooney scolded the British press: “She’s a woman who is seven months pregnant and she has been pursued and vilified and chased in the same way as Diana was.” When the royal baby, Archie, was born, BBC presenter Danny Baker tweeted a photo of a posh man and woman with a chimpanzee, captioned “royal baby leaves hospital.” Baker was fired. A BBC summer satire show portrayed a cartoon Markle with darker skin threatening to knife Kate Middleton in a caricatured urban accent.
Markle was even criticized for her guest-editing of a fall issue of British Vogue, though Kate Middleton had guest-edited The Huffington Post. “Was the criticism racist? Some of it, yeah,” Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue, told the Guardian.
British tabloids thrive financially by turning their monarchy into a soap opera. Royal women bear the brunt of media criticism, which is sometimes crassly sexist, like the suggestion Markle suffers from “American wife syndrome.”
After the Sussexes were criticized for preaching environmentalism while flying in private jets — Harry said he was concerned for his family’s safety — a Guardian columnist joked that maybe the royal couple should just stay home, where the “buzzwords for Meghan’s mood board might be: silent, stoic, dutiful.”
Instead, Markle and Harry flew British Airways to South Africa, where Markle told a cheering crowd that, “while I am here with my husband as a member of the royal family, I want you to know that for me, I am here as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of color, and as your sister.”
The trip was a reminder that the Meghan-and-Harry love story has put a modern face on British royalty and Britain’s long history of race-based colonial exploitation. In dismantling this image, Britain has far more to lose than the Duchess of Sussex.
Anne-Marie O’Connor is a London-based journalist and the author of “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.”