I am a bit late to the party on this one. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s engagement was announced five days ago – the website flogging the white coat worn by Markle (it was Canadian label Line, if you must know) has long since crashed due to eager punters trying to get their hands on one.
There’s been reaction — and reaction to the reaction. Some of it has been predictably superficial: Will Meghan Markle change royal style forever? Just to put that one to bed, I hope so. Having lived in the UK for seven years, I would love to see her in aviators and Doc Martins at the Trooping of the Colour. It would make for a nice change from spotting the subtle changes in Kate Middleton’s flesh toned L.K. Bennet wedges.
And some of the commentary has been more substantive, looking at the symbolism of a mixed-race American joining the royal family, which, as Guardian writer Afua Hirsch wrote, plays a largely symbolic role in British society and is a human manifestation of the class system. Hirsch concludes, “from now on, it will be impossible to argue that being black is somehow incompatible with being British.”
But a headline that popped up on my Twitter feed yesterday prompted me to wonder if being a princess is incompatible with being a feminist. And that is the question, at this rather late stage in the game, I would like to explore.
Writing for CNN, US-based feminist Jill Filipovic asked, “Will Meghan Markle become the royal family’s silent feminist?”
Markle has spoken about her feminist awakening at the age of 11, when she took issue with a TV ad for Ivory Clear dishwashing liquid that stated, “Women all over the world are fighting greasy pots and pans.” She wrote letters and succeeded in getting the ad changed.
Since then, she has been an Advocate for Political Participation and Leadership for the United Nations, an ambassador for World Vision, written a powerful essay about growing up bi-racial in America, and taken on sexism in the entertainment industry, including challenging the creators of her own hit show Suits when they tried to oversexualise her character.
In her piece for CNN, Filipovic writes that it is “impossible to be an effective advocate for equality and against oppression if you cannot name and critique the institutions, politics and policies that foster inequality and subjugation”. She points to traditional royal protocol that has prevented royals from commenting on political matters. And she expresses regret Markle will give up her acting career.
These are good points. But I’m more optimistic about the possibility Markle will be able to maintain her identity as a feminist while also taking on the additional role of princess. And it is the potential of her, clearly deeply rooted, identity as the former to reframe our society’s image of that latter, that I fine particularly interesting. As Hirsh wrote in the Guardian, the royal family is largely about symbolism and this kind of symbolism is important.
I can think of one powerful example of how Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, used symbolism to make a powerful statement– when she visited AIDS patients a hospice and shook their hands without gloves on. This action, at the height of 1980’s AIDS-related hysteria, spoke louder than words.
That said, I would also like to hear Markle continue to use her actual voice to advocate for issues she cares about, as well as push the limits of the symbolic role.
So this is my question: Is it really beyond the realm of possibility that Markle, who has successfully navigated her way through life as a woman, a mixed-race woman, and a feminist in Hollywood (Weinstein’s Hollywood at that) can’t chart a new through this territory? Is it fair to presume that she will cede to the powers that be, tradition and remain “silent”?
As the mother of two girls (there, I’ve now used that cliché), I could reach for countless books on my girl’s bookshelf that have attempted to rebrand princesses for the modern era. The Worst Princess, Zog and the Paperbag Princess are favourites. (Though, upon reflection I now realise that both end up forging an alliance/ friendship with a fire breathing dragon. Hmmm, will have to think about that one.)
I can understand Filipovic’s concerns. In all the alternative princess narratives on my girl’s bookshelf, they largely ran away from the prince and the castle, rather than instigating a revolution from within. Markle has a considerable challenge ahead of her.
But as the world undergoes a powerful reckoning on sexual assault and harassment, upending generations of “that’s just how it is” thinking as we embark on a journey to remake our workplaces, I have some faith in Markle’s ability to remake the role of a princess, and in doing so provide an entirely different kind of princess for my girls and future generations to look up to.
(Apparently even the Queen’s Corgis, another symbol of stodgy British aristocracy, who have long yelped at her grandson, fell at Markle’s feet. Is that a sign? Yes, I might be taking this optimism thing a bit too far.)
If a newly defined princess “role”, as Markle referred to it in an interview to mark her engagement, is something she wants to step into, I wish her the best of luck. How she “wears” it will have far greater implications than crashing the website of a clothing manufacturer.