The news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are stepping down from their roles in the royal family seemed to shock and offend an awful lot of people.
Both have been open about how difficult they found being royal: the lack of freedom, the media attention, the vitriolic coverage. It therefore seems odd that their wanting to step back caused such surprise. That’s not to mention that a lot of this surprise came from the very media outlets which have criticised their every turn since Meghan arrived on the scene in June 2016, when she met Harry.
The press coverage of Meghan and Harry has always been particularly harsh in comparison to other royals. With Meghan being a mixed-race woman, there are plenty of clichés and narratives to be employed against her. It is hardly necessary to look beyond Piers Morgan for examples of this but many publications have joined in with the criticism – just see the Mail asking if Meghan was placing her hand on her baby bump out of “pride, vanity” or if she was just “acting”. Essentially, the media have presented Meghan as an outsider, who somehow made her way into the royal family and is now ruining it from within – evoking the stereotype of someone who has married above their station, a gold-digger who is fundamentally an imposter.
Harry is, of course, implicated in this given that he allowed this to happen. Here, another trope comes into play: that of the “whipped” husband, a viewpoint which has been bolstered by Thomas Markle referring to him as such in a widely publicised interview. Rather than presenting this as the story of a couple wanting to do what is best for both of them, it has been presented along the lines of Meghan somehow bewitching Harry into doing her will. Yet this does not stop with the traditional media: Leave.EU also tweeted a vile graphic illustrating this point and mourned the “demise” of Prince Harry, and researchers analysing tweets about Meghan noted the extreme prevalence of misogynistic slurs.
What’s particularly noticeable about the coverage of Harry and Meghan’s decision is the distance we are encouraged to take from them. They are reported on in a completely unsympathetic way, with incredulity and condemnation expressed at their actions. For example, the day after their announcement, the front page of the Mirror read “They Didn’t Even Tell The Queen”, while the Mail ran with a report on the Queen’s “fury”. To me, this distance seems most clear when the treatment of their decision is compared to that of the Prince Andrew scandal.
Prince Andrew not only associated with known sex offenders, but refused to apologise for it and described himself as “too honourable” in the process of not apologising. Of course, he was condemned in the media; with more and more people coming forward with stories of sexual abuse.
Yet the Sun recently covered Prince Andrew attending church with the Queen along with reports that the Queen is “embarrassed” by the scandal, but “will always protect her favourite son”. In the same article, it is claimed that she is “even more hurt” by the nasty things which have been said about Andrew in the wake of the scandal than she is by Meghan and Harry leaving the royal family. This narrative suggests that the problem is the fact that there was a negative reaction to Prince Andrew being involved in sex trafficking, rather than the fact that he was involved in sex trafficking in the first place. The trope here is the Prodigal Son, that compelling archetype seen through the parent’s eyes.
This sort of coverage wants to place us on Andrew’s side; it asks us to view events from his perspective. It plays into the trope of the Prodigal Son, that compelling archetype seen through the parent’s eyes. Of course, no mention is made of the perspective of the vulnerable young women involved.
In many ways, the differences in coverage of the Prince Andrew scandal and Meghan and Harry stepping down represents the persistence of old narratives, even in a society which one might have thought had moved on. We are asked to see Prince Andrew as a man who made a mistake, while being asked to see Prince Harry as a man who has allowed his wife too much influence and Meghan as a gold-digger with too many opinions. In this way, Prince Andrew is allowed a more forgiving narrative, while Meghan and Harry are left with little choice but to be alienated.