Meghan Markle: Can the royal-to-be win the world’s heart?

Photo: Justin Aranha

Photo: Justin Aranha

Australians try to feign a lack of interest in the Crown, but when push came to shove Republicans couldn’t oust the constitutional monarchy in the 1999 referendum, and God knows we love a royal wedding.

When Kate and William tied the knot in 2011, an estimated 5.7 million viewers tuned in for the occasion, a figure so large it wasn’t just expats and royalists glued to their screens.

Now, with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s nuptials around the corner, interest in palace shenanigans is peaking again, partly because of the pending spectacle, but also because of what Markle represents: as a bi-racial, trouser-wearing divorcee from across the Atlantic with a successful Hollywood career under her belt and a messy bun, the palace has never looked so modern. That said, Markle hasn’t been without her detractors – she’s been criticised for ditching her day job, and picked apart over whether she’s too black or not black enough.

On a positive note, the royal wedding as a social barometer shows good progress. For a start, Markle’s warm royal reception is a far cry from the aghast response to fellow American and divorcee, Wallis Simpson, in the 1930s. Happily, we’re also a million miles from the furore surrounding Diana’s virginity, or otherwise, before she was hitched to Prince Charles. Back then, the 19-year-old’s uncle assured the public that Diana’s chastity was intact, which is both gross and unthinkable now.

CNN’s royal commentator and palace insider Victoria Arbiter puts our ongoing royal love affair down to the fact that, like it or not, they’re part of our identity as a Commonwealth nation, and a unit like no other.

“It’s a politically neutral institution, something that we can all watch in a light-hearted and fascinated way, and it’s removed from celebrity,” she says. “It’s not like watching the train wreck that is the Kardashians, or Married At First Sight. There’s a mystique and fascination that comes from the magic and fairy tale of it.”

Arbiter also suspects that the ongoing curiosity vis-a-vis William and Harry is an extension of Princess Di’s legacy. “Many adults today will remember watching those boys walk behind their mother’s coffin – a horrendous image,” she says. “We’ve watched these two boys grow up and become fine men and make their mother and father proud, and it’s giving us an opportunity to see them get their happy ending.” Which, let’s face it, in Harry’s case was looking dubious for a while, what with the constant partying and Nazi uniform incident, but, undeniably, he’s become a lovely lad.

That said, a valid question remains: between Harry and Markle, who’s the real catch?

Meghan Markle in the role that brought her to the world's attention: Suits' Rachel Zane.

Meghan Markle in the role that brought her to the world’s attention: Suits’ Rachel Zane.

“Everybody thinks Meghan’s so lucky, but it takes a particular person to marry into the royal family,” Arbiter says. “People think, ‘oh, you get to live in a palace and wear tiaras and don’t have to think about money’, and, of course, there’s a tremendous amount of privilege, but with that comes a huge amount of responsibility. You’re never alone, you can’t ever let your guard down, and you can’t nip off for a weekend in Barcelona because you got a last-minute deal. You’re always being judged, you’re funded by the taxpayer, and you’re responsible to the public and the monarchy. There’s a huge element of freedom to relinquish.”

Indeed, as part of taking on the royal mantle, Markle has already forsaken her acting career, which Arbiter describes pithily as, “letting go of that public-celebrity life to embrace a public-royal life”. In doing so, Markle has raised ire about whether she can still validly claim to be a feminist. Melbourne University’s senior lecturer, Dr Lauren Rosewarne, scoffs at the proposition.

“Feminism exists to support women in all of their choices,” she says. “That choice might be to have a career, it might be to stay home and raise children, it might be to do both, but feminists have fought really, really hard for a really long time to give women the opportunity to make their own choices regarding their bodies.”

As for the prurient interest in Markle’s bi-racial status, Dr Rosewarne reminds us that we’re not seeing anything new. “We saw exactly the same thing with Barack Obama. It’s this ongoing debate about whether someone is black enough to hold black identity versus how much black is too much.” Ultimately, though, Dr Rosewarne suggests it might be time to cut the royals some slack.

Photo: Alexi Lubomirski

Photo: Alexi Lubomirski

“We’re putting a lot of pressure on them to be more modern than they can be. It’s not like any other industry or family, and there’s a rich tapestry of protocols involved. We may not agree with them, and we might consider the royal family an outdated institution, but it’s not going to change through one marriage. The fact that Markle’s there in the first place as an outsider, a commoner, and a mixed-race American makes this incredibly progressive.”

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