Much Ado About Meghan

Embed from Getty Images

Happy 4th of July to all of my American readers! Today seems like as good a day as any to zero in on the British Royal Family’s most famous American: the Duchess of Sussex. I’ve had a version of this post pending in my drafts for about a week now, and I’ve finally decided to go ahead a send it along.

So, first things first, yesterday the Palace confirmed that the Sussexes’ son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, will be christened in Windsor Castle’s private chapel, and that everything about the ceremony will be, well, private. No arrival photos, no announcement of godparents, etc. Official photos (unclear how many) will be released a few days later. This is different from how the Cambridges handled the christenings of their three children, yes, but – and this bears repeating – this isn’t surprising in the least, or a break from tradition.

All christenings are private events. William and Kate’s kids occupy a very different place in the family’s hierarchy than their cousin since their father will be king one day, and Prince George himself is a future king. Archie isn’t a HRH, he doesn’t have a title, and it’s unlikely that he will ever professionally represent his great-grandmother, grandfather, or uncle.

So, is this hypocritical given that Harry and Meghan used public funds to renovate their home, Frogmore Cottage? No. Harry and Meghan are full-time working members of the Royal Family. We can all argue over whether those funds were well-spent, but the couple doesn’t “owe” us access to their child, particularly when that child is being raised as a private citizen.

With that on the table, I also want to touch on a few other stories/blog posts that have recently cropped up, some of which were great and some of which were, well, annoying 😉

I want to first point you towards a solid rundown from Tom Sykes over at The Daily Beast who covered last month’s news that Harry and Meghan are breaking away from The Royal Foundation. One particular quote:

“Royal communications officers have defiantly insisted to The Daily Beast that the split is all part of a long term strategic plan and is not reflective of any feud (perish the thought) at the heart of the House of Windsor. But few really believe that this is not to do with interpersonal difficulties anymore.”

This narrative has been debated back and forth online for the last couple of weeks. There’s two issues: 1) the refusal to acknowledge that this break-up is coming much sooner than was once planned and 2) this idea that the break has more to do with William’s future role as king than it does with tension between the brothers and/or couples.

Thanks to the fact that both couples participated in a forum labeled an “inaugural” event for the Foundation last February, and then publicly split less than 18 months later, obviously something went awry. That something is almost certainly professional differences between the four, and those differences almost certainly led to tension that been widely reported. I say “almost certainly” because I think it’s important to continue to delineate between what we actually know, and what’s essentially educated guess work based on the reporting of conjecture and anonymous sources.

Accepting that this split is premised around William’s role as future king is also problematic because that really doesn’t mean anything. Not concretely, anyhow. That’s part of why being in the immediate line of succession can be so challenging – it’s a big, public role without any job description. The current Prince of Wales has done a fantastic job over the decades of creating a very real, effective role for himself. William may too. But this idea that William’s hands are tied in a way that Harry’s aren’t is less clear-cut. At this point, I don’t think we have enough information to judge because we don’t know exactly what Harry wants to do. So, as of right now, it’s essentially just a good party line to divert eyes away from the timing of the split.

Which brings us to the next issue at hand – this idea of a “global Sussex brand,” and the fact that Harry and Meghan pursuing it is at odds with the Royal Family’s traditional work. For starters, we have no idea what Harry and Meghan are planning on doing. We know nothing about what their charitable organization will look like, so all of this is speculation, albeit of a believable sort given the couple’s previous work together and apart.

Two weeks ago the blog “Mad About Meghan” wrote a truly excellent piece putting the idea of a royal “global brand” in context, essentially arguing – through quite a bit of research – that Charles, the Princess Royal, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, and even William and Harry already run and patronize charities with a global footprint. This is particularly true for Charles, which really undermines the Palace’s argument that part of the Royal Foundation split is centered around the idea that William and Kate are hemmed in by their future roles.

The post ends with:

So, when my sister asked me: “Why do they blame Meghan for everything? What exactly is she supposed to have done that’s not in line with the way the royals operate professionally?” My answer is quite simple. Meghan has done nothing wrong; she’s simply following in the footsteps of those who came before her.

I agree with this. Thus far, Meghan has done absolutely nothing wrong with regards to her work on behalf of the Queen.

Another blog that covers Kate had a different take on the entire situation, and instead argued that the split was necessary because Harry and Meghan are straying too far from the traditional path, and William has serious issues with the way Harry is handling himself. My opinion is that we don’t have nearly enough information to land on this conclusion. A few choice passages I want weigh in on in:

“I already read elsewhere that the Cambridges initiated the split, and that the Sussexes would have stuck together longer, which makes sense. Despite their own popularity, the Sussexes do benefit from the prestige of the Cambridges’ position and the Cams’ international popularity, and that boosts the Sussexes’ overall charitable work.”

It is being reported that William and Kate initiated the split, but we don’t know that for certain. I’m also not sure that I agree with the last sentence here. At various times, Harry has garnered more goodwill and enjoyed more popularity than William, and I don’t agree that being linked to a couple higher up in the royal hierarchy actually resonates that meaningfully with the general public, which is essentially the Royal Family’s target audience. It certainly will someday when William actually ascends the throne, but today? Less so. I would also argue that Harry and Meghan’s “international popularity” is roughly equal to that of William and Kate.

Then there’s this:

“The issue is very simple. Harry and Meghan appear to be attempting to forge a path that isn’t proper to their role. Meghan was an actress who was working very hard to become a star when she met Harry. The problem is, she took a part in a lifelong drama of which she can never be the leading lady. She chose that, and kudos to her […] She is very comfortable with the fishbowl; in fact, she has actively sought it for the entirety of her adult life. Her problem is on the other end of the spectrum, and that is she can’t advance beyond the role she has chosen.”

Harry and Meghan do appear to be forging a path, but it’s far too much of a leap to say it isn’t “proper to their role.” As I said above, we quite literally don’t what they’re doing yet. I would also go one step further and say the idea of what is “proper” is extremely nebulous given that the Royal Family hasn’t existed with this many generations in anything approaching today’s environment, and it’s widely believed Charles has big ideas on how to streamline the monarchy.

My other issue with this is that it puts a lot of the burden on Meghan. If we accept for the moment that the Sussexes are attempting to carve out an island of stardom for themselves, well, Harry is one-half of that duo. In my opinion, nothing about Meghan’s actual behavior indicates she wants to be the “leading lady” in the House of Windsor at the expense of, say, Camilla or Kate.

And then this:

“As I mentioned in my earlier post, a global Sussex brand isn’t what the monarchy is about. There is no global York brand, or global Princess Anne brand. The royals who aren’t in direct line play supporting roles…forever.”

Again, we don’t know there is a “global Sussex brand.” Andrew, Anne, and Edward (as well as Edward’s wife, Sophie) all do plenty of work abroad, of which there is plentiful evidence (including that cited in the MAM post lined above). The big difference here is that Harry and Meghan are on track to enjoy greater sustained popularity than the rest of the Queen’s children. Star power within the Royal Family wasn’t invented by the House of Windsor, or by this generation. It’s a tool and a boon, and it’s the responsibility of the monarch and his or her staff to leverage it effectively in a way that enhances the institution and benefits the British public and Commonwealth.

I would argue that this re-shuffling – as well as the fact they’ve eschewed a title for Archie – is evidence that they’re well-aware of what their role is, and are preparing themselves accordingly.

Finally this:

“Meghan is the Duchess of Sussex, her spouse is a popular prince, but his position in the BRF will drop, and his star will inevitably fade as the years roll on. See, e.g. Prince Andrew. The tug-of-war between the Cambridges and the Sussexes comes down to a power struggle–the outcome of which has already been decided: William and Kate are the winners. But, how Meghan and Harry finish has yet to be determined.”

This is the heart of the matter, really, and indicative of what’s troubling about how the conversation has unfolded since Meghan married into the RF. This assumes 1) Harry and Meghan have a problem with their “star” in the RF falling and 2) that the Sussexes are attempting to battle the Cambridges for supremacy. I don’t think either can be presented as fact, and I personally disagree with both assertions.

I do believe William and Harry have different ideas on how to handle and pursue their positions, but I reject the notion that Harry and Meghan’s end-game is to eclipse, undermine, or flout William and Kate.

Harry and Meghan are getting a slew of bad press right now, and quite a bit of it’s unfair. That said, I’ve thought a lot of the criticism that William and Kate received in the past was unfair too, and I said then what I’ll repeat now: At the end of the day, each household is responsible for addressing perception issues. This current media narrative is unhelpful and if it drags on for long, could be deeply damaging to the Royal Family’s ability to carry out its work effectively. Gossip is fun for a day or two, but a dysfunctional bunch of royals is out of place in the 21st century.

I will also add this: a lot of this kind of coverage comes in the summer months as everyone gears up for what will be a slow August, and even more of it comes when a particular member of the family is out of the public eye for a sustained period of time. Kate certainly had to deal with this when she was on maternity leave in the past – most notably with Princess Charlotte in 2015 when she and William decamped for Norfolk and neither were yet full-time. I am optimistic that some of the current angst will shake out in the autumn when Meghan returns to work and there’s more concrete information filling up what’s now essentially white space. So, fingers crossed.

A part of me also wants to address this op-ed from long-time royal photographer Arthur Edwards, but I don’t want this to drag on more than it already has(!) Suffice to say I found it at various points sexist, xenophobic, nonsensical, and full of opinion presented as fact.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight – I don’t prefer one couple over the other, and I think that all four of them are fundamentally effective, sincere, and well-positioned to fulfill their roles well. If there’s one aspect of this that truly interests me it’s what I mentioned in passing above and have touched on in the past – the RF has never existed in this particular formation in anything approaching the modern era. There are three future kings waiting in the wings, quite a bit of star power, and the only reign the majority of people remember is in its twilight years. William and Harry are both, in my opinion, still finding their footing in this limbo space, understanding that they will play bigger, more high-profile roles in the next reign, and that those roles will be different from one another’s. It’s not the end of the world; these are just growing pains. And so I’m going to end this by inadvertently paraphrasing Taylor Swift: Everyone needs to calm down.

In the meantime, happy 4th again! We’ll reconvene on Saturday for Archie’s christening 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s