Meghan & British Vogue: Part Two

Meghan-Markle-Black-Everlane-Jumpsuit-British-Vogue-Shoot

In case you missed yesterday’s post, today we’re going to cover reactions to the Duchess of Sussex’s guest-edited issue of British Vogue. For the actual content of the magazine, you can catch up here, because I’m only going to be paraphrasing and referencing in the below.

So, first things first, happy birthday to Meghan, who is 38 today. Second, I would like to say upfront that I’m not 100% sure where this post is going to end up. I’ve spent the week reading reactions to the Vogue issue via Twitter and various opinion pieces, some of which gained more traction than others. They also run the gamut of thinking Meghan didn’t go far enough to thinking she went way, way too far. I have an idea of what I’d like to say, but I tend to think through writing, so shrug emoji. Let’s see where this takes us.

Let’s start with the obvious: the British media has almost universally trashed Meghan’s Vogue edition, which included over a dozen features, essays, and interviews with women touching on environmental, racial, and gender issues, among some less charged topics like motherhood and wellness.

With that out there, I’d like to flag one positive column that ran, however it should be noted that Forbes is U.S.-based, and thus not really the issue. I’m including it because I’m pretty sure this is exactly the reaction that Meghan was going for:

“Given that the royal family has famously been expected to remain publicly neutral on any topic with a political leaning, Meghan’s choice of cover stars—all of whom have been very vocal about their political stance, desire for social justice and proud advocates for their own voices—is particularly telling.

“Equally so, what makes this issue such a landmark is that it has turned the conversation away from fashion and towards something more pressing: the incredible work of women and the positive change they are having on the world. A bold move for a leading fashion title that is a message in itself.

“How many times has the important work of women been overshadowed by their fashion choices? How many times have women been held back, disrespected or discriminated against because of the way they look?”

There are two other columns I’m going to highlight that I think capture the gist of the criticism. There are portions with which I agree and (vehemently) disagree in both. I’m also going to say upfront that race is brought up in both, and I’m going to address that shortly. The first is from Melanie Phillips in The Times, who writes:

“The duchess, the former actress Meghan Markle, has been criticised for high-handedness and for failing to grasp that, as a member of the royal family, she now needs to be apolitical and no longer make herself the centre of the story. Failing to acknowledge this, she has guest-edited the September issue of British Vogue. The cover features 15 women she admires from the ‘frontline of fashion, film, tech and wellness’ who are supposed to represent ‘the values, causes and people making impact in the world today’. They were described by Buckingham Palace as ‘trailblazing changemakers, united by their fearlessness’.

“The list, however, is beyond parody as reflecting the shallow aspirations of a social justice warrior. The only achievement of several of them is being famous, being the right non-white skin colour or, like the duchess, aspiring to making the world a kinder and gentler place. Oh, and some just happen to have connections with Vogue itself […]

“Alas, she still doesn’t understand the complex and nuanced point that her new status precludes political statements. She still hasn’t grasped that the role of the monarchy is to unite the country. For many of the 15 are associated with causes that are deeply divisive […]

“Instead of these ciphers of wokeness, the duchess could have chosen women who really are trying to change the world for the better by tackling hard and dangerous issues […]

“Comically, the duchess turned down the original proposal to be pictured on Vogue’s front cover as she thought this would be ‘boastful’. This has been taken to be a dig at the Duchess of Cambridge, who has herself adorned the cover. Yet Meghan’s virtue-signalling is all about boasting. It flaunts the signaller’s credentials as a morally virtuous person. It screams ‘Me! Me! Me!’

“It’s all too fitting, then, that the 16th image on the cover is a mirror in which readers can see . . . themselves. This is supposedly to ‘encourage them to use their own platforms to effect change’. Thus egotism is clothed as altruism.”

The second is from Camilla Tominey at The Telegraph:

“People often mistake me for a royalist when actually I’m a realist. So in the interests of ‘keeping it real’, may I make the following remarks without being accused of racism (either consciously or unconsciously?) Probably not, as far as the Twittersphere is concerned, but I’m going to make them anyway.

“First of all, I wonder whether Meghan was conscious of the bias she showed in choosing 15 ‘forces for change’ for the Vogue cover, all of whom were women, of which only five were white? If I was pale, male and stale, I’d be feeling pretty discriminated against right now.

“I also wonder whether Harry is conscious of the bias he showed in referring to a fellow soldier in terms too racially offensive to repeat here? (Was there unconscious bias about his decision to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party? Of course not, he was just being ‘a stupid boy’, as Captain Mainwaring might have put it).

“The prince referred to the ‘terrifying’ threat posed to the natural world in the interview with conservationist Jane Goodall, where he appeared to suggest anyone who had more than two children was endangering the planet. Was he conscious of the bias that might have been felt by that statement by anyone who has had more than two children, such as his grandmother, the Queen, and his brother, William? Moreover, is he conscious of the direct threat to nature he himself posed when he and his pals shot dead 15 wild boars during a 2017 hunting trip in Germany, having previously ‘bagged’ an Argentinian wild boar with an assault rifle? […]

“The irony of all this is that the vast majority of ordinary people to whom these royals appear to be preaching have never been more conscious of their own bias. If they weren’t, they’d be going around dressing up as the SS, shooting defenceless animals in the wild and preaching to women about body confidence while wearing a £2,225 Gucci dress.

“The Meghan guest-edited Vogue tells us: ‘Breathing too much or too little, in any situation, will limit performance and have negative effects on health.’ Well, deep breath now, and send me to the Tower if you must, but I don’t think I have ever seen a more misguided or patronising outpouring from a pair of royals since I first started covering the beat in 2005.

“This virtue-signalling nonsense wastes the very valuable power the royals do have to change opinions on unfashionable subjects.”

That’s a lot. Let’s start with the criticism that the 15 subjects featured on the cover were women (which Tominey raises, not Phillips). It’s a women’s fashion magazine, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s really okay that men of any race weren’t highlighted. I’m going to go a step further and make the blanket statement that we can praise and acknowledge women without the implication that men as an entire gender of people are in any way being insulted or deprived.

One-third of the women featured are white. In other words, a minority. Criticizing that begs the question: Unless white women are in the majority, we are being discriminated against? Because white women are too often excluded from the pages of British Vogue? For God’s sake. I’m willing to accept that there’s valid criticism about this editorship to be had, but if you don’t want to be accused of sounding racist then…be better.

Let’s move on. Meghan reportedly declined to be featured on the cover as it would be too “boastful” and this has been translated as an insult to the Duchess of Cambridge, who was a cover star in 2016. So, too, have Diana, Princess of Wales and the Princess Royal, but most of the ire has been around the presumed slight to Kate. I would say that 1) the “boastful” comment came not from Meghan, but from a third-party quoting Editor-in-Chief Edward Enniful and 2) when each of the other Windsor women were on the cover, they weren’t guest-editing the issue. I think there’s a valid point to be made that editing a magazine and putting yourself on the cover would feel, yes, boastful. And had she done so, I’m going to go ahead and say there’s a very good chance these same people would be accusing her of being just that.

Now, let’s cover the Harry’s statement to Dr. Jane Goodall about only having two children. I think that was a dumb thing to say. I don’t think he meant to insult his grandmother or brother, but the obvious jump in logic is that having more than two children is somehow irresponsible. It also puts him and his relatively new wife in an awkward position if either of them changes their mind and wants a third child. Generally speaking it’s a good rule not to speculate about your family planning in an international publication (pro-tip). And certainly not when there’s an ongoing struggle with the media about privacy.

Next, let’s move on to Harry’s comments about unconscious bias. I don’t disagree with what he said, but the criticism isn’t what he said so much as that he said it at all. And that’s because of an incident that many of you have likely heard about it, which is that many years ago he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume/fancy dress party. That was obviously incredibly insulting, irresponsible, and – again – dumb. The explanation offered was that he failed to understand the implication, a statement which should perhaps offend Eton College more than anyone else.

So, now he’s being accused of hypocrisy, but I think it’s less that he’s now raising unconscious bias and once acted ignorantly (at best), and more that he’s someone who once behaved so poorly and now feels empowered to offer a lesson to “the rest of us.”  There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think his words would have been better received had he at least acknowledged his own past blind spots.

The rest of it I think rests thematically on what I like to call Marie Antoinette syndrome. To many, Harry and Meghan appear to be saying, “Let them eat cake,” while they use private jets, spent millions on home renovations, and live a life of luxury as the global economy is barreling towards a recession. To my eye that has less to do with Harry and Meghan as specific public figures, and more to do with a general optics issue that arises any time celebrities and well-off public figures opine on such issues. Just ask Gwyneth Paltrow. Or, more relevantly, the Prince of Wales.

As for the political nature of some of the issues raised, I think that’s trickier than a lot of people think. It’s very easy to say that the monarchy is apolitical and shouldn’t espouse political positions, but that’s too broad a brush stroke. Members of the RF shouldn’t publicly support specific politicians or pieces of legislation. The monarch shouldn’t use his or her position to apply political or public pressure that would influence policy outcomes. Great. We’re all on board for that. But Meghan and Harry aren’t alone in touching contentious issues through their public work as royals.

Thus far Kate really hasn’t, because so much of her work is focused on children. But William certainly did so when he waded in on ivory trade. Diana, Princess of Wales called out the use of landmines as a wartime tool, which had direct implications on the UK’s foreign policy. Charles is famously outspoken – he was an environmentalist and sustainable farmer before it was trendy, and he’s gone one step further and personally written notes to MPs on issues near and dear to his heart. All, I should add, were roundly criticized for doing so…but in the case of Charles and Diana, it’s worth noting that they are now – a generation later – widely applauded for their work.

I would argue that there are two primary factor at play when it comes to the negative press Meghan is receiving, and one of them has very little to do with her. Instead, I think that she is simply the latest and most internationally popular (at the moment) member of the RF to be shaking the rafters a bit. She’s expressing opinion through endorsements and when you agree with her, it’s not going to ruffle your feathers, but when you don’t, it can. That’s basically a risk she’s taking by conducting her work as she has thus far, and I have to assume she’s savvy enough to know that and chooses to do it anyway. In and of itself, I don’t think this approach is damaging to the Queen or the monarchy.

As for where I’ve come down on all of this as a whole, I think guest-editing British Vogue was a solid idea. It’s bold, and what can I say? I like moxie. That said, I do think specific quotes were cringe-worthy. I do think she occasionally fell prey to Marie Antoinette syndrome. I think some of it – and the people featured – were asking for unproductive trouble. I also think that featuring Mrs. Obama reads like an overt political statement, particularly given Meghan’s public statements pre-marriage, and was inappropriate given her position in the RF today and the current climate.

The second primary factor is that I think we’ve gotten a LOT of Meghan in a very short period of time. If you follow this blog on Instagram, then you may have seen that I’ve spent the week going through every engagement that the Duchess of Cambridge carried out, starting with her appearance on April 30, 2011 when she and the Duke left Buckingham Palace after their wedding. The stories I’ve posted have ostensibly been light-hearted polling about her clothes, but it’s also been a pretty sharp reminder of how Kate was introduced to the public via the Royal Family.

Though it all roughly looks the same, it was also slower. The courtship, the length of time before Kate took on solo engagements and headlined major campaigns, the time between the wedding and the first baby, and between international tours – all events that garner a high concentration of media attention. It’s the difference between years and months, and sometimes even weeks. As much as Kate is roundly criticized for staying quiet…and sometimes out of view…it also kept us from burnout and it’s helped preserve her for what will be a marathon of a public life. She basically exists as a blank slate for our purposes, and that’s absolutely strategic.

There are two final notes I’d like to make, both of which probably require follow up at some point: 1) I absolutely do think Meghan being American is part of this (more so than being biracial) and 2) by and large the avid support the monarchy attracts in the UK comes from a very conservative base. On the latter point, I don’t necessarily mean politically conservative, but older and more traditional, with all that implies. How Harry and Meghan are presenting themselves is at odds with that.

That doesn’t make their approach wrong, but it runs the risk of them – and particularly Meghan – becoming polarizing figures…which is exactly what’s happening.

What remains an unfair criticism in my opinion is that anything Meghan has said or done is uniquely non-royal. She hasn’t. But I do think that while there remains this level of interest, the Sussexes need to be more strategic about when and how they deploy themselves. Not necessarily less, but certainly smarter. It’s been a lot, and this backlash is incredibly intense.

4 thoughts on “Meghan & British Vogue: Part Two

  1. “attract visibility,” “changing the paradigm,” “moving the needle,” “effect change,” empowering, ethical, sustainable, inclusivity, diversity… Every buzzword of modern enlightenment is there.

    Although I think Meghan is sincere in her beliefs and associations—she has actually been interested in such topics for years—maybe the language she uses in this issue of Vogue works against her. People might see all the jargon and wonder, Did she form these beliefs herself or did she just absorb them from her hip celebrity friends? It can seem less sincere if we’ve heard the same EST-like, uber-California trendy language from many other celebrities. I think she might have benefited from working with a stronger copy editor who could have helped her word her thoughts more plainly, more in her own words.

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  2. You’re right about the speed of everything – it’s been a whirlwind of excitement. I’ve given up reading the Daily Mail, but I do remember the criticism that Kate and Sophie received post marriage. So I do think part of this backlash is to be expected and will be over at some point – whether it is right to expect or receive it is another matter…
    I feel some sympathy for the Sussexes, last year they could do no wrong, this year, even with a baby . . .
    I think that Harry should quietly get about his business, a few engagements here and there, while Meghan finishes maternity leave and both avoid private jets for a bit!

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    1. Ha, agree re: the Daily Mail! Backlash is definitely to be expected, but the last few months of Meghan’s coverage in particular feel more intense than anything I remember from Kate in 2011-2012…but then again, I might just have selective memory and I certainly wasn’t blogging then. I feel bad for them, too, particularly as this should be such a happy time for them personally. Hopefully the worst of it’s behind them and the South Africa visit provides a clean slate…but TBD.

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