Featured Image: Max Mumby/Indigo
The beginning of March’s press cycle focused on the bullying allegations against Meghan Markle from previous royal aides. Prior to this, press concerning the Duchess of Sussex had continuously vilified and sought out to stain her character at convenient times. Notably, it has mainly been tabloid and right-wing media representations of Meghan as demanding, a liar, and bull-headed that have carried this onslaught. However, the extreme and alarming nature of the toxic coverage that the Duchess is subjected to has the counter-intuitive side effect of inspiring her supporters to prop her up as a saint on a pedestal. In culture wars and for the public, only binary opposites are allowed to exist. You are either a saint or a monster. The saying goes, “am I a saint or a sinner?” but in the hyper-partisan noise of the discourse, it’s easy to forget that we are all ‘sinners’ in some way or the other. Whilst Meghan Markle is no different — she certainly isn’t a monster.
One of the issues raised by the public debate over Meghan Markle, it seems to me, is that to defensively champion Meghan as perfect allows those that dislike her to easily undermine her character with any little human error that she has made. Most people against the Duchess have already made up their mind, regardless of any new information. Take for example, when Meghan and Harry lobbied for climate change in an Instagram post encouraging people to be mindful of their carbon footprint. This is clearly an important concern but the moment that the Sussex’s made that public statement, they were condemned to be perfect carbon-neutral idols. As a result, Meghan and Harry have both been obsessively disparaged by the press since their 2019 statement following the pair’s trip to musician Elton John’s house in France where they used a private jet. This is despite Elton clarifying that he sent the pair the jet for their privacy, as well as paying compensatory costs for any carbon emissions produced; yet, the public and media did not let them live it down. We forget that it is not realistic for any royal family members, stood down or not, to fly commercially: both for safety and privacy concerns. You cannot deny there is some level of celebrity to the monarchy and their peers which makes them unlike the average person outside of the obvious class aspects.
We have seen that those pitted against Meghan will not have their opinions changed; yet, surely some empathy can be considered?
In the press fixture of saints versus monsters, the world has already witnessed other famous women go through similar news cycles and eventual spirals in their quality of life. Britney Spears was built up to be a music pop sensation with a saintly image in her teens. She would answer prying questions on her love life and celibacy at a young age until she slowly became tabloid fodder once she matured, developed her own image, and had her first public relationship. The tone of Britney’s press devolved into something sour and toxic to her health. Interviews with Diane Sawyer show the musician being reduced to tears as she is painted like a monster, solely responsible for her personal relationships ending. Even her decreasing mental health is used to publicly shame her in the press until whatever she says is not deemed credible. Sound familiar?
Women in the limelight are too often silenced and shamed for their personal plights, having stories turned against them and not being taken seriously.
You may argue that this is not gender or race-related, but I would urge you to take a look at the nuances at play in what goes to print and on whom. The recent Framing Britney Spears documentary shows us the reality of what, in fact, was right in front of us in the 2000s press and despite some newfound sympathy, persists today. Moreover, for women of colour, this silencing through reinterpreting the facts is something we know all too well. Mental health is not talked about enough in Black and biracial communities, making Meghan’s recent interview comments particularly poignant. There was no dry eye between my mum and I when we watched this moment, knowing part of what she is going through and knowing that she will not be believed.
Just as Britney’s mental well-being was used against her, the past mental struggles of Meghan are being questioned and cynically reinterpreted to paint her as a liar and an actor in part. Where is the empathy for a person once they reach ‘celebrity’? Imagine yourself in the shoes of somebody living their daily life under the microscope, willingly or not. Whilst we can make many mistakes by ourselves, for these famous women, the public will hold onto their stumbles and act as judge and jury.
There are many layers to the issue at hand but I feel that it is pertinent that we remember Meghan is human too and that this very amiable state between saint and sinner can exist. We should not demand someone to be superhuman in order to be accepted. Even a person with several humanitarian efforts and good deeds under her belt prior to her royal family role. This is not lowering a bar, but removing a straight-jacket; it allows breathing room to make small mistakes and live somewhat freely. So many societal expectations are placed on women to begin with (even outside of royal tradition), and the hounding of malicious, circulated press does not help. Empathy is needed now more than ever. Empathy to see things for how they are and could be, empathy to see what people of colour go through regularly and the effect of these microaggressions on even the most well-adjusted individuals, empathy to know when it’s time to listen and stop hurtful gossip. Empathy is what will move us from viewing a ‘celebrity’ or public figure as a saint or a monster — to recognise their existence as a living person. Meghan is not saintly; she is certainly not a monster, she’s just human, just like you and me.