A few months ago, 17-year-old Martina received a direct message on Tumblr. It said the world would be better off without not only Meghan Markle, but also her fans. “I would kill you”, it read. Martina did what she does with almost all the abusive messages she receives online; she deleted it.
The troll doesn’t bother Martina, a Meghan stan from Argentina, because she’s used to the rival battle lines of the royal family fan groups. She has followed royal fan sites on Tumblr since she was nine and, like many of her online friends, is fully entrenched in the community’s daily life. Although she only founded her Meghan Instagram account in late January (combatively titled “defendMM”) it has already gained 3,482 followers.
“If you want my opinion, this fandom is toxic,” she tells me. Over the years Martina has learnt that this online community is extensive, diverse, and bitterly divided.
On 4 March, the royal family published its first ever set of social media guidelines warning that comments containing sexist or racist abuse would be moderated and users blocked.
“We ask that anyone engaging with our social media channels shows courtesy, kindness and respect for all other members of our social media communities,” the guidelines announced. It doesn’t take a royal family fangirl to figure out why.
At the time of writing, the most recent image of Meghan Markle on the Kensington Palace’s Instagram page had received over 6,000 comments, mostly from fans. But one week after the royal family vowed to moderate comments, abuse still appears. “She’s uggggglyyyyyyy!” one user posts. “She is so self-absorbed”, someone else wrote. More perversely, another chimes in: “this woman is NOT pregnant. How the almighty royal family is going to handle that is beyond me”.
Since Meghan announced her pregnancy on 18 October, the conspiracy that she is faking her baby bump has become increasingly popular among her trolls (the #Megxiters, as they are known to the fandom). The “proof” is various images of Meghan squatting down, which they believe a heavily pregnant woman would not be able to do. They also hypothesise at great length that the size of her baby bump is inconsistent with a genuine pregnancy.
Over time, “Megxit” (the movement to force Meghan out of the royal family) has become synonymous with support for Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Her fandom is known as the #CambridgeCult or the “Cambs”. Comparisons between the two women are unceasing. When trolls attack Meghan’s social media pictures, comments reading “Team Kate” are quick to follow.
“Queen of my heart, she was born to be royal”, writes one Twitter user in reference to the Duchess of Cambridge. She has attached a photo of Kate to her tweet, superimposed over a syrupy inspirational quote. The end of the tweet reads #Megxit #teamkate. More often than not, celebrating one translates into degrading the other. This is where the battle lines of the fandom are drawn.
But Meghan isn’t alone. Her arrival ushered a new wave of royal-watchers into the fandom. Enter the #SussexSquad, a new branch of the community that attributes its name to Meghan’s official title, the Duchess of Sussex. Younger and more politically aware than their #CambridgeCult counterparts, the new cohort of Meghan fans have a clear purpose: to fight the abuse of the #Megixters and the racial biases of Team Kate.
“So many more women of colour, especially Black women, have begun to royal watch since Meghan joined the BRF [British royal family],” says Zea, who works in politics and runs her own Markle defence blog “thesussexroyals”.
“There is a lot of anti-black racism in the royal watcher community and Meghan’s arrival has really highlighted that”, she says. “Pretty much anytime I post anything about race, I get some really ugly messages from anonymous people.” To combat this, fresh Meghan support manifests itself in reposted notes across the site: “I may be new to the British royal fandom and the royal fandom in general, but I’m prepared to not only defend my girl Meghan but Harry as well…Let’s go tinhats. I’m fucking ready”, writes coolchick22.
The parameters of the fandom are well-defined. Transgress its borders and you become a target. “The fandom has gotten more territorial,” says 28-year-old Mariah from Chicago. “There are Kate fans and there are Meghan fans. Fans think they have to attack one woman in order to defend the other. As I am an avid admirer of both Kate and Meghan, I don’t understand the division.”
When I ask Martina about the rigidity of these fandom borders, she says: “I have received death threats from the Meghan haters and been called a fake fan by Meghan stans… instead of supporting the ladies, they bash the other side with horrible comments and fans like me have to suffer because ‘we can’t like both’.”
While the Megxiters and the Sussex Squadders are present on most social media platforms, Tumblr is where the fandom came of age and remains the community’s hub. Spend some time on the site’s royal family hashtag and you will see the reels of Kate Middleton statistics (in case you were interested, in 2011 Kate repeated 46 per cent of her outfits).
Listicles debate the top ten royal moments of the year and pie charts break down wedding predictions. One diagram reveals 38 per cent of the community thought Markle would choose the Stratham Rose tiara for her big day – to their ire, she chose Queen Mary’s diamond bandeau instead.
Most of the Kate and Meghan fans I spoke with were millennial women with professional careers. What connected them all was a need for escapism. “Being in your twenties is a key time”, Lisa (a pseudonym) wrote via Tumblr’s direct messaging service. “Most of us haven’t yet figured out what we want in life, be it going to university or going out into the workplace. Blogging for me has been an escape from that.”
Lisa works in IT and has been running royal family fan accounts for eight years. She asked to remain anonymous. “A lot of my friends don’t know I blog. It’s kind of a personal thing,” she says.
Despite the secrecy and brutal battle lines, the bloggers cling to their community. “I have formed some really lovely friendships with a group of smart, ambitious, funny, critical and truly kind women. I talk to them even if I am not actively blogging,” says Zea.
Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist and an expert in fandoms, explains that these online groups provide health benefits for their members. “These communities provide friendship, validation and often support for more creativity and open expression – especially for women,” she says. Within these supportive communities, fans often find their “real” selves validated by others for the first time.
But close bonds bring tribalism and aggression. “Groups often define themselves by the vilification of some external enemy, either real or manufactured,” Zubernis adds. “This identification creates a comforting sense of group cohesion in the in-group, but it also encourages aggression toward the out-group”. As the various tribes of the fandom scramble to retain their shared identifies, animosity for the “other” grows.
The war between Kate and Meghan fans isn’t just about two high-profile women. It’s both political and personal, wrapped up in identity politics, nostalgia and community. The fandom searches for belonging and attachment in a monarchy that is constantly retreating and permanently fragile.
As Tanya Gold recently wrote in the New Statesman, the Kensington Palace gift shop shows what is left of the monarchy: a “pitiful shrine” of cook books, fashion advice and wedding souvenirs. Yet as the royal family’s national relevance fades, the fandom and its emotional cohesion endure. “If it wasn’t for the fact I love being here”, writes Martina, “I would have run away a long time ago”.