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15 December 2022

The Meghan and Harry documentary isn’t really about Meghan Markle at all

For all she dominates, this isn’t a story about the duchess. It’s much bigger than that.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Less than a month after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement in late 2017, the Daily Mail ran a front-page headline from columnist Sarah Vine: “Yes, they’re joyfully in love. So why do I have a niggling worry about that engagement picture?” Depending on your point of view, this headline was either eerily prescient of the chaos to follow or exactly the kind of racist dogwhistle that encouraged Meghan and Harry to leave the royal family in January 2020.

That’s the problem with this whole sorry fairy tale-gone-wrong. Everything Harry and Meghan have done since then, from announcing their departure via Instagram to making this relentlessly over-the-top Netflix series, has seemingly confirmed all the biases of those who had a “niggling worry” about this biracial American actress princess, long before they had any conceivable reason to. This tell-all documentary appears to play straight into the hands of her critics: she comes across as out of touch, entitled, disrespectful and frankly a bit ridiculous, making those early potshots about “Duchess Difficult” seem entirely justified.

But if you make it through all six hours of Harry & Meghan – all those soft-focus shots of their luxurious life in California, the excruciating video diaries, the endless footage of the pair smiling and waving juxtaposed with stiff, monochrome shots of Prince William and Kate Middleton – you start to see it from their perspective, too.

For those still deciding whether or not to watch it, I’ll save you the time: there is very little in the latest three episodes that hasn’t been incessantly covered before – namely in the couple’s bombshell interview with Oprah. We are granted a recap of their picture-perfect Disney wedding, reminded of how popular they were on their Australia tour (Princess Diana would be proud), and then treated to a series of dramatic revelations about how “everything changed”. Meghan looks anguished, her friends fawn, the tabloids tabloid, Harry reiterates how he had to protect his family, and everyone gets to feel like they were right all along. 

There are plenty of cringe-inducing moments that will vindicate Meghan’s critics. There’s a saccharine montage of sunset photos and selfies overlaid on to a soulful power ballad, where Meghan philosophises about how “you need to blame me, because if you blame me then you have no fault”. After Meghan complains that she had to wear neutral tones for most of her time as a royal, photos of her performing her final duties dressed in a range of vibrant colours are shown while “She’s a Rainbow” plays. We are told, repeatedly and in so many ways, that the media hated them but the public loved them. We’re shown what a loss their withdrawal was, not just to the royal family but to Britain – to the world, even. Grandiose statements claiming the nation lost its one opportunity to save the Commonwealth and repent for its colonial history with Meghan’s exit are juxtaposed with clips of her tearfully insisting that she did her best: “And that’s the piece that’s so triggering, because you go ‘it still wasn’t good enough’.” “Their departure felt like the death of a dream,” the journalist Afua Hirsch tells us. Did it? Really? “We are on the freedom flight!” Harry gushes at one point, after a mysterious benefactor offered them a safe haven in Los Angeles. Beyoncé texts just to tell the couple she wants them to feel safe. It’s all very self-aggrandising, and somehow tacky.

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All of which is a shame – because Meghan really does have a point. However annoying one might find her (and Christ is she annoying in this, meditating in her multimillion-dollar mansion and lamenting that truth doesn’t “bring peace”), it doesn’t invalidate how the press treated her. Do we really think it’s OK for reporters to have stalked her mother, for example, or tracked down her half-sister for quotations? If newspapers sought out a relative I hadn’t spoken to in years and paid them to say how terrible I was to make front-page news, I’d feel aggrieved too. Most of us would. Most of us would also think it reasonable for a woman to give birth with a doctor she trusted in a hospital of her choice, not one chosen on the basis of how convenient the door is for taking photographs of the baby. So why was this presented as such an epic snub? “Woman wants to give birth in place where she feels comfortable.” Shocker.

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Nor is there an easy way to excuse the sheer pettiness of some of the early stories against Meghan. From flowers to necklines, baby bumps to avocados (“Is avocado a fruit?” Harry asks in one of the few moments of genuine comedy), the blatant double standard in the treatment of Meghan and Kate Middleton is laughable. That’s hardly Kate’s fault, of course, but I’d love to know how the royal correspondents writing those stories justified it to themselves.

The dysfunctional relationship between the media and the royals is particularly interesting. There are fascinating insights into the royal press offices – how they can be at odds with each other, trading stories to portray their “principal” in a positive light, even to the detriment of other royals. The much-rumoured revelation royal watchers will be hoping for doesn’t come, but is hinted at when a friend explains how the tabloids can be fed gossip “to avoid other less favourable stories being printed”. Most remarkable is the fact that Harry and William shared the same press secretary, Jason Knauf (a man who has been cast as the undisputed villain of the tale by Meghan’s fans). Could no one see the conflict of interest here? The couple also discuss their lawsuit against the Mail for publishing a private letter Meghan sent to her father. It was an unprecedented case, and the fact they pursued it – and won – has set new implications for media law. Whether or not you agree with the couple’s belief that it was the stress of the legal battle with the Mail that triggered Meghan’s miscarriage in 2020, anyone who can’t feel sympathy with a woman who lost a baby, purely because they don’t like her, is just plain heartless.

Some responsibility also falls on the institution of the family itself. Dismiss the duchess as a drama queen if you like, but it’s hard to watch Meghan’s mother reveal her daughter was considering taking her own life. We know having a new baby is relentless and isolating at the best of times. We know Princess Diana suffered from mental health issues her whole life, including post-natal depression. You’d have thought the royal family, having been through all that once, would have had a plan to help support a struggling new mother, however irritating they might have found her.

Similarly, the royal family’s decision to pull the couple’s security with three weeks’ notice seems cruel and irresponsible: let’s not forget the stalking and death threats, the paparazzi surrounding their house on Vancouver Island in Canada. Was making a point about taxpayer funding really more important than protecting the life of the Queen’s grandson and his family? Seriously?

Overall, Harry & Meghan is an exhausting endurance test, six hours of your life you won’t get back. Have the Sussexes succeeded in “telling their truth”? Polling suggests their popularity, at least in the UK, has plummeted in the wake of this documentary. On the other hand, it was the most-watched Netflix show in the UK in its first week. If Harry and Meghan wanted people to hear their side of the story, they got what they wanted.

But the documentary is essentially an extended Rorschach test. Their fury at the antics of the paparazzi is real and justifiable, yet seems hypocritical when juxtaposed with new footage of their small children. Then again, their insistence on getting their side of the story across has its own internal logic – clearly, they see this as a corrective to a multi-year campaign of persecution. Still, their self-satisfied Hollywood conclusion – “love wins” – seems designed to irritate those who always found them too glossy, too brash, too American. So the side you end up on inevitably depends on where you started.

For all that she dominates throughout, this isn’t really about Meghan at all – though I’m not sure she realises that. She is merely the narrator of a story about the royal institution and its repeated failure to adjust to the challenges of the times, and its inability to show compassion to its own members. Anyone who cares about the future of the monarchy should perhaps focus less on what they think of the messenger, and more on the message itself. And that message is undeniably damning.

[See also:  Harry and Meghan are contradicting themselves on privacy law]

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