It is said that every era gets the hero it deserves. Considering the state of the UK right now – shuffling towards the Brexit cliff edge, already on its knees due to years of spite-driven austerity – it’s difficult to imagine who or what might save the day. As Etonian boors trash the country and their critics squabble, it can seem that all is lost.
Then along comes Meghan Markle and her bananas of empowerment. Truly, it doesn’t get more 2019 than this.
Last Friday the Duchess of Sussex visited One25, a Bristol charity supporting female sex workers trapped in cycles of poverty, violence and addiction. During her visit, Markle made herself useful by creating packed lunches for those on the streets.
“I am in charge of the banana messaging!” she announced, in a surprise take on lunchbox essentials. She then proceeded to inscribe pieces of fruit with a variety of pop psychology mantras, such as “you are strong,” “you are special,” “you are brave,” and “you are loved.”
Her inspiration is said to have been a US dinner lady, who decided to add motivating exhortations to the fruit she served to students. Because who can say no to a perishable foodstuff that wants you to smile?
Alas, not everyone has been impressed by the Duchess’s actions, and not just because of her decision to use a Sharpie (as any experienced banana messenger knows, you plan ahead, scratch on your words and wait for them to emerge due to the magic of science).
While some message recipients have been touched by the gesture, others have found it patronising. As one sex worker put it, “people out here struggle to eat and sleep and she gifts us some words on a piece of fruit.”
It’s hard not to see her point. One woman’s psychological boost is another woman’s gaslighting. Disempowerment is not just a feeling, but a social and economic reality. The use of cheery slogans to persuade people that their unhappiness is all in the mind – if only you knew how loved and special you are! – can easily turn into a form of victim-blaming.
In Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the way in which positive thinking seeks to convince us that external factors – such as inequality and discrimination – are less important to wellbeing than “one’s internal attitude or state or mood.” While social change is hard and unpredictable, changing one’s outlook on things as they are is seen as an easy alternative, at least by those who benefit from the maintenance of the status quo. Abstract concepts – sovereignty, autonomy, self-realisation – become stand-ins for the meeting of basic human needs.
Whatever Markle’s background (and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, given the behaviour of certain family members), in her current role she represents, not change, but the continuation of a viciously hierarchical class system. Her performance of charity depends on the maintenance of privilege. Inequality is the essence, the fundamental point, of royalty. “You are special,” says the banana, “but nowhere near as special as the woman who wrote on me. That’s why her words matter and yours don’t.”
On the question of personal intent, it is perhaps impossible to draw the line between well-meaning, if clumsy, morale boosting and out-of-touch condescension. The Marie Antoinette-ish overtones – let them eat bananas! – are hard to ignore. At the same time, there is something humanising in an act of silliness, an acknowledgement that no degree of deprivation puts one beyond the bounds of levity. It’s that disconcerting glimmer of niceness on the surface of something fundamentally rotten.
Piers Morgan, never one to miss the opportunity to fight injustice (as long as fighting injustice involves attacking a woman) has lost no time in calling out Markle. “Giving a sex worker a banana is clearly exposing her to potential mockery,” he opined, evidently of the belief that the most important thing one can do to help women at risk of sexual exploitation is to keep them away from phallic foodstuffs. Morgan’s own proposals for alleviating suffering were not forthcoming.
The problem is not personal, but structural. We have come this far. We have reached a point, in 2019, about which future history books can write “the poor were dying but members of the aristocracy got to hand out pieces of fruit telling them to buck up.” And what is odd is just how normal it feels.
If that’s not a sign that things need to change, I don’t know what is.