When the news of the royal engagement was reported on 27 November, one headline was inevitable: “Successful actress Meghan Markle to wed former soldier”. It was on the site Joe.co.uk, whose editors had let Prince Harry off lightly. He might instead have been described as a “man living off state handouts”.
This joke is now standard whenever a successful woman marries a more famous man; it’s a subversion intended to go viral. But it still hints at a truth about the couple. As one royal commentator pompously put it, Markle “is an independent figure in society”. The 36-year-old has her own career (seven seasons in the American legal drama Suits), fame, fortune and even a “past” – otherwise known as an ex-husband.
A few fuddy-duddy stragglers stuck in 1957 still think that the prince should have opted for a duke’s daughter, someone who can hunt, shoot and fish, but I applaud this very modern royal marriage. In the official Clarence House statement, Markle’s title was “Ms”. There was no finishing school, and there’ll be no virginity test.
Trying to reform the Catholic Church has often been likened to “turning around an oil tanker”. The royal family used to be similarly resistant to change and seemed oblivious to its anachronisms; change could only come incrementally. But in the past decade, the royal tanker has proved nimble. William and Harry have hit refresh: talking about mental health, making the institution less stuffy, marrying for love. Even as a republican, I can see that the Firm is in better shape.
I watched the Charles and Diana engagement interview of 1981 after seeing Prince Harry and Markle talk to the BBC’s Mishal Husain. It is a study in contrasts. In the former, the interviewer says that Diana’s father had revealed that she would make a “very good housewife”. Diana is coy, bashful and charming, but Charles’s discomfort is evident throughout, even as he tries to deploy humour to mask it. At the end, asked if they are in love, Diana says, “Of course,” and Charles utters the infamous line: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”
The story of their first meeting is equally revealing. “I remember thinking what a very jolly, amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was,” says Charles. Yes, they met when she was 16 and married four years later. Harry is marrying a woman aged 36, not a girl. In their BBC interview with Mishal Husain, the couple talked about humanitarian work, not housewifery. They were comfortable, laughing and in love.
As an actress, Markle is an adroit media performer – kissing babies and feigning gratitude for yet another bouquet will come easily to her. But she brings something novel to the royals: she has known relative struggle. She didn’t grow up in gangland Los Angeles – as some newspapers claimed in articles with racist undertones – but as an aspiring actress she was so poor that she couldn’t afford to fix her car doors. (Plus, the People reported in 2013 that she had to fend off the Twitter advances of the footballer and vomiting adulterer Ashley Cole.)
She and Harry are a team. A year ago, he issued an unprecedented statement in which he condemned the racism, sexism and harassment that she had endured from the press and social media. He recognises that it is his fiancée who will have to make sacrifices – her career, her country. This is still life in a gilded cage, stared at by those outside.
Harry has shown that he understands this. A previous girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, backed away from this intensely scrutinised life, reportedly because she saw the sacrifices that the Duchess of Cambridge had made. Being a full-time royal – amply rewarded though it is – is a dull job. Imagine having a thousand stilted conversations at every tedious official event. (Perhaps Prince Philip’s offensive comments were just him trying to zhuzh up the day.) Still, the “spare” gets to have more fun than the heir – not least with regards to his choice of partner.
The Duchess of Cambridge is safely dull; her major qualification for the job is that she is uncommonly good at smiling. She seems passive, defined first by her husband, now by her children. As Hilary Mantel said in a lecture for the London Review of Books: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.”
No wonder the princess fantasy, tarnished by media intrusion, no longer holds much allure for young women. There are alternative, more exciting and accessible forms of royalty now – Hollywood, pop music, the Kardashians. As girls, many of us with feminist mothers were handed The Paperbag Princess to make us spurn the offer of a plastic tiara; in the story, a princess saves her prince from a dragon, only to realise that he’s nothing to write home about.
Markle is a feminist. A UN women’s advocate, she called Donald Trump a “misogynist” while he was running for president and wrote about “period poverty” – inadequate access to menstrual products – earlier this year. (She’s not the first feminist in the family. Her future stepmother-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall, who once vowed not to touch royal duties “with a bargepole”, works with domestic violence charities, rape clinics and groups combatting FGM.)
The best photo from their engagement shoot didn’t even show their faces. As the couple walked back to Kensington Palace, Harry didn’t drape his arm over her shoulder in a proprietorial way; they both put their arms around the other’s back. It was symmetrical – an expression of support and equality in a family that has traditionally lacked both.
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world