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Meghan and Harry - Symbols of Culture War

Oprah Winfrey’s explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was an attempt by the couple to reclaim a narrative which has so far been told about them. Here are our key takeaways from a deep reading of the interview and how it defined Meghan’s symbolic role for our era: as the center of a transatlantic culture war and our times’ biggest challenge to the Royal Family’s future relevance.

TRANSCRIPT
Oprah Winfrey’s explosive interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was an attempt by the couple to reclaim a narrative that has so far been told about them. Here are our key takeaways from a deep reading of the interview and how it defined Meghan’s symbolic role for our era: as the center of a transatlantic culture war and our times’ biggest challenge to the Royal Family’s future relevance.

Meghan Markle: “My understanding and my experience of the past four years is it’s nothing like what it looks like.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

Victim or Villain?
Netflix series The Crown raises the idea that — to be a “fairytale” protagonist like Harry’s late mother Princess Diana — you have to be seen as a victim. But after Meghan Markle’s initial “Cinderella story” introduction into her royal story, starting around 6 months after Harry and Meghan’s wedding, the Duchess of Sussex found herself getting cast by the British Press as a villain. This began an overarching press narrative in which Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, was the sympathetic victim-slash-hero and Meghan was the antagonist. In this interview, we see Meghan actively recasting herself from villain to victim.

Meghan Markle: “The narrative about, you know, making Kate cry, I think was the beginning of a real character assassination.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

Royal Déjà Vu
There was a distinct feeling of déjà vu in the many parallels Meghan’s interview brought out between her and Princess Diana. The very act of giving such a direct and open interview is itself a reference to Diana, who shocked the world in 1995 by speaking with unheard-of candor about her marital troubles with Charles. Like Diana, Meghan spoke about her mental health struggles. And both women were victims of their own popularity — hunted by paparazzi and torn down by a bullying British Press.

Princess Diana: “Maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful.” - BBC Panorama Interview

Harry and Meghan clearly wanted to evoke these parallels, like when they said their Australia Tour was a turning point precisely because it evoked memories of Diana’s Australia Tour in 1983. The Crown dramatizes how, starting with this tour, Diana’s ability to connect with the people of The Commonwealth made Charles intensely jealous.

Prince Charles: “This is supposed to be my tour! And thanks to you—”
Princess Diana: “Thanks to me, people have shown up! Thanks to me, people are interested!”
Prince Charles: “No! Thanks to you, people are laughing in my face!” - The Crown (Season 4, Episode 6)

So, Harry and Megan draw this comparison purposely to suggest that Meghan’s overwhelming success threatened today’s other royals. When Meghan speaks about the intense loneliness of her royal life, it likewise draws to mind how Season 4 of The Crown depicts a young Princess Diana alone and isolated in the palace. And Harry has explicitly said he feared his wife meeting the same tragic end as his mother.

Prince Harry: “My biggest concern was history repeating itself. [...] Definitely far more dangerous because then you add race in and you add social media in — and when I’m talking about history repeating itself, I’m talking about my mother.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

Meghan’s visual styling even alluded to history, as she wore Diana’s diamond Cartier love bracelet (likely a gesture to her and Harry’s love story). Her hairstyle and Armani dress with a lotus evoked a famous shot of Wallis Simpson, another American divorcée, whose marriage to King Edward VIII required him to abdicate the throne.

A Portrait of Fear and a Loveless Prison
Meghan and Harry painted a picture of the Royal Family that is governed by fear, “trapping” its members like prisoners with the mantra that this is how it’s always been. Decades ago, Diana too spoke about the coldness of the family, as The Crown has also portrayed. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the interview was Harry — the ultimate insider of British society, an actual prince — speaking openly about things we might all assume, but which those in power don’t say. He acknowledged that the monarchy’s position is actually more fragile than we tend to realize, and it’s dependent on a friendly national media. In the late ‘90s, the Royal Family dealt with dangerous unpopularity after Diana’s death. Since then, the institution strategically aligned with a press that can sometimes be deeply ugly and vitriolic.

Meghan Markle: “There’s a reason that these tabloids have holiday parties… at the palace.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

A Royal Culture War

Oprah Winfrey: “Do you think it’s because of [Archie’s] race?”
Meghan Markle: “[...] Concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”
Oprah Winfrey: [Shocked] “What?” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

For all her echoes of the past, there’s a significant aspect in which Meghan’s experience differs. It’s undeniable that the British tabloids’ treatment of Meghan has been straight-up racist. Meghan also implied that there were racial motivations to discussions about not giving Archie a Prince title — though as The Guardian reports, this situation is a little complicated. According to George V protocols, Archie wouldn’t be entitled to the Prince title until his grandfather Charles becomes King, and the cost-cutting conversation around quote-unquote “slimming down the monarchy,” lest it gets bigger with every generation, does predate Meghan’s entry.

Overall, many see the loss of Harry and Meghan as senior royals as a missed opportunity — a development that again evoked how the institution alienated Diana, a figure who offered great value to their future. As people increasingly feel they need to pick a team between Harry and Meghan and the Crown, this puts the Royal Family — an institution that needs to be perceived as a unifying force — on one side of a culture war.

Meghan Markle: “So much of what I have seen play out is this idea of polarity — where if you love me, you don’t have to hate [Kate] and if you love [Kate], you don’t need to hate me.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

The British tabloids (who once adored the old, cheeky, royal, “bad boy” Harry) have turned on him for becoming a “woke warrior” as he’s transitioned into talking about topics like his upcoming “mental health” project with Oprah and how he’s been unlearning unconscious racial bias. Meghan herself is the primary symbol of this culture-war divide, which is largely generational — a development that doesn’t bode well for the future of the institution.

What Actually is The Royal Family?
The interview was full of mentions of “the firm,” leaving us with a murky picture as to who exactly is responsible for the “firm’s” decisions. Harry and Meghan shrewdly expressed love for the much-beloved Queen but attacked the increasingly less popular institution, and that institution may be in grave trouble when the far less popular Charles becomes King (with some advocating for the Crown to skip directly to William). The serious allegations against the Queen’s son Prince Andrew represent another weakness, while the family seems to benefit from the British Press being noticeably soft on that story.

Meghan Markle: “I went to the institution… and said that I needed to go somewhere to get help, and I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

Conclusion
This interview was an act of storytelling — from the wardrobe choices and choice of setting to the visual window into Meghan and Harry getting “back to basics” in their $14.5 million dollar mansion and plugging their upcoming projects. We saw Meghan portray herself as a lotus flower rising above dirty water and a modern-day “Little Mermaid” (though you might argue Harry’s Ariel since he’s the one giving up his fins for a new world). If it felt somewhat like a filmed press release, this might be viewed as a corrective, considering that for a long time the couple wasn’t allowed to even respond to the narrative being painted about them.

Meghan Markle: “They were willing… to lie to protect other members of the family, but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview

A theme that kept coming out of Meghan’s words was the disconnect between perception and reality. Especially as times change, it can be hard to pin down exactly what the Royal Family is. But given that its purpose these days is mostly symbolic, it’s more important than ever to ask oneself: what should it be a symbol of?

Prince Harry: “Now it wasn’t just about [Meghan], but it was about what she represents.” - Oprah with Meghan and Harry Interview


SOURCES
Ballard, Jamie & Sanders, Linley. “Snap Poll: What Americans Made of Meghan and Prince Harry’s Interview with Oprah.” YouGov, 8 Mar. 2021, https://today.yougov.com/topics/entertainment/articles-reports/2021/03/08/meghan-markle-prince-harry-oprah-interview-poll

Davies, Caroline. “Was Meghan’s Son Archie Denied the Title ‘Prince’ Because He’s Mixed Race?” The Guardian, 8 Mar. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/08/why-meghan-harry-son-archie-denied-title-prince-mixed-race

Hyde, Marina. “Meghan and Harry v ‘The Institution’: Another Royal Fairytale Turned Grimm.” The Guardian, 9 Mar. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/09/harry-meghan-royal-family-hrh

Klich, Tanya. “The Hidden Symbolism Of Meghan Markle’s $4,700 Armani Dress In The Oprah Interview.” Forbes, 8 Mar. 2021,
https://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyaklich/2021/03/08/meghan-markle-oprah-interview-dress/?sh=254ef6411b26

McGrath, Ciaran. “Meghan Markle Has ‘Turned Prince Harry into a Snowflake’ - Scathing Assessment.” Express, 9 Aug. 2020,
https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1319963/meghan-markle-royal-news-prince-harry-duke-and-duchess-of-sussex-woke-warrior-royal-family