Monday, March 8, 2021

Why Meghan Matters

 It's always amusing the day after there's a televised interview of some celebrity to see the inevitable tweets by people who you KNOW tuned in, but still feel they need to harrumph about how stupid it is to be interested in these people. And when these people are part of British royalty, Americans go almost as nuts as the British do.

Yes, I watched the whole thing. But this wasn't a piece of fluff. This was a metaphorical bomb lobbed right into the rebuilt metaphorical door of Kensington Palace that a soon-to-be-former princess named Diana virtually detonated in 1995. That inbred bunch isn't going to go quietly. They'll keep putting those doors back up until the stones holding them up crumble.

The US may have had its birth in a declaration of independence from a king, but it seems that for the entire time I've been alive, we've been trying to get back to a monarchy. I came to awareness during the Kennedy years, when the First Lady herself anointed her husband's White House as "Camelot." Americans loved the glamour of the Kennedy years, with a First Couple who looked great in formal wear and hosted concerts in the gilded East Room.  Many people envisioned a Kennedy dynasty, with Bobby reclaiming the throne in 1968, and other Kennedys, who were a constant presence in those days, taking over from there.  But the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, followed by l'affaire Chappaquiddick, Joe III's messy divorce, JFK Jr.'s plane crash, and on and on and on, have pretty much banished the would-be Kennedy dynasty to the dustbin of history.

And yet the quest for dynasties continue. Caroline Kennedy dipped her toe in the waters for a while. There's always talk of Chelsea Clinton. Michelle Obama may have been the only person who could have defeated Joe Biden last year. The Bush family snagged two presidencies and might have had a third, had Donald Trump not brought his entire circus down that gilded escalator in 2015. And had Beau Biden not died tragically from brain cancer at far too young an age, we might be looking at yet another Biden running for president in 2024 or 2028. 

And then there's the Trumps, whose aspirations clearly go far beyond a genteel political dynasty and into a kind of grotesque parody of a monarchy, in which Ivanka would forever be a princess and Don Jr. the heir apparent -- all the jewelry and none of the noblesse oblige. Such royal pretentiouns should have been met with mockery, but our fascination with monarchy and dynasties still hasn't died, even after 244 years.

The most pervasive and insidious manifestation of this is the ubiquity of the Princess rite of passage for girls in the US. We're rotten with princesshood.  Every little girl in the country cuts her teeth on one Disney princess or another. For girls like me -- chubby, homely, weird, cranky -- being a princess meant being pretty and slim. It meant being able to wear pretty new clothes instead of their sisters' hand-me-downs It meant fabulous gowns and a guarantee of happiness, and perhaps most importantly, it made you Popular

Watch any episode of TLC's Say Yes to the Dress and you'll see at least one Jersey Bimbo with big hair, surgically-enhanced breasts, 4" impeccably manicured talons, a voice like a foghorn, and $15,000 to spend on a jeweled gown so she can "feel like a princess." Or you'll see a Barbie-lookalike blond who wants to "feel like Diana" on her wedding day. Yes, that last one still happens even now that we know that Diana walked down the aisle looking to see where Camilla was. Or you'll see a size-22 who brings in a photo of a bejeweled gown on a size 0 model and cries when the dress she loves doesn't come in her size. The whole Bridezilla thing is nothing but the Princess Myth writ large. I thought back in 1997 that the princess nonsense would finally also die in that twisted wreckage in the tunnel in Paris, but it keeps rising from the dead like supply-side economics. Princesshood is so pervasive, and so practically ingrained into our DNA at this point, that while covering Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, two perfectly respectable women journalists did this:

After all, isn't a royal wedding the ne plus ultra of princesshood, combining the entire Disney princess trope with the the mystique that is the Bridal Gown? 

And yet here we are now, with the giant turd that Harry and Meghan have laid in the Royal Punchbowl, and never has a punch bowl more richly deserve to be turd-ed. Because the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Mountbatten-Windsors have to be the most dysfunctional familiy in the world not named "Trump."

Full disclosure: I've always had kind of a soft spot for Harry. Mr. Brilliant and I had been married just shy of 11 years when Diana died, and I knew how much Mr. B's mother's death when he was twelve impacted his life. And while I was watching Diana's funeral, because of course I did, I kept looking at that little boy, compelled to walk, stone-faced, behind his mother's coffin on worldwide television. You don't get over that. Mr. B never got over his mother's death either, though the story I was told about her changed in his last months from him being her favorite until she died to her always having been cruel. I can tell you, though, that on his last conscious evening in this world, which doubled as our 27th anniversary, he spent our entire anniversary dinner talking bitterly about having to spend five days sitting in front of his mother's open casket at her wake when he was 12. You don't get over that. So I kind of get it. Now imagine living through that at age 12, growing up, getting married and finding it happening again WITH YOUR OWN WIFE.

I realize that we put suits of metaphorical clothes that suit our own agendas on celebrities whose lives interest us. But watching Harry in the second part of last night's interview, my theory that his choice of  Meghan Markle was, however unconsciously, his ticket out of the dysfunctional clusterfuck that is his family and the institution that has trapped them, became highly plausible.

I'll be honest -- I had no idea who Meghan Markle was until she showed up in Vanity Fair magazine in 2017. And I had no idea that she was a woman of color. At one time, someone who looked like her would have "passed for white" if she'd been so inclined. Hell, MY MOTHER had similar coloring and she was an Ashkenazi Jew. 

Could Harry have really been so obtuse as to believe that this wouldn't matter in an institution that has become first and foremost about overseeing a colonialist Commonwealth disproportionately populated by people of color? I don't think so.  By 2017, his brother William had two children, and Harry was no longer needed as "the spare." But leaving that crew without a damn good reason was unthinkable. And when he and Meghan committed the unforgiveable sin of being more charming, more popular and made "better copy" than the necessarily staid heirs, well, the ugly underbelly of the already-ugly-enough tabloid culture in the UK and its psychotically dysfunctional relationship with The Institution became the final stamp on Harry's ticket out of it all; the ticket he'd purchased when he chose this particular woman in the first place.

So why does it matter? Why did this interview feel weightier than other coverage of the weird American fascination with royalty?  Because racism is insidious, and because the US doesn't have a patent on it. Because you can be the lightest-skinned woman of color, and you can still be treated by white people as less than human. Your in-laws will concern troll you about how it will LOOK if your baby has darker skin than they deem to be seemly. Your newborn will be branded as a chimpanzee or a monkey -- something which shows that even though slavery in England proper had largely disappeared by 1800 (though it it didn't in places like the West Indies), and interracial marriage was not illegal, the UK has nothing to pat itself on the back about compared to publications in the US that published drawings of our first Black president and his wife as monkeys.

It's been interesting watching the same sorry scenario of a woman unprepared for and unwilling to buy into the stifling, anachronistic formality of an institution that long ago outlived its usefulness, nearly destroyed by it. I don't think Diana was as strong as she wanted to believe she was, but she was strong enough to blow a hole in the myth of happily ever after as the inevitable outcome of a royal wedding -- and to get out of it.  The Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Mountbatten-Windsors could have learned something, and perhaps if Diana had lived, even if outside the Firm, they would have. But her death allowed them to once again close the door to modernity, to diversity, to enlightenment -- until a Black woman, as Black women did in the US in the 2020 election, showed up and tried to save The Firm from itself. Because it's always up to Black women to clean up the messes that white people leave behind. This time it didn't work. But the white people behind that closed door now have to live with their mess, while the Black woman gets to leave with her head held high.