On the eve of their posh wedding, some commentators suggested that Meghan and Harry were poised to give the royal family a much-needed makeover. “Can Meghan Markle modernize the monarchy?” asked the Economist, the same longtime magazine that helped Britain’s elite “modernize” the United Kingdom’s economy during the seventy-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II. (Never mind Charles III — Britain’s true king is the market.)
On the surface, the answer was no. Harry and Meghan understandably chafed under the iron grip of the $28 billion empire known as “the Firm,” and announced they were leaving the family business in early 2020. The months of Sturm und Drang that followed, culminating with the couple’s high-profile “Megxit,” was probably inevitable. The monarchy is not capable of drastic change and Markle, like most other millennials, isn’t as enamored with the musty institution as past generations have been.
Plus, why play by the archaic rules of a fading institution when you can start a new reign of your own?
As eulogies of the recently departed Elizabeth II have made clear, conservatives and many moderates are suddenly and inexplicably massive Queen junkies. They’ve praised her for exuding elegance, modesty, and stateliness — “a symbol of rectitude,” as one MSNBC analyst put it. Elizabeth II never had much power. She reigned as a silent mascot for a once-powerful nation and the post–World War II generations that are fading into irrelevance or death. This Queen was always more influencer than emperor.
For many good reasons, young people in the West don’t think much of the monarchy anymore. According to a YouGov poll, only 31 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in Britain believe the monarchy as an institution should continue, a trend illuminated by a viral CNN clip of a young woman saying she “wasn’t a fan” of the Queen on the day she’d died at ninety-six because of the British history of imperialism and other “shadiness.”
But that doesn’t mean that millennials don’t have favorite royals. In Britain, Meghan is nearly four times more popular with millennials than with baby boomers. Meghan, it turns out, better reflects the values of these times — or, more specifically, the values of the young cosmopolitan elite.
Americans of a similar demographic like her too; after all, she’s American herself. But more than that she’s liberal, her perspective seems roughly aligned with the aims of the Democratic Party, and she articulates Megxit and her personal ambitions in the language of social justice. In America’s bipartite mediasphere, even perceptions of the British royal family are formed through Republican and Democrat lenses. We long-liberated small-d democrats can’t quit our former island overlords; now, we just pick our faves based on their theoretical alignment with the Blue and Red teams, and root for them like they’re Premier League clubs.
Meghan has developed a following among liberal millennials by divulging — in revelatory fashion, often on prime-time television — the details of the Firm’s genuinely boorish and sometimes downright bigoted behavior. “As any millennial woman whose feminism was forged in the girlboss era would understand, she has taken a hardship and turned it into content,” noted the recent New York magazine cover story on Markle. That content isn’t all bad; she’s not trying to soften the crimes of a global empire, for starters. But it’s also very hollow.
“I get that we all feel bad for Meghan because of how badly she’s been treated, and people are right to call out the double standards, but the challenges she’s facing are literally a million miles away from those of the vast majority of women,” tweeted British socialist commentator Grace Blakeley this week. “#Girlboss feminism is not the one.”
Take Archetypes, Meghan’s glossy new Spotify podcast. Pitched as a “new approach to women’s empowerment,” it mostly just offers listeners a chance to luxuriate in the company of Markle and her mega-successful celebrity friends. Archetypes is ostensibly about how negative stereotypes harm women, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the first two episodes are centered on stereotypes that Meghan herself endures (“ambitious” and “diva”), a point that guest Mariah Carey makes in the second episode: “You give us diva moments sometimes, Meghan.” Sexist stereotypes concerning women’s ambition are real and limiting. They’re also more likely to apply to professional women — women with careers, not jobs — who are the show’s target audience.
Truthfully, the podcast could use more diva moments. As it is, it’s mostly stultifyingly dull. Its defining line so far doesn’t come from any of the navel-gazing celebrity conversations; it’s a tagline from a regular commercial break that hawks Stacy’s Pita Chips, a Pepsi-owned snack brand that foregrounds its founder’s personal rags-to-riches tale. Stacy Madison started selling her crunchy pita chips out of a food cart in Boston in the mid-’90s and capped off a successful decade by cashing the business out to Pepsi for $243 million. Now she’s a partner at a billion-dollar private equity firm. “When one woman rises, we all rise,” says the narrator in the pita chip ad.
This philosophy of trickle-down feminism is the beating heart of Archetypes. For all the talk about changing society, Meghan is thin on policy ideas or a political vision of any kind. Instead she promotes herself as an aspirational figure, a symbol for the era of the enlightened liberal ruling class.
But who is she really? Two years after Megxit, Harry and Meghan still use the froufrou titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex. They purchased a $14.7 million mansion. They landed a $100 million, five-year Netflix deal, plus a $25 million Spotify deal which has resulted in four measly episodes in nearly two years. In other words, they use royal titles, reside in a California castle, hang out with the rich and famous, and live impossibly charmed lives which require them to barely work.
Give Meghan some credit — maybe she modernized the monarchy after all.