Despite headlines, Meghan Markle hasn't dropped feminism 'like a hot potato', an academic has insisted after an article she wrote about the Duchess of Sussex made headlines. The piece, titled ‘Meghan’s Manifesto’: Meghan Markle and the Co-option of Feminism' and published in the academic journal Celebrity Studies was written by Dr Hannah Yelin, senior lecturer in media and culture and Dr Laura Clancy, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Lancaster University.
In it, they explain that Meghan's ’activist voice has been either silenced or appropriated by the monarchy’ and criticise the ways in which the monarchy has cynically used Meghan’s feminism to ‘construct a performance of progress at a time of a “proliferation of new and old misogynies”’.
However, despite headlines and commentary saying Meghan Markle, who notably deleted her Instagram account very soon after her and Prince Harry announced their engagement, has forgotten all of her feminist values now she's part of the royal family, Dr Yelin tells Grazia that’s not the case at all.
Hi Hannah, were you expecting this story to be used against Meghan?
Academic publishing is slow and we wrote this in response to the wedding. at that time the coverage was so uniformy positive and since then we’ve had a shift in the narrative. That’s inevitable, especially for a pregnant women of colour in the public eye, there’s layer upon layer of things that invite unpleasant scrutiny.
Did the narrative around her shift because of that uniformly positive coverage?
It’s a very high bar to hold her to. To imagine she was the feminist second coming, to delight feminists around the world and to take the royal family in a new direction, that’s quite a brief that you’re going to signal handedly turn around a colonial, patriarchal, historic institution that is 100% about power and hierarchy. It wasn’t that she was set up to fail, it was just an impossible brief.
Were you frustrated to see the piece now used as part of a negative campaign against Meghan?
Absolutely. We are not interested in criticizing women, or policing their feminism. Out piece was about the institution that she’s married into, and the effect that has on her message. Meghan as an individual, fantastic, keep going, you’ve got feminist goals and that’s wonderful. We were criticizing the structures of power and privilege around her. But just in the same way that Meghan’s story gets reduced to a catfight with Kate, this has been reduced to ‘here’s one woman bashing another woman’. We certainly wouldn’t put ‘Meghan dropped feminism like a hot potato’ into an academic journal.
You did however mention Ladette to Lady, when talking about Meghan’s royal makeover. Do you think Kate Middleton underwent a similar transformation?
The process is the same. The royals were quite unpopular before Kate took centre stage and she did an amazing job of bringing them positivity. Meghan’s brief is slightly different now, there are conversations about inclusivity and Charles is now acknowledging and apologizing for the history of slavery. It’s a good thing, and I don’t wish to be cynical, but they are making full use of her as a beneficial PR tool. The royal family get to show themselves as moderising while also conservatising the women that they’re essentially using as a PR machine now.
Making a royal bride palatable, post-Diana, seems like an obligation for the royals, but they have to acquiesce to modernity in some ways, don’t they?
Absolutely - the stories of Kate and Meghan aren’t written yet, but if we look at [Diana's] story, it’s a far more unruly model of femininity. You’ve got narratives of adultery, an absent mother, but at the same time, she showed the royals were not nearly so modern as her, and not necessarily able to cope with how modern she was.
Is the royal family always going to be sexist, and if so, what part of it? The lineage thing?
It’s all sorts of sexism and classism and racism, because it’s about preserving power. It’s an elite, the divine right of kings, policing unreliable femininity to make sure only the right people are allowed in. It’s so fundamentally against any concept of equality and no woman can buck, transgress. You either fail or erase yourself to the point of blandness.
Meghan recently went to the Fashion Awards and praised Givenchy’s first female designer Claire Waight Keller. How much can clothes - such as the precisely un-feminist wearing of trousers, tell Meghan’s story for her?
Clothes are not irrelevant - one area of Meghan’s agency is that she makes decisions to support certain companies, to say certain things. Princess Michael of Kent said terrible racist things through her jewellery, and the Queen has said things through her clothes. Women have done so for centuries, so I’m not keen to dismiss it as frivolous - there is a game of symbolism and communication going on there.
We’ve also now got Thomas Markle wading in to attack Meghan for not contacting him. How does his intervention add to the notion that she is the royals' property?
I feel for her, it’s evidence you cannot truly control the media narrative around oneself. What we’ve seen with Meghan is an attempt to control her and make her palatable, but Thomas Markle just pulls away from the story being told by the palace.
If Diana nudged the feminist thing a bit, and Meghan’s now doing it, could Princess Charlotte one day go full radical feminist?
Who knows. My feeling is the royals respond to the culture of our times, because they have a need to be seen and keep up. So if we can maintain the pressure in wider culture, then maybe within a generation, there will be new norms that they need to respond to. That would be my hope, but I wouldn’t put the pressure onto a small child.
And there we have it. Meghan Markle IS a feminist, it's just that the royal family isn't, and will use bits of Meghan's feminism for their own liking. The only way this borrowing of feminism's best bits can ever change? Is if society, that means you and us, make the change first! Where we lead, our rulers follow...