Meghan Markle Is the Duchess the Royal Family Needs


The British monarchy has always gathered fresh power when it is useful. The new baby will gild the myth.

Meghan Markle making a public appearance in March. CreditCreditPool photo by Chris Jackson

By Tanya Gold

Ms. Gold is a British journalist who writes for Harper’s Magazine.

  • May 6, 2019
  • PENZANCE, England — Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has given birth to a son, and the British press, which for weeks has been positively giddy with rumor, is released from its stifling wait for actual news of a royal baby.

While they waited, no detail, true or untrue, was too small to print: The duchess will have a home birth. The duchess will have a water birth. The duchess has rejected the gynecologists to the royal household for a female doctor. The duchess will have an organic birth, which is something I just invented. The duchess would have her baby before May 5 because her makeup artist returned to New York that day, according to his Instagram. The duchess was house hunting in California. And on and on.

At the height of baby watch, journalists were dispatched when an ambulance was parked near Frogmore House, the residence of Meghan and Prince Harry, for several hours (it turned out that paramedics had stopped for lunch).

Why does Meghan have the press in such paroxysms? Well, she is an interloper: divorced, American, biracial and, apparently, progressive. And she dares not only to inhabit the role of duchess but also to make it her own. Still, her critics — energized by their racism, misogyny and snobbery — can relax. She is not a revolutionary socialist nor a convincing human rights activist who will destroy everything they love. She will not bring down the royal family. In 2019, she is precisely what it needs.

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Obsessive interest in the minutiae of monarchy is not new. It may be irritating to the objects of its devotion, but it is essential to their success. If you must have gods — and that is what they are — you have a responsibility to believe that they are better than the rest of us. If you don’t, what is the point? And so those who dare to ascend to the rank of royalty without the blessing of royal birth are viewed as, at best, suspicious, and at worst, Wallis Simpson 2.0.

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The Duchess of Cambridge, formerly the wealthy but not aristocratic Kate Middleton, was nicknamed Waity Katie while she was waiting for Prince William to propose marriage. She was photographed sunbathing topless in France, and the pictures were published. She survived by saying nothing and bearing three children, and is now left alone.

But the Duchess of Sussex, whose marriage is a much more dramatic clashing of worlds, has proved irresistible.

Tabloid newspapers have christened her Duchess Difficult, and she is accused, with more agonizing alliteration, of having had a “tiara tantrum” at a fitting for a bridesmaid’s dress for Princess Charlotte, 4, at which the Duchess of Cambridge, 37, cried.

We hear of dawn messages to staff, requests for heating in medieval chapels — did she ask why Windsor Castle was built so close to the airport, one wag reportedly asked — and a semi-transgressive attendance at a baby shower in New York City. She moved from Kensington to Berkshire, which was reported as a “schism” between Harry and his older brother, Prince William, potentially as deadly as the feud between Richard II and his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, which led to Henry usurping the throne. The break is reportedly so bitter that there is talk of Meghan and Harry spending a few years in Botswana to regroup.

Then there is the role that only a self-made actress would have the daring to invent for herself: feminist progressive duchess who writes inspirational mantras on bananas for sex workers and hugs — hugs! — well-wishers across metal barriers thick with metaphor.

And now, feminist progressive duchess, and mom. The new royal baby will be raised a feminist, as well as being the first royal to be skilled in yoga. The nursery at Frogmore cottage is reportedly, outrageously, “gender neutral.” And the couple will not have a Norland nanny, traditional choice of the British aristocracy, who dresses like a depressed Mary Poppins. They are looking for an American nanny, showing that the duchess’s “heart is still very much in her homeland of the U.S.,” The Daily Mail lamented.

And yet, Meghan is not a radical. She is a monarchist. Her feminism has nothing to say about solidarity. It cannot. It is the feminism of the 1 percent, a unique woman with great power. It is Elizabeth II’s feminism — hell, it is Elizabeth I’s feminism. Under these criteria, Harry is a feminist too for marrying her, which surely came as a great surprise to him.

As to quasi-progressive credentials, the couple is well matched. Harry is a hugger and a moonlight dancer whose public utterances, though likely heartfelt, are like ripples on a pond. Together they talk about a mental health crisis but not its causes; about environmental catastrophe but not its causes; about the Grenfell Tower fire but not its causes. There is nothing on austerity, inequality or poverty. He wore a garland of flowers to announce scholarships to study climate change. She wrote a foreword to a cookbook from the Grenfell Tower community kitchen.

So you see, the duchess’s critics have nothing to fear. In the 1970s Queen Elizabeth II was enticed to greet crowds by saying “hello.” Previously she had ignored them. In 2019, hugging and other acts are welcome and even necessary as what is considered good manners changes. Meghan’s style may be different from that of other members of the royal family, but she is still a monarchist.

Of us and yet above us; exalted and common. People thrill to the knowledge that Elizabeth II uses Tupperware and a two-bar electric fire in her palace, presumably while wearing the Imperial State Crown and National Health Service spectacles. Meghan’s status as a feminist who supported women’s suffrage in New Zealand a mere 125 years after it appeared is similarly disarming. And the enchantment grows until even I am fascinated by a woman who inspires the headline “Meghan Markle’s Inspirational Banana Messages Slammed as Offensive by Sex Worker,” and I am a republican.

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The royal family has always gathered fresh power when it is useful. It will take George Clooney as a friend if it must. It will delight in Oprah and talk of gang violence, yoga and the shrinking habitat of the polar bear if that keeps it on the throne, and the new royal baby — soon to be the object of his own commemorative china — will gild the myth.

Why do you think you are reading about the Mountbatten-Windsors in this newspaper and on Instagram when the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs are all gone?

Tanya Gold writes for Harper’s Magazine.

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A version of this article appears in print on May 7, 2019, on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Just the Duchess the Royal Family Needs. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe