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OPINION

Like Hillary Clinton, Meghan Markle has become a Rorschach test

As with those famous inkblots, how we see the Duchess of Sussex reveals less about her and far more about us.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, with Prince Harry and with their newborn son, Archie, in Windsor Castle in 2019.Dominic Lipinski

Meghan Markle is a former actress, the American wife of a British prince, and the Duchess of Sussex. She is also a Rorschach test.

She’s an icon. She’s a golddigger. She’s an asset to the monarchy. She’s trying to destroy the royal family. She’s a truth-teller. She’s a liar. She’s victimized by misogynoir, a targeted hatred of Black women. She leveraged her light-skinned privilege to gain entry to the world’s oldest institution of colonialism and white supremacy.

And that’s just a sampling of the many email responses I received after writing a column about Meghan and Prince Harry’s blistering interview with Oprah Winfrey about why they left England and stepped back from their royal duties last year. Celebrity, royalty, colorism, racism, family dynamics, mental health issues, and sexism — it’s all here. So, too, are our various hopes, fears, and unease with women, especially women of color.

Inevitably, Harry and Meghan’s two-hour sit-down with Winfrey has drawn comparisons to the 1995 interview given by Princess Diana, the prince’s mother. Perhaps a better parallel for Meghan is Hillary Clinton.

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From the start of her husband’s first presidential campaign in 1992, Clinton was harshly scrutinized. Not only was she a successful lawyer who continued to practice when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, she was unapologetic about it.

“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies, and had teas,” Clinton said at the time. Her work as a lawyer and public advocate, she said, “has been aimed . . . to assure that women can make the choices, whether it’s a full-time career, full-time motherhood, or some combination.” Those primed to dislike Clinton latched onto the first part of her quote and branded her as smug and disparaging of stay-at-home mothers.

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What people didn’t like was Clinton’s desire to be more than a campaign accessory. She was not the archetypal politician’s wife who is publicly most adept at waving, smiling, and boosting her husband’s political ambitions. And that rankled many who resented Clinton for flouting gender norms. When, as First Lady, she led President Clinton’s effort to create universal health care, she was even burned in effigy.

On a pre-pandemic promotional tour for “Hillary,” a Hulu docuseries, the former secretary of state and presidential nominee told reporters, “I became a kind of Rorschach test for women and women’s roles as soon as I burst on the public scene when Bill was running for president.”

Since Meghan’s marriage to Prince Harry in 2018, it’s been the same for her.

At its core, Meghan and Harry’s story is a familiar one about the rancor between a woman and her in-laws and a man’s need to protect his chosen family from his birth family. Many can relate to sometimes needing mental space from our people in order to live a healthier, saner life.

Yet it’s also a pointed reminder of the absurd ways women are expected to conform and how they are punished when they don’t. Men are largely exempt from such toxic treatment, while women twist themselves into knots trying to find a balance between being authentic and delivering what sexist traditions demand of them.

If a woman gains or loses weight, her body becomes a battlefield for conversations about size and health. If she’s deemed too ambitious, she’s derided as ruthless. She is expected to meet capricious standards of “likability,” which is like building a house on quicksand. It’s debilitating and misogynistic.

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With Meghan, there is also a distinction, what Harry called “the race element.” He told Winfrey, “It wasn’t just about her, it was about what she represents” as a woman of color.

What Meghan represents to us depends on preconceived biases and lived experiences. A lot of white Britons reacted to her presence in the monarchy the same way a lot of white Americans reacted to President Obama in the White House — as an unwelcome assault on white supremacy. Meghan is nudging Britain to confront issues around colonialism and racism they’ve happily ignored or buried for centuries.

The fault lies not with Meghan for speaking the truth about what she and Harry have endured but with a monarchy bound by tradition and mendacity. Yet as with those inkblots, how we view this woman reveals far more about us than it does about the actress-turned-duchess who refuses to simply shut up and curtsy.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.