Meghan Markle, duchess of Rorschach
Her clothes are beautiful. Her clothes are dowdy. She’s spending too much on clothes. Her husband can’t keep his hands off her. Her husband doesn’t always want to hold her hand in public. Her handwriting has changed. She’s developed a phony English accent. No, she hasn’t. She and her sister-in-law are close. No, they’re rivals. She’s ruining her feet with those unfeminist stilettos. She crosses her legs at the ankle: The royal family has squelched her spirit. She crosses her legs at the knee: She’s defying the royal family, the queen is not pleased. The queen feels a special bond with her. Her messy bun is too messy. She’s a breath of fresh air. She married up. She married down. She’s terrified; she can’t make a move or utter a word without permission from the palace; they’re erasing her.
In a summer when the news is urgent, relentless, and horrifying, royal-watching is a welcome diversion. And the show hasn’t been this good in years. What is it about Meghan Markle, the new Duchess of Sussex, that has unleashed such a frenzy of decoding? Why do people project so many different meanings onto her, as if she were a living Rorschach test, begging to be interpreted and analyzed?
Well, for one thing, she is one of us. Or more nearly one of us than anyone who’s ever entered the royal family. She’s American, biracial, self-made, a grown-up. She’s had a career. She’s not like Diana Spencer or Kate Middleton, who were unknown before they emerged as princesses-to-be, appearing as public figures at the same moment that they began to disappear into the mystery of royal life. Meghan was already visible, and we’re hoping she’ll stay that way. We know the sound of her voice — she’s been an actress, she’s written a blog, she’s expressed opinions about feminism and race. We want her to keep talking.
At the same time, we want her to get it right — “it” being grace, style, good judgment. We want her to show the world, in the summer of 2018, that not all Americans are boorish jerks.
We want her to model a new way of being a princess. Diana was dangerously, if appealingly, transparent – a castaway on the royal island who kept putting notes in bottles that said “Help, help” and tossing them out to a sympathetic public. But she also introduced a new tone — an unafraid, hands-on social conscience. Kate has continued Diana’s charitable work, while being an expert curator of her family’s privacy. She shows up, smiles warmly, and withdraws back into her domestic life; she is all smooth surface, offering no toeholds. Which brings up the memory of Fergie, the bawdy, cheerfully mercenary, perennially repentant Duchess of York, who famously allowed her toes to be sucked by her banker boyfriend.
We want Meghan to have Diana’s glamour and compassion, Kate’s strength and balance, and maybe just a touch of Fergie’s unpredictable zest. We want her, though, to be less fragile than Diana, more candid than Kate, and a lot less hapless than Fergie. We want her to be like all of them and none of them. We want her to be American and English; royal and unpretentious; fortified and available; frank and judicious; apolitical but secretly, rebelliously, political in a way that we can easily decode and agree with. We want to watch her change into a princess while somehow reassuring us that she hasn’t changed.
What we really want is fiction. We want someone who appears to reconcile all these contradictions. And it’s no job for an amateur.
“I am an actor,” Meghan once wrote, on her now defunct blog. “I have made a career of saying other people’s words for a living and making them sound believable. Yes, we color them with nuance and add subtext to the writing, but at the end of the day I can hide behind the character.”
The character being, in this case, a modern princess. Who knows how to act.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.