No Cinderella: Margo Jefferson on the real Meghan Markle

Shes educated, divorced, a woman of colour, a feminist and a revolutionary addition to the royal family. Will she revolutionise the House of Windsor?

In February I ensure a photo of Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge sitting next to each other at the Royal Foundation Forum, wearing colour coordinated garments( lavender for Kate, deep purple-blue for Meghan ). It wasn’t their garments I minded, it was how they sat- legs intersected neatly at the ankle, knees pressed securely together. It was that dulce et propriety pose passed down to generations of girls and young women expected to demonstrate their good breeding on social occasions- expected to show they are ” ladies “. Both Kate and Meghan had folded their hands in their laps, the arms forming a gentle circle, the hands softly clasped, as if ready to shelter a child or pacify a kingdom’s cares. But it was the legs that haunted me- in part because I’d been taught that same bit of etiquette when I was a young black midwestern daughter in the 1950 s and early 60 s, a child of the manners- and achievement-conscious black bourgeoisie, which in those days we called the Negro elite.

Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge at the Royal Foundation Forum. Photograph: Chris Jackson/ AFP/ Getty Images

In fact, things turned out better than I’d feared. In a subsequent photo Kate traversed her legs at the knee. And when both females were asked in the video about the causes they planned to take up, Meghan spoke out. The words “MeToo” and “Time’sUp” flowed from her lips. So did the words” I fundamentally disagree”, as in:” What’s interesting is … if we are talking about daughters’ and women’s empowerment you’ll often hear people say:’ Well, you’re helping women determine their voices ,’ and I basically made in accordance with that. Females don’t need to find a voice, they have a voice, and they need to feel empowered to use it, and people need to be encouraged to listen .”

Rachel Meghan Markle, for those who have chosen or somehow managed to miss the ceaseless chronicling of her life thus far, is the only daughter of Thomas Markle( white ), an Emmy award-winning cinematographer and illuminating decorator, and Doria Ragland( black ), a social worker and yoga teacher who focuses on community mental health. This union of white Hollywood and black social-spiritual activism produce her the progeny of a modern and ever more varied biracial bourgeoisie.

The family settled in Woodland Hills, a prosperous Los Angeles neighbourhood. Prosperous and largely white: Meghan’s mother was regularly mistaken for her nanny there. This must have happened in the 80 s and early 90 s when she was a young girl; it still happens in the US to every black woman I know who has a mixed-race child.

Meghan’s mothers divorced when she was six, and she lived with her mother after that, although she saw her parent regularly. There are two half-siblings from his previous matrimony, both quite a bit older. Relations with them, at least since the courtship and engagement, have been strained.


Prince Harry’s relationship with Meghan Markle

July 2016

The pair meet in London through friends and begin a relationship.

30 October 2016

News violates that the prince and Markle are dating.

8 November 2016

Kensington Palace corroborates in an unprecedented statement that they are dating. The prince attacks the media over its “abuse and harassment” of his girlfriend.

11 November 2017

Markle is spotted in London amid unconfirmed reports she is enjoying her first stay at Kensington Palace since the relationship was made public.

10 January 2017

Markle reportedly meets the Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Charlotte for the first time in London.

5 September 2017

The engagement lookings set when Markle graces the cover-up of US magazine Vanity Fair and speaks openly about Harry for the first time, revealing:” We’re two people who are really happy and in love .”

24 September 2017

Markle stimulates her first appearance at an official engagement attended by the prince when she attends the Invictus Games opening ceremony in Toronto, Canada- although the pair sit about 18 seats apart.

19 October 2017

It emerges that the prince has taken Markle to meet his grandmother, the Queen, whose permission they need to marry. They fulfilled over afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace.

22 October 2017

The prince’s aides are reported to have been told to start planning for a royal wedding, with senior members of the royal family asked to look at their diaries to shortlist a series of suitable weekends in 2018.

21 November 2017

Markle is spotted in London, inspiring supposition she is preparing for an engagement announcement.

27 November 2017

Clarence House announces the engagement, and the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh say they are” delighted for the couple and wish them every happiness “.

19 May 2018

The couple marry before a celebrity-studded congregation at St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

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Markle majored in international relations and theatre at Northwestern University, Illinois. Besides becoming an actor, she became a feminist who worked for UN Women as an advocate for political participation and leadership. Yes, “shes been” praised and criticised as “outspoken”, but her style never risks being ” aggressive” or “combative”, or any of the other words hurl at women who are deemed insufficiently graceful when they disagree with men. Even when she makes staunch political statements, her manner astutely- sometimes cloyingly- balances the forthright and the please. She’s learned to use political axioms and affirms very effectively. As in:” It’s time to focus less on glass slippers and more on glass ceilings .” With the word ” fairytale” now a ubiquitous tag line for the royal romance, this should be a useful daily mantra.

The Cinderella story refuses to dwindle into a period piece; in the last 20 years alone there have been six movie remakes with white, black and Latina leadings. But Markle has not been plucked from poverty or- like the heroines of such romcom adaptations as Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan – from the low-status toil and trouble of working-class life. Her net worth as an actor has been estimated at around$ 5m. An actor’s lucks can fluctuate, especially when that actor is a woman. But so can the fortunes of a spouse. If the royal matrimony were to end in divorce, Markle would not have to depend on the Windsor millions nor, like many once-upon-a-time celebrities, design a skincare or jewellery line for QVC.

Love that results in the bride’s near magical social ascent is the key in Cinderella narratives. But is Markle automatically marrying up by marrying a prince? In the old school way, yes: any “commoner” who marries into any royal family is seen as marrying up. But Harry is marrying up too. He’s marrying up by marrying out- out of long-entwined bloodlines, out of entrenched rituals and hierarchies, out of a lineage as constricted as it is privileged. We always ascribe social aspirations to commoners, but aristocrats have their own longings for a world elsewhere. Harry is marrying into all the possibilities of postmodernity. It’s a world where- as Zora Neale Hurston said of black folktales and music – hierarchies, styles, sites of social and cultural change are being made and forgotten every day.

In this world-elsewhere that is here and now, Markle’s identities as a progressive biracial and black feminist are impeccable. When speaking of her role on TV series Suits , as the biracial lawyer with a black father, she said:” Some households may never have had a black person in their house as a guest, or someone biracial. Well , now there are a lot of us on your Tv and in your home with you .” And now there are even a few of us in the palaces you assure on TV.

How would a global marketer for the royal family describe their marriage? Charles is not going to help the royal brand become fresh and contemporary. William and Kate are contemporary royals- unpretentious, decent and likable. But they do not indicate danger or daring. Today the House of Windsor is like a venerable and all too predictable fashion home. Its cultural currency depends on history packaged as attire drama: The Queen , The Crown , The King’s Speech , Darkest Hour . To prosper it must attract new decorators, new ideas and new muses. And let me end my way analogy by was indicated that in March this year, Virgil Abloh , a Ghanaian American designer, was named artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, a manner home founded in 1854 when Queen Victoria was on the throne and the royal family had yet to be rebranded as the House of Windsor.

The Prince and Markle pictured at Kensington Palace in November 2017, just after their involvement was announced. Photograph: Toby Melville/ Reuters


Perhaps a better genre through which to read the complexities of the Meghan-Harry narrative is the romantic comedy. In the best romcoms, attraction is ignited by tension and change. Thwarted too. The characters have to learn something from each other and something about themselves; negotiate across troublesome borders( gender and class privilege, temperament ), and learn to take emotional risks.

For this union, Harry has had to renounce his protected status as a vivaciously shallow party boy whose infractions took the form of booze-fuelled pranks, such as showing up at a friend’s birthday party in a Nazi desert uniform with a swastika armband( the party’s theme was ” colonial and native “), or hosting a game of strip poker in a Las Vegas hotel room. Reformation followed in three stages, each appealing to a different constituency. He served in Afghanistan. He recently confessed to emotional and mental health problems that began soon after his mother’s death: a shutdown of feelings, bouts of rage and nervousnes followed by psychological counselling.

Finally, there came his involvement with Markle. A professional girl, an educated woman, a 36 -year-old divorced American woman, a woman of colour and a feminist whose presence in his life would soon require that he forcefully denounce racism and sexism in the British press( and, I trust, among his more un-woke friends and relations ).” I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches- I’ve always wanted to be a woman who were responsible ,” Markle once said. In show business she worked her route up. She didn’t become a Hollywood superstar; she did become a skilled, well-paid lead in a highly rated Tv series. She had a social conscience, which she acted on. And now, she is more famous and more influential than she was ever likely to be on her own. It remains the way of the world. Does Amal Clooneyhave more resources as a human rights lawyer and philanthropist now that she is married to George Clooney? No doubt.

Whatever we think of her new job requirements, Markle will remain a working woman with a lifetime of public performances ahead. Every word, every gesture, every detail of dress will be scrutinised and read for subtext. The touches of white on her navy J Crew coat? A tribute to the British suffragettes. Bare legs instead of tights for the involvement photos? A subtleflouting of royal dress proscriptions.

Once a woman enters a royal family, every aspect and function of her body becomes a site of proprietary fantasy. The female body as a nation’s procreative destiny: the only real alter through the centuries is that fantasy has replaced realpolitik. For Diana Spencer, that meant her uncle certifying her virgin status in a tabloid newspaper interview shortly after her participation to Charles. As if his niece’s body parts were a bride cost to be flaunted, eliciting leers and cheers .

For Markle, it means media warns that she is 36 years old and shouldn’t wait much longer.” Meghan, Oh Baby! Meghan and Harry Planning a Honeymoon Knock-Up” went one headline. Her former husband, producer Trevor Engelson, is also conjuring imaginary infants. He has announced plans for a Fox comedy:” Divorce is hard ,” goes its pitching.” Sharing custody is harder when an ex-wife marries a British prince. Sharing custody with the British royal family in the unforgiving spotlight of London’s tabloid media is next level .”


” Meghan Markle Looks Gorgeous With Naturally Curly Hair in Childhood .” The published photo was charming, as is the video of her at 11, with a curly frizzy ponytail, scolding the ad industry for its sexism. Many of us used to ask if we’d ever ensure Michelle Obama in an updated version of the afro she wore in her pre-public figure days. Many of us used to answer that the furore it would cause- the afro as proof of the first lady’s secret allegiance to white-hating black activists- probably wasn’t worth the gesture. And since a small dust-up followed Meghan’s recent appearance in a bun with wavy tendrils around her face, it’s hard alas to imagine how anything, including the claim of biographer Andrew Morton that she is a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce, would atone for a full showing of those racially marked curly/ wavy/ frizzy locks.

Markle at her aunt’s marriage. Photograph: Mail on Sunday/ Solo Syndication

But if she never wears her version of a natural, she has already done race history a real service. She has helped scuttle false, foolish constructs of” the mulatto” that were developed a few centuries ago to counter the very real threat that mixed-race people posed to the constructs of white supremacy. To serve popular culture, the female mulatto became a source of social and erotic intrigue, a figure who needed strict narrative policing. Tales , fictions, plays and early films dedicated her two options.

She could be a scheming seductress( ensure Lydia Brown in DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation , the mistress of a gullible white abolitionist played by a panting and grimacing white actress ). Or she could be tragic( as in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon of 1859, and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars of 1900 ), a beautiful, seemingly white girl of faultlessly refined bearing, doomed by the taint of black ancestry. The tragic version attracts the love of a well-born young white man who does not know her secret. She tries- she hopes, she longs- to pass for white, and the ruse works for a period. But, when the innocent gentleman proposes wedding, the plot dictates that her dishonor be disclosed and she must die, by her own hand or from a fatal disease.

Decades of scholarship and memoir have corrected and complicated this narrative, of course. Still it lingers and titillates, a handy tool for condescension, suspicion and breezy sneers. A key topic in these stories is the heroine’s terror that, if she marries her white hero, she might bear a child whose skin colour would disclose the dreaded racial truth. I imagine there’s plenty of spiteful, behind-the-scenes chatter about whether this” touch of the tarbrush” will taint Meghan and Harry’s offspring. Perhaps the “blackamoor” brooch that Princess Michael of Kent was photographed wearing on her way to a royal event with Harry and Meghan was meant to signify such a dread: Meghan as the black ewe tupped by a white ram, who will produce a shamefully black offspring.

And surely the Daily Mail was gesturing towards this when it operated a tale about the ostensibly tawdry origins of Markle and her mom, titled:” Harry’s girl is( virtually) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mom uncovered- so will he be falling by for tea ?” Doria Ragland was cast as” a dreadlocked African American lady from the wrong side of the ways “. One whose career as a yoga instructor and social worker suddenly made her the equivalent of the mulatta’s disreputable mother, who gathers roots and practises hoodoo.

Early rumours had it that Ragland would walk her daughter down the aisle( with her usual dreads, I hoped ). Now it’s reported that Markle’s father will, or that they will share the duty. I vote for Ragland alone. Still, to watch a divorced, interracial couple walk the royal red carpet has its own rewards when, once upon a time only 51 years ago, US law forbid their marriage.

In 2015 Markle wrote an essay for Elle in which she quite eloquently established that she is both biracial and black. She started with the blunt racial slurs of her childhood, which turned, as she grew, into the patronising queries and assumptions favoured by adults who believe themselves liberal. A perfect example was the teacher who told her to fill in ” white” on a census because” that’s how you appear, Meghan “. Intended as a compliment , no doubt. In the essay, she also discussed the institutional racism exposed by the police shootings in Ferguson and Baltimore. She recalled the flurry of racist tweets set off when Wendell Pierce was cast as her African American father on Suits :” Ew, she’s black? I used to think she was hot .” Then, having described both her battles with, and her pride in, being biracial, she ended the essay with a tribute to her black ancestry.

” You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom. Because in 1865( which is so shatteringly recent ), when slavery was abolished in the United Country, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname, to be exact. Perhaps the closest thing to connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my yearn to know where I comes here, and the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He choice the last name Wisdom. He described his own box .” Excellently done, I believed. She’s refusing to let white readers white out her black identity.

When it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality and class, how much can Meghan Markle say and do? How much does she want to say and do? We simply don’t know yet. Like any black and biracial woman, she has had a lifetime of learning to both tackle and dextrously navigate codes that range from the puzzling to the vehemently punitive. Like every actress she’s had to confront misogyny. But she has alternatives that previous generations did not.

The speech she gave at the 2015 UN women’s conference began in rousing, declamatory mode:” I am proud to be a woman and a feminist “; moved to personal narrative( this part grounded in the story of how she organised her campaign against that sexist television ad at age 11 ); then built up to inspirational political exhortation.” It is said that girls with dreams become women with vision. May we empower each other to carry out this vision, because it isn’t enough to simply talk about equality, one must believe in it, and it isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work for it .” May the work recommence once the PS32m wedding is done.

* On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson is published by Granta.

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