We royally wade into the Harry and Meghan discourse
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
It was a game-changer when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepped down as senior members of the royal family. Since then, they continue to be in the tabloids and our culture feeds. They've given interviews, secured lucrative multimedia deals and launched several personal projects. Harry recently published the highly anticipated memoir "Spare." And they've done it all while bringing long-overdue conversations about race in the royal family's legacy to the forefront. So how exactly do we process all of this? I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about Harry and Meghan on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining me today is Soraya Nadia McDonald, senior culture critic for Andscape. Welcome back, Soraya.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Hello. Hello.
HARRIS: Also with us is podcast producer and film and culture critic Cate Young. Welcome back to you, too, Cate.
CATE YOUNG: Hi again.
HARRIS: And rounding out the panel is Kristen Meinzer. She's the co-host of the podcast "Movie Therapy With Rafer And Kristen" and "The Royal Report" from Newsweek. Welcome back to you, too, Kristen.
KRISTEN MEINZER: Thanks for having me back.
HARRIS: Yes, we've got a great crew lined up for this conversation here. I'm excited. So for the blissfully unaware, some quick background on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle - they met in 2016, were married two years later. And at the beginning of 2020, they announced they'd be stepping back from official duties with the royal family and working to become, quote, "financially independent." They've retained their titles as Duke and Duchess of Sussex but are no longer addressed as His and Her Royal Highness. Now, eventually they moved to California and have since launched several projects. There's the nonprofit organization Archewell. There's a multimillion dollar deal with Spotify that includes Meghan's celebrity podcast "Archetypes." There's also a lucrative Netflix deal, which includes the six-part docuseries titled "Harry & Meghan" that was released in December. And at the beginning of this year, Harry dropped his tell-all memoir "Spare."
Now, they've also been outspoken about their mistreatment by the press and by certain members on both sides of their families. In particular, they discussed how Meghan, who is biracial, has been targeted for harassment based on her Black heritage and the rifts it's caused within the royal family. All of this has culminated in a Harry and Meghan overload, so we figured we'd do a temperature check just to see how we're feeling about the couple and their effects on the monarchy.
So, Cate, let's start with you. How are you feeling about Harry and Meghan?
YOUNG: So in general, I'm a pretty big fan. I think, like, I am one of the five people who was very familiar with Meghan Markle before she became Harry's girlfriend because "Suits" is great. You should watch it. I think over the last few years, I'm definitely starting to kind of see or at least understand why people are feeling a little burnt out on them. Their grievances are valid.
I'm starting to get a little frustrated with their apparent lack of any real self-reflection in their place within this institution because I think that with Harry specifically, there seems to be an inability to recognize that it's not just about, like, family members being mean. Like, there is historical harm that's being perpetuated by the existence of the royal family that he can't seem to quite get to. Like, he just wants them to be nice to him. But I don't think that he seems to understand that part of the reason they can't be nice to him is because they have to continue upholding this humble institution. Those two things will never be able to be fully reconciled. And I think until the two of them really understand that, we're just going to keep fighting it out in the press.
HARRIS: Great points. I don't disagree at all. Soraya, how about you? Where do you come down on them right now?
MCDONALD: You know, for the most part, I would say I feel like I have a great deal of compassion for Harry, particularly after listening to the audiobook of "Spare." What I hear and what I see is a man who is really struggling. You can see that he has not necessarily made that connection between sort of the brokenness of the institution and the brokenness of his family. One thing that I keep sort of coming back to in my mind that I think people forget is that neither of these people are intellectuals.
HARRIS: That's a kind way of putting it. Yes (laughter).
MCDONALD: Like, you know what I'm saying? And I - like, I really - I'm not saying that - I don't mean to say that to be sort of insulting...
MCDONALD: ...Or shady. It's just I think actually there's something very sort of typical American almost about Harry and Meghan in that way. You know, not everybody is reading critical race theory. Not everybody is reading Kimberle Crenshaw. Not every - you know, like...
MCDONALD: Despite the fact that they are not necessarily professional historians and that you've basically got Harry being brought up being taught a history that I think is very sort of straightforward - and this person was related to this person, and this person, you know, died at this battle or whatever. You know, he talks about this in the first section of the book about how, you know, he's expected to learn and know all these things. And then when he goes away to Eton and, you know, he has a teacher who asks - you know, because he's expected to know about, you know, random history of bygone kings and queens, and he doesn't know (laughter). You know what I'm saying? He is a C student.
MCDONALD: You know what I mean? Like...
YOUNG: Yes. Yeah.
MCDONALD: He just is. And so, you know, I think, you know, you can see he's - this is a man who's been sort of deeply heartbroken by the loss of his mother. You know, I kind of just want to give him a hug. And the people who are left are directly in line for the throne and don't have any interest but also don't seem to understand how it's both eating both of them up alive and also how it's creating these really deep fissures in relationships to the point that, when Charles is telling his son that his mother has died, he doesn't even hug him.
MCDONALD: He's working through a lot.
HARRIS: Yeah, there's a lot going on there.
HARRIS: And yeah, I can understand the sort of - I definitely think putting all of that into context is very important to do and to offer a little bit of grace. But I feel like our limitations are probably being tested at this point.
HARRIS: Kristen, I'm curious, where do you stand in this as our sort of royal expert here?
MEINZER: Yeah, I mean, you're not the only person I've heard this from, Aisha, of, oh, my gosh, my patience is being tested. It's just too much Meghan. It's too much Harry. But I understand why. To, you know, second everything that Soraya was saying here, like, he's gone through a lot, OK? And in his book, he makes clear that the tabloid press is responsible for a lot of his pain - sitting in the car with his mother while his mother sobbed while they were being chased down by paparazzi, every single romantic relationship being obstructed by paparazzi, having - his first time having sex, the fear afterward that, oh, my gosh, was somebody actually photographing me while I was doing this? The more overt, more recent things with how they treated Meghan, and it was not subtle - the racism there - that she was almost straight out of Compton, along with all of the chasing down, along with the continued invasions of privacy. He wanted to make sure every single bit of information was out there, in his words, because he didn't want anybody else to leak a story again and to frame it the way they wanted to frame it, which was usually in an inflammatory, upsetting way.
So - and I also just want to add one thing here. For everybody who is upset about Harry and Meghan, I think they're forgetting that a lot of the public was also exhausted by Charles and Diana at the time when they were airing their dirty laundry. I think a lot of us forget the memory that it wasn't just, you know, the stories that each of their offices was leaking to the press. But Charles himself had a tell-all book with Jonathan Dimbledy (ph) that he co-wrote. He had a nighttime, primetime special with Dimbledy where he told all, also. And he was doing it. Diana was doing it. This is part of the family's history of trying to frame their own stories in the face of a very exploitative press.
MCDONALD: I think the other thing that's worth remembering - really quickly - is just the depths of the hounding and the stalking and the harassment. You know, I think we all have some familiarity, certainly, you know, with how nasty people can be as women of color just existing on the internet, right?
MCDONALD: It's a hide that you build up over the course of a career. You know, it's not just that, oh, they made her feel bad, or, you know, she's worried that people don't like her. They hounded this woman until she had a miscarriage. And then there was just sort of this blithe disregard, contempt, you know, indifference to the depths of what she was going through and how it was not just having this clearly detrimental effect on her mental health but that it was affecting her physical health, too, to the point that she - you know, she couldn't carry a pregnancy to term. That's not nothing.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I take all of that. So I haven't read "Spare," but I did watch the six hours that did not need to be six hours of Harry and Meghan.
HARRIS: So much of that was already put in the Oprah interview.
HARRIS: I was like, why are we doing this? But so my thing is, is I want to sort of tease out the - especially the racial aspect of this all because I think what I'm seeing with the sort of fatigue with all of this at this point - they're kind of wrestling with this but not going as far as we think they should in the public eye. And so it's like they keep doing these interviews. They keep releasing all of these new things, and then when they do, it's like they're just kind of repeating the same stuff over and over again.
HARRIS: Like, I didn't realize I was Black until - that's not exactly what she said, but she's like, I wasn't treated as a Black person until I was with Harry. You know, and it's like, OK, that's fine. I feel like I've always been wary of this. But there's this sense that there's this limitation to what they're - what they represent at this point. And I feel it seems very similar to Obama in this sort of, like, way in which we were all very, very happy about Obama and thought things were going to change and that this was like a bellwether. And we were not, like, playing into that post-racial society thing. But I think a lot of us also still thought he might enact some better laws, or he might be able to do some things, like, get some things going. And then we realized, well, he's still working within the establishment.
MCDONALD: He's one dude.
HARRIS: He's one dude. And also, like, he is in many ways not just within it, but he is part of it in many ways. He's the older Black man who has certain ways...
HARRIS: ...Of going about things. And Meghan is the same way, where she is a symbol, yes. The fact that she is Black, at the same time, it's like, OK, but she's a Black woman who didn't really identify as Black to some extent. Her social circle did not seem to be completely, you know, like, connected to Black - other Black people. All the people in the docuseries, for the most part, who are commenting are not Black, who are considered her friends. Serena Williams is the only Black woman, I think, who is, like, speaking as her friend. And you have to wonder, it's like, OK - there's a moment where Serena Williams is talking about the wedding. They're talking about the gospel choir and how radical that is that they had a gospel choir at the wedding. Serena Williams says, like, it's great to have her culture represented. And I'm like, wait, so was she part of a Black church?
And I'm not here to, like, question her Blackness. But I am trying to say, especially as someone who herself grew up with very few Black friends for reasons that I don't need - I will not get into, but, like, I understand where she's coming from to some extent. But at the same time, at some point you have to sort of, like, grow beyond that. And I wonder, you know, does their break from the royal duties and all that stuff - does that feel as radical as maybe we thought it did before or just merely symbolic?
YOUNG: I think one of the things that I keep coming back to is that I'm not quite sure what it is that they're fighting for. To me, that applies not just to the two of them but also to the royal family who remains part of the institution. Because by all accounts, their lives are miserable. They have very little agency. They don't have the option to freely opt out of these responsibilities. They are pitted against each other as a means to maintain their favor with the public. Like, it sounds like a miserable existence. While on the one hand, I understand why Harry and Meghan's instinct is to say, like, this is untenable. We cannot continue. Like, we want to go. Then go. That is a reasonable response to everything that they've been through and everything that they've been put through. But I also think that their insistence on retreading the harms that they experienced in that institution only serves to indicate to me that their problem is not in fact with the institution itself but their position within it.
MCDONALD: Yes, exactly.
YOUNG: And I think it treated her worse because she's Black. But it's not like it's great for anyone else either. I think the central tension that Harry has with his family is that he wants not necessarily to leave the institution, but he wants them to be a family. Like, I keep coming back to the fact that Meghan was surprised that the formalities extend into their private lives because to me, that's a reasonable assumption to make, that, like, this would be a public facade and not - when you're in your own home, you'd be a family. And I think the real issue that Harry has is that he has co-workers...
MEINZER: Yeah, yeah.
YOUNG: ...Essentially. They only have as much loyalty to him as co-workers would have to each other. I understand that because I would not have survived it, not even going to lie. But I also think that it indicates to me then that, like, you can't both want to change the institution and leave the institution. Like, if you're going, then go. If you want to change it, then change it. I don't think that he fully understands that he's asking to have things both ways because I don't think that he understands that the things that he's asking for are fundamentally incompatible with each other.
MCDONALD: Yeah. They absolutely are.
YOUNG: Yeah. I'm not upset that he's having trouble with that because I think that it is a difficult thing to reconcile. Like, these are people who are literally related to him by blood. Like, that's their whole deal.
MCDONALD: And I think the thing is - the thing that you hit on - right? - and I think the thing that we have to remember is that that distance - right? - that coldness, that dysfunction that is so obvious to us, that is an entire culture. It is wrapped up in many people's identity of what it means to be British.
MCDONALD: You know, he's literally, like, a tea bag. He has been steeped in, like, hundreds and hundreds of years' worth of colonialist, imperialist, divinely-ordained [expletive]. It's funny because I think what we're sort of demanding of them is a conclusion and an ending, so they can just sort of, like, go away and, like, do whatever it is they're going to do. They're clearly - they're still in the middle of it. You know what I'm saying?
MEINZER: Well, in fairness, they did when they wanted to step back. They never wanted to disappear. They said they kind of wanted to be half in, half out, right? And that wasn't something they were allowed to do. You're either all in or all out. You can't be half in, half out. And I understand why they wanted to be half in, half out, though. And they wouldn't have been the first members of the family to do that. Edward and Sophie, when they first got married, were half in, half out. So I don't think it was a terrible thing for them to ask for, to still make their own money to pay their own bills but still not live 24/7 for this institution, but maybe just work 9 to 5 for them. Like, I think that was a fair thing to ask for. Of course, the press named it Megxit (ph) because they have to always blame Meghan for everything. But it was really something that he spearheaded, that he wanted to do and that he wanted to do part-time. And I think that's totally fair.
HARRIS: Yeah, I guess my other - the idea of them wanting to be half in, half out, it's like, that to me is part of the problem. It's like, Harry, I get it. I'm going to give him a little leeway because he knows nothing else. But if I'm Meghan or if I'm someone from the outside and I still want to participate in all of this, even if it's halfway and trying to do it your own way, like, I think that's a starting point where you're - will you ever get to the point where you actually say you're like a Ruby Dee and do the right thing and, like, burn it all down? I don't think they're ever going to get to that point. And...
YOUNG: He's not.
HARRIS: ...They have not shown in anything that they've released recently they are like, this all needs to be dismantled. And then what does that even look like? I don't know.
MEINZER: No, Harry said the opposite of that. He has yet to - he still backs up the monarchy. He has said that.
HARRIS: Right. Yes, yes.
MCDONALD: But I don't think that's necessarily going to be that way forever. I say, give him five years living in America.
YOUNG: I honestly don't think it will happen because I think that - as you were saying, Soraya - like, this is very deeply held stuff for them. I think that he is able to recognize, like, how especially unfair it is for Meghan because of race and because he tried to go to the family, and they're like, well, we have to deal with it. And they were right to an extent. Like, they were all pounded by the press. And I think the one thing that he has done right is to kind of delineate the way in which the British tabloids have this very strong stranglehold, essentially, on both the public and the royal family. And I think part of the reason that he cannot get what he wants from that family is because of the way the press operates.
Like, if they were all to come together and have one press house and stand together and whatever, like, the press would just make it so that they become irrelevant. Pitting them against each other is how they are able to perpetuate both their business interests and also the monarchy itself. The frustration that I have with Harry and Meghan is that it's a lot of the blind leading the blind. They have - they both have, like, a very surface-level understanding of the fact that, like, this is bad, but they don't have the deeper analysis of why it's bad.
YOUNG: I don't think that they really fully understand the wider racial implications of this, right? Like, I think people have said this multiple times that, like, by letting Meghan go, they really lost this PR opportunity to kind of shore up their relevance within the Commonwealth, which I think is true from their perspective. The thing is that that's the problem.
MCDONALD: The problem is that the whole thing is built on white supremacy.
HARRIS: Right, right. Yes.
HARRIS: Thank you.
YOUNG: The perpetuation of the Commonwealth, as someone from a Commonwealth country, is - it's bad. The whole point of this is supposed to be that, like, you know, Mummy England or whatever, like, comes to our aid, helps us, is part of this global community that can come together. But, like, when we have - we're dealing with climate change and we're having, you know, several hurricanes a season, like, we don't see them. This institution itself is the problem. And I don't think that they understand that. All they can see is how it has harmed them. And I understand that because they are deep in it. But I think that they are not quite getting to the next step of, like, actually...
YOUNG: ...All of this is bad, and, like, we shouldn't be perpetuating it at all. And, like, it all needs to go.
MCDONALD: But, you know, like, there has to be a person who is going to say that to them, right? Like, they have to have that person in their circle. And this is actually where I think, like, Liz...
HARRIS: Liz Garbus.
MCDONALD: ...Like, is very valuable as the director of that series because she has a great deal of, like, face-to-face time with these two and with Doria, etc., etc. But she does a very good job of sort of laying out and contextualizing a history of the monarchy and what's sort of upholding it and the barbarism that has been done in its name, whether it's in Kenya, whether it's in India, - I mean, really, wherever the sun shines, basically, right? And that's a start, right? She's one.
HARRIS: It's a start.
MCDONALD: The thing that gives me hope - right? - because they are famous - that, like, think of their sort of social network of people. Hopefully, you know, like, somewhere down the line, they will be at a dinner party with some actual, you know, American historians. Maybe one day Meghan and Nikole Hannah-Jones will cross paths, you know? Like, you never know where, I think, life can take you and the sort of conversations that you can have with a person that challenge you.
HARRIS: I think you're very optimistic about that because I feel like that...
MCDONALD: I am. But no, no, wait. Hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on. Let me finish. Because the thing is, like, out of all of those people, the one who is actually, I think, the most open to that is Harry. Like, when he talks about his ex-girlfriends, and he's always, basically, sort of seeking out these women who are - who don't have the sort of, like, rose-colored view of the institution and the monarchy, right? Like, I realize that I'm being optimistic, but I also want to acknowledge the significance of something like coincidence and luck.
YOUNG: I'm optimistic, too, because I do think that I see in my own life how I've made, like, two steps forward, one step back. I absolutely can look back at things I have thought five years ago and think, my God, I was backwards. I'm embarrassed for that thing that I thought back then. And I hope that all of us, throughout life, do that because it shows we're making progress, and we're...
YOUNG: ...Hopefully becoming more enlightened. I feel like what I see from Harry is he does that, too. You see him making two steps forward, one step back, and, you know, greenlighting what Liz Garbus included in "Harry & Meghan," the documentary, about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade - all of that stuff was really important. And I thought, oh, that's two steps forward. And then he says what he does about Ngozi Fulani and about Lady Susan Hussey. For anybody who's not familiar with that, Lady Susan Hussey was a lady-in-waiting for the Queen. And within the last few months, there was an official event where the founder of a major nonprofit, Ngozi Fulani, was receiving an award. Lady Susan Hussey didn't just congratulate her, but essentially, you know, grilled her. Where are you really from? No, where are you really from? No, no, where are you from? And I'm sure...
MCDONALD: Where are your people from?
YOUNG: Yes. This is something that I have had to deal with.
YOUNG: And I totally understand why, after that happened, Ngozi Fulani talked about it publicly - about how this - receiving this national award was so sullied by that. And Harry, in his interview on ITV, I believe, he said the press overreacted to that. Meghan and I both love Lady Susan Hussey.
YOUNG: And to me, that was, like...
MCDONALD: Oh, Harry.
HARRIS: And - yeah.
MCDONALD: What are you doing, honey?
YOUNG: What are you doing, Harry? You made two steps forward, and that is a huge step back. That is saying, essentially, like, I'm upset by racism when it affects Meghan, but I'm not upset by racism when it affects somebody else - is kind of how it felt in that moment.
HARRIS: I just think that the four of us and many of the people we know - we definitely are still growing, still changing, still learning. But we're not celebrities. And the curtain of celebrity is very, very different. When your friends are, you know, Tyler Perry and Serena Williams and - look, who have done great things and who - well, Tyler Perry has done great things not on screen - not on screen.
MEINZER: Tyler Perry has done many things.
MCDONALD: That's another episode, Aisha.
HARRIS: But, you know, I mean, that's great. But, like, there is - they live in a very different - they live in a shrine, and they live in...
HARRIS: ...Or not a shrine, but, like, a gilded house or whatever - mansion.
YOUNG: A bubble.
HARRIS: And the intellectual conversation, just like Soraya was mentioning - those things aren't necessarily penetrating, like, that wall.
MCDONALD: But the thing is is that, like, Hollywood is still, like, small. You have these movies or this whatever that you talk about with your friends in the same way that everybody else does because that's what pop culture does. And, you know, I hold out hope that, you know, maybe they see "Slave Play" or maybe that, like, Meghan just ends up somehow becoming friends with Jeremy O. Harris. The way we exist, you know, in America is still so heavily shaped by just regular, old plantation dynamics.
MCDONALD: I hope that they are willing to open themselves up to legitimate criticism as opposed to the sort of Murdochian, we're just making things up to just torture these people. And the thing that I hold out hope for that may be the catalyst to do that, if anything will, if it's not, you know, because she ends up meeting, you know, some famous Black feminist and ends up, like, creating this, like, unexpected friendship with, like, Angela Davis or somebody.
HARRIS: It just feels like fanfic now, but I, like...
MCDONALD: But I'm saying - look, look, look, look, look. I'm saying, like, if that doesn't happen, at the very least, I hope that there is art that reaches them that inspires the sort of introspection about the monarchy as an institution that we deeply want them to have, even if we are skeptical that they'll ever get there.
YOUNG: I think what I really want from them - or from Harry specifically - is to really sit and interrogate his place within the institution and specifically his mother's place within the institution. I think by the time Diana left, she was very clear that she was trying to bring things down. But that's a lot easier to do when it's not your birthright, right? She married into that. She didn't have to stay if she didn't want to. Harry is a product of that institution. And I think that the biggest indicator that he is still tied up in that is his continued insistence that he wants to repair things with his family and to reconcile while airing all of their dirty laundry. Like, I have no particular sympathy for the royal family. But, like, some of the stuff in that book - you can't just throw a bomb into the dynamics of your family and assume that things will just be all right because you did it with good intention. And I'm not saying that he should have been silent because I think a lot of the stuff did need to be aired. But you need to recognize then that that's your parting farewell because you don't get to then insist that, because you were right, they should forgive you. That's not how that works. That's not how human behavior works.
MEINZER: Because they'll never be 100% separated from the institution. Let us not forget, Prince Harry doesn't even have a last name because he is...
MEINZER: ...So much a part of the institution. Even if they completely distance themselves from the institution, they'll still be, by default, seen as part of the institution. And I hope they use that position to continually not just educate us, but educate themselves. But I'm hopeful that they can do better. And I do just want to go back to - can you remedy the pain with your family? Can you build bridges with your family while still dropping a bomb on them - while still doing a tell-all and so on? I think that it is possible - not immediately, but eventually. Because Charles did that, too, with his tell-all back in the '90s, and he still was able to remedy things to a certain extent with his mother. And Camilla has dropped bombs over and over and over again. Her press secretary is a former editor at the Daily Mail/Mail On Sunday - the same Mail that is involved in a lawsuit with Meghan right now.
MEINZER: I don't want them just to be Kardashians. I want them to be more than that. And they have the position where they can be more than that.
MEINZER: So I hope they take advantage of that position. I really do.
HARRIS: That's, like, the one good thing that's come out of this is that, for some people, hopefully this has sort of put the crack in the facade of the monarchy and the press and made it - like, made it very clear that this is not something worth worshipping. And if that's - even if that - even if it's just a handful of people across the world who didn't already feel that way or who have that enlightenment, that's good enough for me. One can only hope.
So, we could talk about this for many, many more hours, but we want to know what you think about Harry and Meghan. I'm sure everyone has a lot of thoughts, just like we did. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Kristen Meinzer, Cate Young, Soraya Nadia McDonald, thank you so much for being here. This was very fun. I am so happy we did this.
MEINZER: Thanks for having us.
YOUNG: Thank you.
MCDONALD: This was fun.
HARRIS: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio Engineering was performed by Patrick Murray. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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