I have some sympathy with the resentment felt by many towards Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Giving lectures about the threat posed by climate change while owning a highly polluting Cadillac, for example, is bound to get a lot of people’s backs up. But the undeniable shortcomings of the Royal couple are not what I want to discuss. Instead, I want to examine the obsession the British media has with comparisons between the Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle) and the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton).
Meghan Vs Kate
There have been examples of tabloids not directly comparing the two women, but treating them differently nonetheless.. For example, the Daily Express praised Kate for her wedding bouquet, which they described as ‘effortlessly elegant and understated’. They later criticised Meghan for having the exact same bouquet at her wedding because apparently, lily of the valley is poisonous they claimed and could have endangered Princess Charlotte. Another example of the press treating the two differently is when Kate was pictured cradling her baby bump and the Daily Mail was quick to comment on this in a complementary way. But when Meghan was snapped doing the same thing, the Mail accused her of vanity!
There are also examples of Meghan and Kate being compared directly. On Question Time, Melanie Phillips suggested that Meghan would get less grief from the tabloids if she behaved ‘more like the Duchess of Cambridge’. Furthermore, in 2017 an article appeared in The Sun titled ‘Not a Dupli-Kate: Seven reasons why Meghan Markle is nothing like Kate Middleton … from relationship history to fashion sense’. The article draws attention to the fact that Kate ‘didn’t date much’ before meeting William, whereas Meghan had a ‘string of relationships’ before meeting Harry. It also says that Kate’s fashion sense ‘oozes sophistication’, whereas Meghan is often seen in ‘casual attire’. One purpose of this article is clearly to portray Kate as restrained and sophisticated, and Meghan as the wild American bohemian.
Why the mean treatment?
It’s been denied, but I suspect the reason for this negative press as regards Meghan is partially down to three things: racism, the fact that she is a foreigner (or American) and that she was an actress. But none of this answers the question as to why the media feels compelled to compare and contrast them with each other. Why not, for instance, compare Meghan with Prince Philip? Why do they attack this newcomer equally if not more, as they do the disgraced Prince Andrew?
The answer is more than just ‘sexism’. It is about the ‘right’ kind of woman vs the ‘wrong’ kind of woman. Kate is seen as a reassuring, reliable emblem of womanhood who does what is expected of her and who wasn’t in the spotlight before becoming a Royal. Meghan on the other hand, is seen as an opinionated woman who dared to have a life and a past before becoming the wife of a Prince. She was even described as having ‘exotic DNA’, suggesting that because she is mixed-race, she should be seen as ‘other’ and therefore untrustworthy.
The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’ woman
This phenomenon of the ‘good woman’ vs the ‘bad woman’ has been played out in society and culture for centuries. In The Mad Woman in the Attic, (the name of the book is a reference to Bertha, in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe how, in nineteenth-century novels written by women, the female characters were either an ‘angel’ or a ‘monster’. But this, they argue, is a false dichotomy, which reflected the prejudices and stereotypes that existed in relation to women at the time these novels were written. Women are complex and dynamic, just like men, and are neither merely ‘angelic’ nor solely ‘mad’ or ‘dangerous’. These are convenient profiles, but nothing more.
The fact that this phenomenon can be observed in nineteenth-century literature goes to show how old and ingrained the instinct to compare women and pit them against each other is. It is also interesting that, whereas the authors explored by Gilbert and Gubar were expressing the sexist nature of their societies in the form of fiction, Meghan and Kate have, in a way, been turned into fictional characters by the tabloid press. This tendency often treads a fine line between news and entertainment, particularly where the Royal Family are concerned. They cannot escape from the characters which they have been cast as.
The fact that both the media and society are so keen to pigeon-hole women as either ‘angelic’ or ‘wicked’, makes other things less surprising. One of them is the frequency with which female politicians are cast in a negative light (ambition and success are positive qualities in a man, but no-noes in a woman). And so, Jess Phillips is ‘gobby’ and a ‘show-off’, Priti Patel is a ‘witch’ who ‘smirks’ and Diane Abbott is ‘dopy’. The greatest complement a female politician can probably expect to be paid is to be described as ‘head-mistressy’, as Amber Rudd was. Women in politics are viewed either as unpleasant, or simply not up to the job.
Alas, while men are seen as individuals, women are still always placed into set categories.