The day Charles and Diana got married in 1981, my mother looked down at my sleep-disheveled form on the couch and said, “Your grandfather would be spinning in his grave if he knew you were watching this.”
Back in Ireland a hundred or so years ago, my grandfather had worked for exploitative businesses owned by English aristocrats, and he’d had nasty run-ins with the King’s law-enforcement minions too. His opinion of rich Brits was low, to put it mildly. How could I be so royal-mad then — and now? Why will I get up early on May 19 to watch Meghan Markle tie the knot with Prince Harry?
There are a few reasons, and one of them is that I’m a sucker for pomp, pageantry and gorgeous gowns. Saturday is basically the Emmys with golden trumpets and gilded carriages and no Ryan Seacrest. Add to that the fact that Meghan and Harry give every indication of being really and truly in love, and honestly, what’s not to like?
I’ll also be watching, in part, because I’ve seen every episode of Suits. (I’ll admit to a fantasy of being tapped as Queen Elizabeth’s Suits tutor, a task I’d happily volunteer for).
Rachel Zane was a supporting character — the core journey was not hers — but Markle brought passionate craft and lively charisma to her role. Rachel’s quest to be more than a paralegal and to exceed the high expectations of her accomplished family was as compelling as her desire to retain her moral center among a crew of New York legal sharks so intent on closing deals that the morality of their actions was sometimes (often?) a secondary concern. The ethics of many Suits characters have been painted in various shades of gray — and to be clear, that’s not a bad thing. But Rachel always stood for something — several things, actually: a quest for fairness, a capacity for hard work, an affinity for compassion and truthfulness, and the desire to find an emotional balance in life and on the job.
Her new gig may well feature the same agenda, but on a much, much bigger stage.
Now, I’m fully able to analyze and ponder the aspects of the British royal family that don’t exactly square with my brand of feminism. The most high-profile women in the family must look a certain way — adherence to traditional standards of beauty and the maintenance of a certain conventional body type is rigidly enforced. And not just by hidebound royal tradition, but by society at large and by the media, which dissects everything worn by Princess Kate and Markle (who is reportedly soon to be a Duchess).
Those tabloid pictures of a celebrity running to the grocery store or pumping gas? With occasional exceptions, for royal women, those displays of being a normal, sloppy human being are not allowed. Think I’m exaggerating? The press made a giant fuss over one gray hair that was spotted on Markle’s head a few weeks ago. The House of Windsor also imposes its own set of respectability-minded restrictions on what royal women can and can’t say, do and wear. They’re generally seen and not often heard. All things considered, the expectations for these women are ridiculous, but part of the reason we royal-watchers can’t look away is because that situation echoes the plight of all women.
This conundrum — being in the middle of a system that is likely to trip you up or hold you down, no matter how hard you try and no matter what strategies you employ — is a big part of what propels avid interest in The Crown. Even with all her advantages and her lofty status, the Queen of England is depicted in the Netflix series as a woman trapped in a very elaborate prison. It’s a jail with corgis, endless footmen and priceless antiques, but still. It often looks suffocating.
The series is an awards magnet partly due to the fantastic work of its cast, but half the fascination with The Crown derives from watching a woman who appears to have it all battle with her own self-doubt, impossible expectations and the insidious, often unfriendly scheming of those around her. For two seasons, Claire Foy brilliantly portrayed a woman coming to terms with the limits of her position and beginning to understand that some obstacles in her path were simply never going to move. She’d have to learn how to navigate around them, or chip away at them ever so patiently, even as everyone waited for her to make the tiniest mistake.
Most women in the world know the feeling. Women without resources and connections, and women of color and LGBTQ women in particular, have it far, far worse than the owner of multiple palaces, of course. But most female viewers, no matter who they are, can identify with the sheer mental exhaustion of Foy’s character — a weariness she could not let most people see, of course. And the Queen’s dilemmas are not in the past; they’re still highly relevant in a world with too few female leaders, shotcallers and executives.
Many days it can be hard to think that things are getting better for those who identify as female, especially as the many waves of the #MeToo movement expose abuses of power in every single industry and walk of life. But in some ways — small but symbolic — the progress of the royal women reflects some grudging but undeniable evolutions in the world. I might never get over Princess Margaret’s ill-fated affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend (just FedEx the Emmy to Vanessa Kirby now). She was denied love for reasons that seem quaint and preposterous and was more or less commanded to be ornamental and silent. Even Diana was treated as a pariah by various courtiers, press commentators and aristocrats, despite the fact that she almost single-handedly dragged the clan into the 20th Century and brought it to new levels of popularity.
Things are changing, though. Kate’s family is plenty rich, but she was also a commoner, and the royal family wisely broke with past protocol so that William could follow his heart and marry a woman who gives every indication of being one of the most level-headed women in the U.K. And now Harry is marrying for love as well. He’s planning a future with a woman who is older than him, who had a thriving career of her own, who is divorced and who is African-American.
These things were unimaginable in the year that I watched Charles and Diana get hitched. A woman who is biracial — Markle’s mother is African-American and her father is white — having the world stage, not just on Saturday but for decades to come, is hugely important. When Kerry Washington took TV by storm as Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal, it had been four decades since a black actress starred in an American TV series. The royal family has not had a person of color in its top ranks since … forever. Representation matters, in all realms, royal and otherwise.
And a word of advice: Those who dismiss Markle as a “mere actress” are not just condescending but deeply unwise. First of all, succeeding as a working TV actress is very difficult and requires an intense amount of psychological and even physical stamina. And don’t forget that Markle attended Northwestern University, where she double majored in international relations and theater. She’s very smart.
That intelligence was on display four years ago, when I moderated a panel at N.U. featuring Markle and fellow Suits star Rick Hoffman. For more than an hour, both took questions from the students in the audience, and for me, it was truly one of the most enjoyable nights of the year.
Markle’s reflections on the decade that took her from Northwestern graduate to successful actor and charity activist were thoughtful, funny and gracious. No matter how serious or slight the questions from the students, she was quick on her feet and witty, but her answers were also considered and heartfelt. She struck me as a woman who did not take a bit of her good fortune for granted, and she effortlessly charmed every person in the room.
Being a royal is, to some extent, a performance. But Ihave no doubt that Markle will infuse her royal role with the intelligence, savvy and heart she has brought to everything else she’s done. Regardless of what the future holds, supporting performances are a thing of the past for her. On Saturday, I’ll take great pleasure in watching Markle take center stage — and I’m betting she’ll know exactly what to do with it.
Maureen Ryan is a journalist and TV critic who has written for The New York Times, Huffington Post and Variety.