This is not to be dismissive of Markle’s intentions or the message of the issue: Increasing the visibility of women of color is a social good by itself, and under Enninful, Vogue has consistently challenged the racism of the fashion industry. But there are sharp limits on the activism of royals. Her father-in-law, Prince Charles, has always struggled to replicate the queen’s studied political neutrality. In 2005, he sued the Mail on Sunday for publishing private diaries about the handover of Hong Kong nine years earlier, in which he called Chinese officials “appalling old waxworks.” In 2015, the “black spider memos”—named for his distinctive handwriting—revealed that he had privately lobbied ministers on everything from architecture to countryside policy. The government fought hard through the courts to keep the letters private.
In light of this experience, the younger royals are wary about anything that could be seen as criticizing individuals or specific political parties. One of their major causes is mental health, where they stay safely away from making policy demands. Prince Harry has bravely spoken about undergoing counseling to deal with the death of his mother, but the charity he and his brother support, Heads Together, focuses on “changing the conversation” and “reducing the stigma.” It cannot, say, criticize the lack of government funding for mental-health services.
Read: What Meghan Markle means for the royal family
For her Vogue issue, Markle has included a poem by the mental-health campaigner and author Matt Haig, titled “A Note From the Beach,” calling it a “personal favourite.” There will be superficial shock at its use of swear words—“I am a beach / I literally don’t give a fuck. / I am entirely indifferent to your body mass index”—but again, it focuses on mental health as a personal, rather than political, issue. Prince Harry’s interview with Goodall mentions the way “unconscious bias” leads to racism, but cannot address the ways in which racism has been encoded into law and policy, or used by politicians as an electoral tool.
All of this adds up to a form of activism in which there are problems, but no villains. Markle can talk about marginalized women who struggle to find clothes for job interviews—and the charity SmartWorks, which she supports—but she cannot address the causes of poverty. The cookbook she oversaw to help victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, in which 72 Londoners died, can raise money for those affected. But there is a tacit agreement not to engage with discussions about the inadequate cladding on the apartment building, overseen by the local council, which made the fire so lethal.
As a royal, Markle is particularly constrained in what she can say. Other activists make the same bargain of defanging their criticisms to avoid causing upset for less compelling reasons. Identifying general problems—old-fashioned consciousness-raising—is worthwhile and helpful. But it isn’t the same as solving them. That requires politics, which is messy and divisive.
Too often, feminism—even when not championed by a beautiful, wealthy aristocrat—gets stuck in this toothless, villain-free zone. It is easy to champion diversity and urge girls to aim higher, but awkward to bring up the lack of state investment in child care and, well, the small matter of the class system.
So long live Meghan, the Woke Duchess, who is doing her bit—just don’t look to her for salvation.