Meghan and Harry Go to War

The Oprah interview proved that the duchess won’t be silenced.

British flag and Meghan Markle
Anwar Hussein / Getty / The Atlantic

After the trial separation, here comes the messy divorce. And a vital question: Who gets custody of the narrative?

It has been less than a month since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle finalized their split from the British Royal Family, renouncing their patronages and honorary appointments as well as their income. The fallout between the couple and Buckingham Palace has been painful and public. “There is a lot that has been lost already,” Meghan told Oprah Winfrey in a two-hour interview broadcast last night on CBS—her relationship with her father, the baby she miscarried last year, even her surname. Halfway through, she compared herself to the Little Mermaid, who falls in love with a prince and loses her voice.

But who is to blame? Meghan’s version goes like this: The Queen was lovely, but the wider institution of the monarchy—known colloquially as “The Firm” or “The Palace”—failed to help her as she was ripped apart by the British press. Worse, she sometimes felt that courtiers were actively working against her. An incident in which Meghan was accused of making her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, cry over a bridesmaid’s dress was, she said, reported in the press the wrong way around. Kate made her cry, but then apologized, and all was forgiven. But the Palace wouldn’t go on the record with a correction. “They were willing to lie to protect other members of the family,” Meghan said, “but they weren’t willing to tell the truth to protect me and my husband.” The Palace refused to give her son, Archie, a title and a security detail—and there were some “concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be.” The mix of racism, isolation, and intrusion she endured drove Meghan to suicidal thoughts.

The royal narrative is that the Windsors receive millions from British taxpayers, and fulfill a public role. They can’t limit access to their lives to sympathetic listeners like Oprah. They must be accountable. Playing by those rules, you’d be mad to contest every false rumor printed about you, and declaring war on the press is counterproductive. Far better to keep your head down and let your work speak for itself. Can you see the difference in the two views? Members of the Royal Family accept a level of scrutiny and partisan attack usually directed at politicians. Meghan and Harry want to be treated like celebrities.

The portrait the couple painted of the Royal Family was an unflattering one: a dysfunctional, outdated institution, cowed by the tabloids, oblivious to racism. After the couple decided to “step back” from royal life, Harry told Oprah, his father—the heir to the throne, Prince Charles—stopped taking his calls and asked for his plans in writing instead. This was the first time in the interview that the vague references to “The Firm,” “the institution,” and “palace staff members” resolved into a specific villain. Charles had “let down” his son, and there was “a lot to work through,” Harry said.

Harry has spoken of his fears that history is repeating itself, and there are disturbing parallels between his mother and his wife. Diana’s infamous 1995 interview with Martin Bashir—referenced by Meghan within her first five minutes with Oprah—focused first on the “isolating experience” of joining the Firm, and then on Diana’s self-harm and depression, which were used to undermine her attempts to voice her unhappiness. “It gave everybody a wonderful new label—Diana’s ‘unstable’ and Diana’s ‘mentally unbalanced,’” the princess told Bashir. A quarter century later, Meghan told Oprah that at her lowest, she “didn’t want to be alive anymore.” For Harry, this must have been agonizing to witness; his rage at his family and loyalty to his wife demand to be read as a desire to replay the story of his childhood, only this time with a happy ending.

Unlike Prince Andrew’s disastrous interview with the BBC’s Emily Maitlis in 2019, in which the prince repeatedly declined the opportunity to apologize to the sex-trafficking victims of his friend Jeffrey Epstein, the encounter with Oprah was designed to increase viewers’ sympathy toward its subjects. Oprah landed news lines like a champion angler lands trout, but she offered little challenge to the couple’s version of events. The two hours were blessedly free of influencer-speak, apart from a single reference to how the couple were “very aligned on all our cause-driven work.” There was minimal syrup (only one “the most important title I will ever have is Mom”). There was even humor, as when Oprah described a headline condemning Meghan for eating avocados, because the fruit contributes to “water shortages, illegal deforestation, and environmental devastation.” “That’s a really loaded piece of toast,” Meghan shot back. Oprah was so pleased with the quip that she repeated it, rolling it around her mouth in apparent wonder. This was not something you could imagine Maitlis doing with Andrew.

The choice of Oprah, America’s only Black female billionaire, underlined the couple’s case against the Royal Family, which they claim balked when faced with its first mixed-race member. This was the real dynamite. Harry has criticized the media’s aggression before, but his aim has now expanded to encompass the cowardice of his own relatives. He spoke of the Royal Family’s “invisible contract” with the British tabloids, hosting reporters for Christmas parties in the palace in exchange for favorable stories (or at least the absence of unfavorable stories). He also noted that while dozens of British politicians signed a letter condemning the “outdated, colonial undertones” of the coverage Meghan received, none of his relatives would endorse that message. He attributed this to fear that the tabloids would turn on them.

Ironically, this mentality of “never complain, never explain” will handicap the palace’s response to Meghan’s claims. There will be no retaliatory interview by Kate and William, much less a spicy tweetstorm from the Queen. Instead, before the interview, palace officials resorted to planting anonymous news stories about the duchess’s rudeness toward palace staff. The claims, denied by Meghan, were made in 2018 and then revived to preempt the Oprah interview. Whatever the merits of the accusations, that revival looked like a smear campaign; the palace has opened an investigation into Meghan’s actions, but seems more reluctant to investigate Prince Andrew’s friendship with Epstein.

Many Britons were initially sympathetic to Meghan: No one in their right mind would join the British Royal Family, so we felt she must really love Prince Harry. For a taste of the kind of interviews you are supposed to give as a duchess, try this from Vanity Fair, just before the engagement was announced, as she explained the joy of homemade bread: “It’s that perfect crunch and then the softness. They call it the ‘crumb,’ all of these little holes—oh!” No aristocratic title is worth a voluntary lobotomy.

As a divorced 30-something—unlike the teenage, virgin Diana—Meghan appeared to be going into the marriage with her eyes open. Yet Meghan’s monstering seems to have come as a shock to her—and to the many Americans who tuned into the Windsor soap opera only upon her arrival. “I went into it naively,” she told Oprah. “I didn’t do any research about what that would mean. I’ve never looked up my husband online.” (She said she also had to Google the British national anthem.) This stretches credulity. Not only did she not know the hellfire bath that awaited her, but Harry didn’t think to mention it? No one at the palace did either? For a moment, a hairline crack spread across her version of events, allowing the viewer to glimpse a murkier, more contested picture. In Harry and Meghan’s narrative, they are blameless. They made no strategic errors and acted with perfect reasonableness throughout. Hmm.

The other fracture in the facade came when Meghan compared the situation in the early days of her marriage to pandemic lockdown. Lockdown, yes—but with servants, and without overdue bills or a leaky roof or uncertain immigration status or the need to hold three jobs just to keep your health insurance. Similarly, when the couple needed to escape Britain, first a millionaire in Canada lent them a house, and then another in California did the same. The latter, actor and director Tyler Perry, also loaned out his security detail. This was all recounted as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The amount of sympathy awarded to Meghan and Harry will, I suspect, be where American and British media attitudes diverge. While Meghan has undoubtedly suffered from racism, some of the American coverage has presupposed that her overall treatment is a deviation from a norm of civility and respect awarded to royal wives. Anyone who has grown up in Britain will respond with a hollow laugh. Here are some of the epithets applied to her female predecessors on the tabloid ducking stool: whorish Diana, with her string of post-Charles boyfriends; fat Sarah Ferguson, the “Duchess of Pork,” whose daughter Beatrice was mocked for inheriting her thighs while still a teenager; and social climber Kate Middleton, with her former flight-attendant mother.

For two generations, women who marry into the Royal Family have been expected to be thin, fertile—and silent. Meghan embodies all the negative stereotypes Britons have about our distant cousins across the Atlantic: too loud, too brash, too much. It will be beautifully ironic if this American can, by speaking out, change the tone of royal coverage in Britain.

If she does, she will succeed where her mother-in-law failed. Diana could not accept the Royal Family’s control, and had the charm and charisma to fight back by telling her own side of the story, both in the Bashir interview and through her secret collaboration with her biographer Andrew Morton. Meghan has that power, too. The careful choreography of the Oprah interview is the modern equivalent of Diana ushering her aides away to be photographed alone next to a symbol of eternal love, the Taj Mahal. The suspicion that Meghan faced from the palace is another echo of Diana: the (well-founded) fear that a young, beautiful, glamorous woman would touch more hearts than the homely, plodding Windsors. Both women were accused, essentially, of knowing their own allure—as if beauty were somehow an unfair advantage where whiteness and wealth and institutional power are not.

Meghan is additionally charged with being “manipulative.” The presumption seems to be that a pure woman should walk unprepared into the media spotlight and trust in her innocence to protect her. The first few minutes of the Oprah interview—in which Meghan confirmed that she hadn’t been paid to sit for it, and hadn’t seen the questions in advance, and promised to save the gender-reveal of her baby until later on—probably seemed cold, calculated, and controlling to some viewers. You could also call it professional. (The moment reminded me of a rash of headlines criticizing Taylor Swift for the sin of being savvy enough to manage her own reputation.)

The problem for the palace now is obvious. How can an institution predicated on its members’ descent from an 11th-century French invader plausibly claim to be alive to the racial concerns and mental-health sensitivities of the 21st century? But there is a danger for Harry and Meghan, too. Only a week after their relationship was announced in 2016, Harry issued a statement condemning the photographers who were hounding his fiancée’s mother, the reporters who were trying to bribe every acquaintance into selling their story, and the social-media trolls who were spraying her with racist and sexist abuse. At the time, this clapback was unprecedented, but it has set the tone for all of the couple’s subsequent media appearances.

Meghan and Harry see their complaints against the press as social-justice activism, holding the media to account for its racism and general heartlessness. That elevates their cause above a petty dispute over who made whom cry about a bridesmaid’s dress three years ago. Much of the media sees those same complaints as self-pity, the entitled whining of millionaires who expect nothing but applause for lecturing ordinary people on climate change and female empowerment.

The problem for Meghan and Harry is that their beef with the House of Windsor is currently the most interesting thing about them. Their inaugural Spotify podcast, recorded over the holiday season, was a bland patchwork of inspirational quotes from their celebrity friends. Their other ventures have yet to bear fruit—Oprah plugged her mental-health documentary with Harry for Apple, something of a conflict of interest—and the couple’s Archewell Foundation website is riddled with NGO-speak, calling for “a groundswell of real acts of compassion for the women in your life and in your community.” As a country, Britain is less tolerant than the U.S. of vaulting ambition and conspicuous philanthropy, and particularly of the two in concert; we are on the lookout for people “getting above themselves.” Britain is also intolerant of famous people who forget what they are famous for. (Think of the actors who make their names—and their millions—doing frothy rom-coms, before complaining that they are never asked to play Hamlet.) In the minds of many Britons, no matter the depth of her personal suffering, Meghan has been tried and convicted of ingratitude.

There must be a great temptation, as two of the most talked-about people in the world, to be the ones doing the talking for once. But if they’re not royals, what are they? Last night’s interview made clear that Meghan has an entirely different kind of appeal from the fusty British in-laws she has left behind. No Windsor has ever looked as healthy as she did, with her teeth and hair radiant in the pure California sunlight. The awkward side effect is to make Harry—from whom her mega-celebrity springs—look like a tagalong, Judd Apatow’s ill-advised attempt at writing an English protagonist into a film where the dweeb dates the prom queen. Harry barely featured in the first half of the two-hour show. In one early sequence, he bock-bock-bock-ed mournfully at the couple’s pet chickens while the two women talked about wedding vows. His skill set (flying helicopters, shaking hands with mayors) seems oddly redundant in their new life of podcasts and Netflix deals.

Meghan and Harry must now try to do something no one has ever done before: break free from the gravity of Buckingham Palace, and carve out a successful career as ex-royals. In the 1930s, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor moldered in exile in France, brooding over the country that could have been theirs. In the 1990s, Diana struggled to find love again, although her charity work gave her a purpose. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, now sends saccharine messages on World Kindness Day from Saudi Arabia. All got stuck orbiting the institution that had ejected them.

“Life is about storytelling,” Meghan told Oprah toward the end of the interview, explaining her decision to sign those Netflix and Spotify deals. The Little Mermaid, she noted, eventually found her voice again. Meghan has now had her say. She cannot be silenced. The test is whether she is able to find another subject.