As troubling as they were to hear, Meghan’s jaw-dropping claims of disempowerment in her interview Sunday with Oprah Winfrey will likely also send a salutary message we would do well to hear: Becoming a princess is not something a woman should aspire to.
In fact, Meghan’s interview put quite a nail in the coffin of the princess fantasy that has been losing steam but still enjoys a remarkable sort of staying power in our society.
The headlines she has generated offer one of the most powerful messages the world could be absorbing on this International Women’s Day.
When Prince Harry’s mother, Diana, married Prince Charles in 1981, 750 million people in 74 countries tuned in to watch on TV. Diana’s largely tragic princess story — including her husband’s infidelity, a painful divorce and death at 36 while being chased by paparazzi — should have taken some of the luster off the popular notion that marrying a handsome prince — or even just marrying — is the ticket to bliss.
American women have certainly started coming to this realization since then: As Rebecca Traister notes in “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” in 2009, the majority of American women were single for the first time.
But the idea that marrying the right man is the path to happiness, wealth and indeed adulthood has remained ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Traister notes that this is the underlying message of many of the most famous works of literature read by young women, such as the “Little House” series, “Anne of Green Gables” and “Jane Eyre.” Not to mention numerous fairy tales and Disney scenarios. And as the mother of a little girl, I can tell you it is almost impossible to prevent kids from being exposed to this myth.
Although I have never personally bought my daughter a Disney book, my home is full of princess books, toys and dress-up clothes that have been gifted to her by others. Of course, the underlying messages of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and countless other stories offered even now to our daughters is that Prince Charming will rescue them and carry them off to live happily in their kingdom.
Yet Meghan’s account of marrying her prince couldn’t have spelled out more starkly how dangerous and flawed this narrative really is. Meghan, of course, was offered a life with a handsome prince, living in a palace with a staff and access to the real gowns and jewels that are replicated in my daughter’s dress-up boxes. And now she has told the world that this life is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Being dependent on others made her feel that she had lost her voice, Meghan said.
The way she got it back, she said, was by pursuing independence from her husband’s family — even though the decision ruffled feathers, generated criticism (and appalling sniping, apparently, from royal staff) and, as Harry said, has left the couple “cut … off financially” by the family. Now they need to work in more traditional jobs to make money.
In other words — no keys to the kingdom. No storybook ending. Instead, reality — reality, it appears, that is far more promising for this couple, and could produce if not that storybook ending, an actual happy ending. They are together, far away from the kingdom, and raising their family.
Of course, Harry seems to have a lot to do with this outcome: He deserves credit for giving the world a new stereotype of a modern prince and husband. His emotional support of his wife was palpable in the interview. As he told Oprah, “I’m just really relieved and happy to be sitting here talking to you with my wife by my side,” acknowledging that his own mother had not enjoyed the support of his father, the Prince of Wales, when she faced many of the same challenges as Meghan — only all on her own.
The idea that male partners are responsible for understanding and helping address the mental health challenges so many women around the world have long suffered with in silence — largely due to misogyny of the kind Meghan faced — is a message that, unfortunately, men still badly need to hear and appreciate. This is a formidable start.
While the idea that a woman’s happiness hinges on finding the right man to marry — a prince, say — and taking on an identity tied to him has been on its way out for some time, it appears that it took a very contemporary, high-profile and (it must be said) privileged couple to smash it to pieces in perhaps one of the most effective ways available: before an enormous TV audience convened by Oprah Winfrey.
Meghan’s message is that marrying someone who is rich and/or royal isn’t the magical pathway to a glamorous life. Rather it can be stultifying, alienating, depressing — the opposite of developing further as a human being and, in this case, a wife and mother. Finding one’s own identity, one’s own voice, including by pursuing a career, does bring happiness.
This is one of the most powerful things that girls could internalize this International Women’s Day.