Two opposing and competing narratives in the British media coverage of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, are starting to emerge.
The surface narrative is, most would argue, appropriately positive: Gutsy, strong, independent woman with awesome personal style accepts potentially poison chalice of marrying into the British royal family, and does a stellar job of it.
Less than two months after her wedding, Meghan has shown a remarkable work ethic, racking up a huge number of public engagements at which she appears genuinely happy.
More than this, the marriage has been a PR triumph for the hopelessly uncool Windsors as, at least partly by virtue of being an atypical royal bride – biracial, divorced, American, outspoken, successful in her own right, sure of her own mind, unwilling to be pushed around – she has helped broker the royal family, and her charming but slightly klutzy hubby, to a whole new market.
But there’s also a disturbing subtext around some coverage of Meghan, which seeks to cast her as an conniving interloper, unsuitably ambitious, an imposter, a working class usurper who doesn’t (yet) know her place. She is not, as newspaper editors sometimes wryly put it, PLU – People Like Us.
Her pretensions to subvert the sacred British class system is an impertinence that will be punished.
Of course, the papers can’t openly say this (out and out snobbism is only slightly less unacceptable than out and out racism), so instead some have developed a poisonous but effective strategy of latching on to very minor alleged breaches of protocol and using these to attempt to shame and embarrass Meghan, as well as bolster a negatively-charged perception of her as an outsider.
A recent example of this was an article by the Daily Mail which found fault with Meghan for the way she sits on a chair.
The Mail headlined its report on what they called the ‘Sussex Sit’ with an all-caps allegation that Meghan had committed ‘ANOTHER royal faux pas’ after she was photographed crossing her legs while seated next to the queen at a church service.
The basis for their accusations that Meghan had outraged society seemed to be a few Facebook comments from random social media users who had no connection to Meghan or the royals, and no credibility.
The Mail’s reporter was even forced to quote their own ‘etiquette expert’ disagreeing with the premise of the article, saying, as most sane people would concur, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Meghan crossing her legs and that even the queen, on occasion, did it.
Yet, despite this, great credence was give to Facebookers claiming it was an ‘etiquette faux pas’ which was "disrepectful" to Her Majesty.
The British comedian David Baddiel probably spoke for many in his twitter response to the article.
The British newspaper the Daily Express – which has a traditional readership – has also latched onto Meghan’s protocol problems as a snarky way of attacking her; one recent story called her out for holding Harry’s hand in public.
Students of British social history might recall Nancy Mitford’s essay "The English Aristocracy," which famously listed the different words posh (U) and common (non-U) people used for the same objects (for example, it’s common, Mitford says, to refer to someone as ‘wealthy’, the upper classes would call them ‘rich’.)
Mitford's essay became part of Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956), a collection of four satirical essays, supposedly edited by her, plus a poetic meditation on class by John Betjeman.
Evelyn Waugh was one of the contributors. Another of the essays noted that the non-U were not able to simply learn U words and start using them because subtle mistakes – in pronunciation, emphasis or context – would give them away as imposters.
The book caused a sensation when it was published, and while reading it today, even making allowances for its satirical intent and tone, one can’t help rather hating the arrogance and entitlement of Nancy Mitford and her pals. Mitford might not have been above cocking a sneer at Meghan.
But, pace Mitford’s critics, much of what was alluded to in Noblesse Oblige was completely accurate.
The British were still utterly obsessed with class in 1956, and, although times have changed, the class shaming of Meghan shows they maybe haven’t changed as much as one might hope.
A belief in the validity of the fixity of the British class system still lingers deep in the British soul, so deep that it’s not till some Brits emigrate that they realize how influenced they have been by the legacy of classism.
You could make a sound argument that class divisions, and attempts to challenge them, are the invisible glue holding together much modern British entertainment. Without the British class system you wouldn’t have much to laugh at in Monty Python and you definitely wouldn’t have Gosford Park, Downton Abbey and perhaps even Harry Potter.
This deep programming is what Meghan, a woman whose family tree on one side ends in slavery, is up against.
The national muscle memory means that, through no particular fault of their own, the British are highly susceptible to class-fuelled attacks on individuals.
For the right-wing media, criticizing the way Meghan sits, holds hands or crosses her legs is a useful proxy for criticizing who she is – or rather, isn’t.
On her hugely successful trip to Ireland this week with Harry, Meghan was criticised for allegedly ‘flouting protocol’ by expressing an opinion on the Irish abortion referendum after an Irish politician tweeted a message that Meghan had appeared to be ‘pleased’ at the result.
Yes, next time, she might choose to say nothing, but congratulating a pro-choice campaigner on a result endorsed by 67% of the population is about as minimally politically controversial as you can get.
And yes, members of the royal family are, theoretically, not supposed to express political opinions, but they often do. Prince Charles, who will be the next King, while Meghan will almost certainly never be queen, famously wrote letters to government ministers lobbying for government funding for his pet causes, such as homeopathy.
As the royal historian and historical consultant for Netflix series The Crown Robert Lacey told the Daily Beast earlier this week, “What Meghan said was in no way rabid or sensational and hardly surprising; she is a modern royal and we know that she has modern beliefs.”
Indeed. Meghan’s page on the royal family website declares ‘her lifelong commitment to causes such as social justice and women's empowerment’ and contains, in giant letters, a quote from a speech she gave in 2015, saying “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”
She certainly wasn’t "embroiled in a political storm" because of the reported comments as the Mail reported.
There is of course a broader point here, which is that if the British royal family is to be remotely engaged and relevant in the modern world, they clearly do need to be able to hold and, shock horror, espouse their views from time to time, particularly if, as Lacey points out, they are not "rabid."
Constitutional scholars argue that the behavior of the Monarchy should follow popular mores rather than bound ahead of them, and in this case, most likely through sheer intuition, Meghan has complied completely with that maxim.
So what did she really do wrong in Ireland?
Nothing. And why did the Mail seek to hammer her for it?
Because they are nervous about the constitutional settlement?
Or because she is black?
Because she is a human with opinions?
Or was it just because she is not PLU, darling?