There is a lot to unpack from Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview, but perhaps the clearest, most uncomfortable truth is this – Diana’s allegations about the royal family are just as true now as they were when she was interviewed by Martin Bashir over 25 years ago. I’m not sure how many times we have to be told that the life of a princess never goes hand in hand with happy endings. This is another fairytale that looks like it could have been written by the Brothers Grim, full of darkness, sorrow and isolation.
The tragedy of Diana has been well mined, most recently by The Crown which feels more like a reality show by the minute. A beautiful young woman is welcomed into the royal family in the hope that she might breathe life into an ancient institution that routinely fails to understand or reflect the demographic and values of the subjects it claims to represent. The princess is warm, kind and has a vision for a better world. She performs for the cameras, wears nice clothes and smiles a lot and for a while everything is well.
But soon the backlash begins, and the princess is hunted and bullied by the press, who believe that a woman is either a saint or sinner with no in between. Her mental health starts to suffer – for Diana, it was bulimia – and she goes to her new family, the same people who promised to support her, for help and receives none. She is told to ‘tough it out’ and stay locked inside the palace for months. She is warned against seeking medical help. The towering rooms of the palace in all their splendour feel isolating and oppressive. Her mental health worsens as the angry noise from the press becomes louder and she sees very little of the outside world. The prince’s family refuse to deny or defend her against the growing false allegations made against her. Her relentless thoughts become darker, her secret disease of the mind rages, until, finally, she is brave enough to break free. The marital family abandon her and allow the wolves to feed more hungrily.
We know at this point that the ending to these stores differs. Unlike our modern princess, Diana’s prince did not stand by her side, love her and prioritise her safety. He wasn’t quite brave enough to snap the binds that he was born into. Just as her daughter-in-law would also go onto do, Diana later decided to reclaim her narrative and tell the truth about. For her, it ended in an unforgettable tragedy that caused the country to mourn for weeks – a nation, who had so long extolled the merits of a stiff upper lip, finally exhaled and cried messy, ugly tears. Everyone vowed to never let it happen again.
In this most recent version of events, the princess decided that it wasn’t just she who needed saving, it was her husband too, who was also trapped inside an institution that had damaged his mind and caused him pain. Together with their young son, they turned their backs on the bullies and moved to a sunnier, warmer place and made new friends. They supported each other, although the prince’s family did their best to make their lives unsafe. The prince’s father stopped returning his calls and even his brother, to whom he had always been so close, backed away. At times, they felt scared and unprotected. But it felt, for the time, like they were free. The princess was permitted to use her voice again and she told her sad story to a woman she trusted. For her, it was time to tell the truth.
This brings us to the current date. The other key difference of course in the parallel stories of Diana and Meghan is that, not only was the abuse hurled at Meghan racist, but she was also forced to deal with racism from her marital family themselves – at least one relative expressed concern about how dark Archie’s skin would be. If this doesn’t make you feel utterly ashamed to be British, I don’t know what will. One can only imagine what the Commonwealth might think of this grim revelation.
You may not believe in fairytales or have any concern about the royal family. There are, of course, greater tragedies happening now in this world that will never receive the same level of exposure. But the truth is, the story of Meghan and Harry – and the way in which the palace have learnt nothing from history – does matter. The reactions to their interview speak to the UK’s undercurrents of racism and misogyny and to the stigma around mental health. If you feel the need to deny someone when they say they’ve felt suicidal, then it’s time you looked inward. If you can dismiss or justify concerns over whether a child’s skin is dark or not, you don’t care about or understand racism. It is an unsurprising but disheartening inditement that so many people in this country are angrier with the woman who has experienced racism, than the racism itself. If ever there was a clear example of white privilege, this is it.
There are numerous comparisons to be made between Diana and Meghan, two women who experienced suicidal thoughts after they married princes and received no support or compassion. They have both publicly shared similar stories, but how many more women – royal or otherwise - will we demonise and discredit before we finally believe them? On International Women’s Day, it’s a question worth considering. The only hope to come from all this is that Meghan and Harry are now leading a life that we can only imagine that Diana would have wanted for them. They are at last free.
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