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The fraught gender and racial politics of the royal wedding, explained

For many feminists, Meghan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry is — like so many weddings — a mixed bag.

Cardboard cut-out displays of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle outside a card shop ahead of the couple's wedding in Windsor, England.
Cardboard cutout displays of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle outside a card shop ahead of the couple's wedding in Windsor, England.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced their engagement in November 2017, Jasmine Guillory was delighted. “I’ve had so much fun with this relationship ever since they announced that they were dating,” said the author of the book The Wedding Date, about a romance between a black woman and a white man who convinces her to be his date to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.

Guillory, who is black, sees the upcoming royal wedding — and the entry of a biracial woman into the royal family — as a ray of sunshine in a dark time for people of color. “Every day there’s something else that, if you pay attention to the news as a black woman, as a person of color in America, can make you feel beaten down,” she said. “It is just nice to have something fun and full of love out there in the world that is just about a black woman being happy.”

She’s not alone — the upcoming royal wedding has been greeted, at least in the United States, with excitement to rival that inspired by Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. For many, this marriage has added import because of who Markle is: a biracial American woman, divorced, older than her fiancé, and famous in her own right as an actress before she linked up with a prince.

Some, however, have responded to the excitement with a degree of skepticism. The wedding raises thorny questions of gender politics: When a woman gives up her career to marry a prince, how excited should feminists really be? Others question why the royal family — one with a long history of racism — is getting so much attention when there may be other figures more worthy of celebration.

For Valerie Wade, a historian and archivist, enthusiasm around Markle as “the first black princess” is a bit misplaced, especially since there are plenty of black princesses in Africa. “Sometimes we get so caught up in kind of being accepted into white spaces that we sort of forget and neglect our own,” she told Vox.

With Markle and Harry’s upcoming wedding, spectators on both sides of the Atlantic are faced with a contradiction: a bride who represents change, and a tradition steeped in colonialism and patriarchy. But as Guillory points out, many women are already experts in dealing with contradictions. Weddings, makeup, high heels — “all of that stuff has a lot of terrible gender politics associated with it, but it’s also okay to like it anyway,” she said. “A lot of women think about that and step that tightrope throughout our lives.”

In some ways, the royal wedding presents many women with an outsize version of the conflicts they deal with every day — between enjoying traditions and critiquing them, between celebrating small victories and demanding bigger change. And for the world at large, it’s an opportunity to look squarely at the tensions between personal experience and the larger political forces of racism, colonialism, and patriarchy, and the way those tensions play out in women’s lives.

Royal weddings have been a big deal for Americans for decades. But this one is different.

The British royal family “are specialists in pomp and pageantry,” said Cele Otnes, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the book Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture. Royal weddings have had a big influence on the wedding industry as a whole, she noted. When Diana Spencer married Prince Charles in 1981, their ceremony — especially her “meringue” dress — “brought back the glamour and the sort of princess aspect to weddings” after the more laid-back style of the 1970s, Otnes said.

Diana Princess of Wales arriving at her royal wedding on July 29, 1981.
Diana, Princess of Wales, arriving at her wedding on July 29, 1981.
Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Thirty years later, the wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William — Charles and Diana’s older son, currently second in line to the throne — drew even more attention in the United States, at least by the numbers. More than 22 million Americans in 18.6 million households watched the event, compared with 14.2 million households that watched Charles and Diana marry, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with Bridesmaids Margarita Armstrong-Jones (right) and Grace Van Cutsem (left), following their wedding at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011 in Lon
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Margarita Armstrong-Jones (right) and Grace Van Cutsem, following their wedding at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, in London.
Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

This time around, the marrying couple are unlikely to become king and queen — Prince Harry is sixth in line for the throne. But the fact that Markle is American “gives us skin in the game,” Otnes said. “It’s like we finally got invited to the party in a real way.”

Markle’s entrance into the royal family — after the wedding, she’ll be known as Her Royal Highness Princess Henry of Wales, and will also likely receive a duchess title — has additional significance for many because she is biracial. In 2015, she wrote in Elle magazine about facing racism and misunderstanding as the daughter of a white father and a black mother, including an incident when her seventh-grade teacher told her to check the box for “Caucasian” on a census form, “Because that’s how you look, Meghan.”

“I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out,” Markle wrote. “So, I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank — a question mark, an absolute incomplete — much like how I felt.”

For some, a biracial princess is a big deal

“What does their engagement announcement mean to me? That there is hope,” Neneh Koroma, a medical student, told Elle after Markle and Harry announced their impending wedding in 2017. “That little black and biracial girls everywhere have their very own princess, who knows what it’s like to be in their shoes, to admire and aspire to be like.”

“Because Meghan has light skin, I think a lot of people will try to pretend like, ‘Oh, she’s not really black,’” said Guillory, “but I think she’s done a lot of things to make it clear to the world that she is a black woman.”

One of her favorite moments was in September, when Markle brought her mother to the Invictus Games, an event for veterans established by Prince Harry, where she knew she’d be photographed. The message: “Here is my black mother with her dreadlocks standing next to Prince Harry,” Guillory said.

Meghan Markle and her mother Doria Ragland (left) watch the closing ceremonies for the Invictus Games in Toronto, Ontario on September 30, 2017.
Meghan Markle and her mother Doria Ragland (left) watch the closing ceremonies for the Invictus Games in Toronto on September 30, 2017.
Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

“The first black princess?”

While the prospect of a biracial princess has many in the US excited, others have cautioned against putting too much stock in what the British royal family does.

“We actually do have our own royal families and our own princesses,” said Wade, the historian. “There’s some pretty badass African women out here.”

In an essay on the royal engagement at Allure, Wade mentions Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini of Swaziland and Princess Keisha Omilana of Nigeria, as well as Ariana Austin, a black American woman who married into the Ethiopian royal family.

Princess Keisha Omilana and Prince Kunle Omilana in Quogue, New York, on July 25, 2010.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Others have cautioned that the mere presence of a biracial princess will do little to remedy racism in Britain or to erase the historical role of the royal family in that racism. “The royal family’s so tied into the ideas of empire and colonialism, purity,” said Kehinde Andrews, a sociology professor at Birmingham City University and author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. In Britain, that family is “probably the primary symbol of whiteness that we have,” he said.

“It’s not a coincidence that about two-thirds of the UK are in favor of the monarchy, and roughly two-thirds of the UK also believes that the British Empire was a good thing,” Andrews added.

And the royal family is becoming even more closely associated with imperialism in the Brexit era. “What we’re having now with Brexit is kind of ‘make Britain great again,’ and the monarchy is a huge part of that,” he explained. “Having a black woman go into that, that is not going to change anything in any meaningful way.”

If anything, Andrews said, there’s reason to be concerned about how Markle will fare as part of the royal family. “The family is a symbol of racism, but it’s also really racist,” he said.

The British tabloid, The Sun, featured Prince Harry, 20, on its cover wearing a swastika armband, on January 13, 2005.
The British tabloid the Sun featured Prince Harry, 20, on its cover wearing a swastika armband on January 13, 2005.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, he noted, Prince Charles told a British writer of Guyanese descent that she didn’t “look like” she was from the British city of Manchester (she is). Prince Philip, his father, has a long history of racist comments. Prince Harry himself once wore a swastika armband at a party. Markle is likely to experience “quite a lot of actual old-school racism, as well, being in an institution which is basically racism personified,” Andrews said.

The royal wedding is complicated for feminists

In addition to the question of what it means for a biracial woman to enter the royal family, feminists in the US and UK are grappling with whether and how to celebrate an event steeped in patriarchal tradition: the lavish wedding of a woman to a man. Complicating matters further is the fact that Markle is quitting her job, a long-running role on USA’s Suits.

Markle has said that she’s excited to focus more on humanitarian causes in her new role as princess. “I don’t see it as giving anything up,” she told the BBC in November. “I just see it as a change. It’s a new chapter.”

But to some, the choice reveals how retrograde the royal wedding really is. “This marriage is not some kind of victory for human progress,” wrote Leah McLaren at the Canadian magazine Chatelaine. “In fact, it’s a story as old as the hills. When an ambitious young woman gives up her thriving, hard-won career in order to be a charity wife for one of history’s most screwed up family firms, it’s a bit rich to throw a parade in the name of feminism and human rights.”

A window display commemorates the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor, England.
A window display commemorates the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor, England.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Others, however, note that as a royal, Markle will actually be continuing humanitarian work she’s long done on her own. She and Harry have “made a point to try to work with underprivileged communities in England and with kids, which has always been something that Meghan did herself in her professional and personal life before she even knew Harry,” Guillory said.

Guillory recently had the opportunity to reverse the royal wedding narrative, writing a short story in Cosmopolitan about a black princess, Harriet (Harrie for short), who falls for and eventually marries a white commoner, Mark.

It was “fun to imagine a world of a black princess,” Guillory said. “It made me think about what’s going to happen in 30 or something years if Harry and Meghan have little girls.”

For Wade, the wedding is an opportunity for crucial political issues to get some mainstream attention. “Anything that sort of helps us think about race and gender and class in an accessible way is good,” said Wade, “because I think a lot of those ideas sort of get stuck in the academy.”

But for her, there’s a difference between a conversation starter and a watershed moment for black women.

“Let’s not frame this as if all of us were just waiting for a white man in power to recognize us,” she said. “We have not been waiting for Meghan Markle to get into the royal family to feel accepted and desired and accomplished.”

The conversations around the royal wedding bring up issues many women deal with every day

It’s not just this royal wedding that brings up some tension for feminists — weddings in general have long forced many women to sort through competing feelings of excitement over an upcoming celebration and concern over what it represents. With a royal wedding, these feelings play out on a world stage.

“I think that we get a little bit caught up in the aesthetics and the romance of it,” Otnes said of royal weddings. “It gives us an excuse to celebrate.”

And as Guillory notes, weddings in general are just one of many traditions that force women to balance their personal excitement — over a love story, a pretty dress, a big party — with their understanding of a larger political context in which women, and especially women of color, remain marginalized.

“The gender politics of weddings are often terrible,” she said. “I love a lot of the trappings of weddings and I also hate a lot of them, and I think that’s okay.”

“There are just so many things, like getting dressed every day, that we all have to think about and decide, what are the terrible gender politics of this and am I going to go along with it or no,” she explained, “And I think weddings are just another part of that.”

“Despite all of that,” she said, “I still totally love weddings.”

Cupcakes from the Hummingbird Bakery decorated to mark the upcoming Royal Wedding.
Cupcakes from the Hummingbird Bakery in London, decorated to mark the upcoming royal wedding.
Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images