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What the difference between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle says about how we conceive of the “ideal woman”

Kate Middleton’s public persona was anxiety-inducing. Meghan Markle’s is exciting.

Rehearsal For The Wedding Of Prince Harry And Ms. Meghan Markle Takes Place In Windsor Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Prince William got married seven years ago, on a Friday in spring. I was living in England at the time, and every shopfront in Oxford was filled with bunting and Union Jacks, pink heart-shaped frames filled with photographs of “Will and Kate”: the happiest couple in the nation. Kate — sleek, svelte, gazelle-limbed — was on every magazine cover.

Like everybody else in England, I celebrated. I went to the historic Blenheim Palace, a few miles outside Oxford, and watched a horseback jousting reenactment, a falconry demonstration. I went to the pub. I drank noxiously strong Old Rosie cider until I threw up. I cried.

If anyone had asked me then why I was crying, I would have jokingly told them that I, like many 20-something women in England, was mourning my lost chance to become Duchess of Cambridge. But the truth cut closer to the bone. Kate Middleton — or, at least, the character of Kate Middleton created by the media, and reinforced by the studied blankness of Kate’s public appearances — was exactly the kind of woman I did not know how to be.

I do not presume to know what Catherine Middleton, the human being, is really like. She might be irascibly cranky, or charmingly ebullient, or wry, or witty, or paralytically shy, or prone to making dirty jokes at dinner. She might have absolutely nothing in common with the Kate Middleton who exists on the cover of Hello! She might have everything in common with her. We will never know. Catherine Middleton, the mother of three from Reading, is an enigma.

But as a cultural phenomenon, Kate Middleton the character — narrated in the tabloids, reproduced on magazine covers, performed at ribbon-cuttings and charity events — embodied a vision of ideal womanhood that filled (and if I’m honest, still fills) me with deep anxiety.

The character of Kate Middleton is defined, above all things, by not being too much. She is beautiful, but not garishly so. She is affable, but not extravagant. She is thoroughly in command of herself without ever being obviously ambitious. From her body (famously, the tabloids reminded us, whittled into thinness) to her long-awaited marriage, Kate’s story is one of judicious, but not excessive, self-denial, self-making, and self-control.

The defining story of Kate and Will’s courtship, after all, embodies this dichotomy. According to tabloid reports, Kate famously set out to meet Will — and succeeded — by appearing before him scantily clad in an undergraduate fashion show. The story (apocryphal or not) captures the cultural essence of Kate. She is ambitious enough to want to meet-cute a prince; she has the foresight to choreograph their meeting. (And, stunningly, she succeeds.) But the ways she captures Will’s heart are through image — silent flirtation — not speech. She is cunning enough to know when to stay silent.

She is the human embodiment of the infamous 1990s self-help book The Rules, which reminds women to “be a creature unlike any other,” to keep their true selves a sufficient mystery to pique male desire, and to — above all things — never, ever text first. She puts up with nearly 10 years of pretending to have a career, dabbling in the family paper business and various easily discarded fashion endeavors while the tabloids brand her “Waity Katie,” without ever once publicly cracking.

She knows (or at least, so the tabloid narrative goes) all of those insidious old wives’ maxims about how if you love a man, you let him go, how men are like rubber bands and if you pull too hard they snap away from you. She lets Will break up with her. She waits, silently, like Odysseus’s Penelope, for his return. She does everything right. She gets the prince. She pushes out a baby and then appears, hours later, for a photo op in heels.

It’s that sense of steely ambition combined with self-denial that made Kate Middleton — the cultural icon — so terrifying. Kate isn’t simply effortlessly good at femininity — a Diana-type, who stumbles as naturally into princesshood as if singing birds led her there. She puts in the work — and gets results. But she does so quietly, without the embarrassing appearance of effort. Nobody has ever accused her, as the media world once did with Anne Hathaway, of “trying too hard.”

Kate embodies all the contradictions of femininity: spend every ounce of energy you have on trying to be not too much. And, having done this, she has publicly succeeded. And if Kate has succeeded (by keeping rigorously to her diet, by figuring out precisely how to get Will’s attention, by never texting Will first, by waiting 10 years for her prince to decide her worthy), then by definition, the paradox of femininity is, in fact, a resolvable one. The goals set for women are not impossible ones. You can have it all — if you only try hard enough.

As a young woman who could not help but text first, who got drunk and overshared personal stories at the slightest provocation, who cried in pub bathrooms and on street corners, who was and is undeniably and inexorably too much, Kate was a chilling cultural reminder that girls like me did not “get the prince.” Moreover, she was a reminder that my failures (of diet, of emotional incontinence) were moral, rather than ontological, failings. (“If you only tried harder,” Kate’s persona seemed to be saying, “you could be like me.”) Kate applied the Protestant work ethic to femininity and got the most Protestant reward of all.

Seven years later, we have a new royal wedding to celebrate. And with it, we have a new cultural character — one whose media narrative, no less than Kate’s, reflects a different cultural space for womanhood. Meghan Markle, the latest chosen princess, is an “outsider”: She is divorced, an American, a woman of color. She has made her own career, forging a path as an actress and a writer from a background not of upper-middle-class Middletonian privilege but of dysfunction and estrangement. (Markle’s half-sister is currently shopping a “novel” about what it’s like to be “Princess Pushy’s sister.”)

I am hardly the person for whom Markle’s marriage is the most symbolically significant. As Anna North and Sarah E. Gaither have already written, for a number of women of color in particular, Markle’s ascendancy to the royal family is a public, joyful affirmation of the beauty and desirability of black womanhood (although, it’s important to remember, Markle is not the “first black princess” — several African countries have their own royal families, with princesses aplenty).

It’s important not to overstate Markle’s independence: She’s not, say, keeping her job (or her blog), and after her marriage she may well be subsumed into the anodyne affability of the wider royal family. It’s also important to qualify that, particularly in the UK, the media hasn’t uniformly celebrated Markle the way they did Middleton. Right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail and political magazines like the Spectator have treated the very qualities I see as invigorating in Markle as disqualifiers. And, of course, it’s impossible to separate the very institution of monarchy — and the inherent limiting class stratification it legitimizes and upholds — from the woman who holds the cultural office of “princess.”

But how we conceive of princesses and celebrities alike tells us something about what we value and the qualities we collectively want our icons to embody.

When I see a woman who flouts royal protocol, who hugs strangers, who talks about her marriage like a partnership instead of a prize, who puts up with a publicly toxic extended family, I feel a sense of relief. This is a woman who (reportedly) confided her feelings on an anonymous blog about life as an actor, “I’ve had to freeze my [acting] union membership, borrow money, work jobs that I hated, endure being treated like s**t on a set, kiss actors with smelly breath and cry for hours on end because I just didn’t think I could take it any more.”

This is a woman whose most famous style quirk is not Kate’s long, shiny, carefully blown-out hair but a scandalous messy bun. This is a woman whose (toxic-seeming) relatives publicly castigate her in the tabloids — something that would have been unthinkable during Middleton’s engagement — and who comes across all the more relatable for it.

For all we know, Meghan Markle the person is not necessarily drastically different from Catherine Middleton the person. But because Meghan Markle the media creation reflects what may be a cultural shift in what women who “win” the game of life who are allowed to be. If Middleton represented, however briefly, the pinnacle of feminine attainment in spring 2011, Markle represents a widening of the possibilities of feminine attainment in spring 2018.

In the wake of #MeToo, and of a wider post-2016 national and international reckoning over questions of what womanhood means, Markle, a woman who is at least a little bit “too much” (albeit by the wildly restrictive standards of the British aristocracy), might, in our current cultural climate, be just enough.

If the function of the royal family is as a figurehead, after all, then Markle — a figurehead for 2018 — fits right in.

So this Saturday, I’ll be getting up at 7 to watch the royal wedding live (and, let’s face it, I’ll probably once again be getting riotously drunk). But this time, if I get teary, it will be because I’m genuinely excited for the royal wedding — for Harry and for Meghan, and for myself too.