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How Meghan Markle is changing the princess fantasy

Yes, technically she will be a duchess.

Announcement Of Prince Harry's Engagement To Meghan Markle Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Controversial American actress Meghan Markle is getting married to Britain’s Prince Harry, in the direct line of succession line to the British throne, and I am so excited, just like a lot of Americans. When the news of the couple’s engagement was first announced, ecstatic think pieces flooded the internet.

Teen Vogue, ever woke, declared the news “a step toward upending global white supremacy.”

“It’s a feeling between ‘look how far we’ve come’ and ‘we up in this bitch,’ with the gentlest of middle fingers delivered to a social class that has historically prided itself on keeping brown folk out,” wrote Alexis Nedd at Cosmo. “You go, Meghan Markle. Four for you.”

The idea of a biracial American princess has me over the moon — which is a weird position to be in.

As someone whose politics fall toward the left end of the political spectrum, I recognize that a 21st-century monarchy is an odd creature, and a 21st-century monarchy in a democratic country like Britain is doubly so. It seems irrelevant and a potential drain on national resources at best, and a threat to democracy at worst. Not to mention: The idea of a woman gaining enormous social power solely via the approval of a man is not exactly the height of feminism.

But again: I am so excited about the prospect of a biracial American princess. (Okay, fine, duchess.) She’s so smart and ambitious! They’re so in love! It’s like a fairy tale!

That’s part of the paradox in how America relates to the British monarchy. On the one hand: Yay, American Revolution, all men are created equal, down with kings, etc. But on the other, the British monarchy is such a fertile site for fairy tale imagining.

In part, that’s because Britain is at the perfect emotional distance from America to give the fantasy potency, without danger. Americans speak the language and have enough rough understanding of the culture to keep track of what’s happening in Britain’s monarchy, but we’re also safe in the knowledge that it has absolutely nothing to do with us.

British pop culture has a weakness for the royal fantasy, too. However, the national portrayal of the royal family as an arena for mythmaking and as a symbol of national identity periodically conflicts with the culture’s often much darker imaginings. There’s plenty of British pop culture that plays with the idea of the monarchy dissolving Parliament and taking control of the government (see, for instance, King Charles III or Night of the Animals), engaging with the weirdness of living in a 21st-century democratic monarchy.

American pop culture, meanwhile, tends to approach the British monarchy purely as a site of fantasy. We have books about ordinary girls who fall in love with British princes and TV shows about the soapy, glamorous hijinks of a fictionalized British royal family. We sigh over the fairy tale of poor, tragic Diana and call William and Kate’s wedding proof “that fairy tales aren’t just things for storybooks — they’re attainable in real life, too.”

So Meghan Markle, newly engaged to Prince Harry, might be giving up her career as a successful actress to marry into a hidebound — and in many ways meaningless and anachronistic — institution. But she’s also living the dream. She’s embodying the princess fantasy that captivates so many Americans, and she’s doing it while expanding that fantasy and making it accessible to people to whom it was never accessible before.

The traditional princess fantasy is very white. Meghan Markle is changing that.

Over the past few decades, the women who have married into the British royal family have all aligned with a highly specific, highly conventional type. Princess Diana wasn’t only beautiful, white, and blonde but also a titled aristocrat from a family older than the Windsors, and a virgin whose purity was endlessly discussed before her wedding to Prince Charles. Her attempts at independence after their wedding were ruthlessly policed.

Kate Middleton held no official title before her wedding to Prince William, and her virginity did not become the subject of national conversation — but she was wealthy and attended prestigious and expensive schools, and her public persona is overwhelmingly quiet, unthreatening, conventional, and white.

So in America, when little girls fantasize about being princesses, they tend to fantasize about taking on the role of a Princess Diana or a Princess Kate, which by default adheres to a very strict, very passive, very white feminine ideal.

Sure, it’s problematic at best to place high social capital on the idea of marrying into royalty, becoming a powerful figure solely because of a man — but that option was previously not even available as a fantasy to women who did not conform to a very specific ideal.

Meghan Markle, however, is a herald of change. As an actress whose TV show has been on the air for seven seasons, she is successful in her own right. In interviews with Harry, she takes the reins and speaks for both of them while he watches in apparent delight. And she is mixed race, and outspoken about her identity. She is blowing up the box of the princess fantasy.

In part, that’s because she has more freedom to do so than either Diana or Kate Middleton did: Harry is much further down the line of succession than either Charles or William are, so both he and Markle are allowed to stray a little farther away from the strict conventionality of the royal ideal.

But for the millions of Americans at home watching, what is registering most clearly is that Meghan Markle is marrying a prince, and she’s doing it as an outspoken, independent, American woman of color. Which signals that the princess fantasy is fundamentally changing.

It may seem odd to many people that princesses still exist in the year 2018. But if they’re going to exist, it’s extremely exciting to have one be a biracial American princess.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Markle was of Jewish heritage. She is not. We regret the error.

Update: This article was originally published when the engagement was announced in 2017. It has been updated to include discussion of the royal wedding.