I never understood the fuss about the royals. Then Meghan Markle came along.
Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in London.
A year and a half ago, I left my life in sunny California to move to London, where I, an opinionated, loud-talking American working in the entertainment industry, married a British man. He wasn’t a prince, but he felt like one to me, and I’ve since attempted to understand British life and history, much of which is entrenched in inexplicable traditions — none of which are more inexplicable to me than the country’s enduring fascination with all things royal.
I’ve never understood the appeal of the royal family, nor have I succumbed to the obsession around their existence. My mother-in-law knows all that can be known about the royal family and can explain every detail of their history. But I’ve never been able to connect. I didn’t tune in when Kate Middleton married Prince William; I watched “The Crown” only because I’d been hired to write articles about it. I constantly ask my friends and family in England to explain why the royal family matters and why they care. I didn’t, at least not until the arrival of Meghan Markle.
The media has made much of the stark juxtaposition of Markle and her new in-laws. The British royal family is rooted in centuries of rigid, historical tradition. Markle is American — from free-spirited California, home of avocado toast and kale — and she’s divorced, biracial and opinionated. She wants a wedding cake that veers far off course from the fruit cakes of yore. She’s a working actress. And she’s older than Prince Harry, a fact that is apparently jarring to many. To an older generation (and some younger ones), these facts are not viewed positively. But Markle is a reminder that life doesn’t have to go exactly one way. And that’s a good thing.
My husband is 10 years younger than me, a fact that only becomes apparent when I make an ’80s reference and then realize he wasn’t alive in the ’80s. Most people don’t know our age difference unless they’re explicitly told (and then the reaction is typically a shocked open mouth, followed by a drawn out “What…?”). I don’t find the fact that I’m a decade further into existence than him strange or unusual, but many other people do.
In Britain, as in America and many other places around the world, there are certain ways people do things, and there’s often a blind assumption that life should follow a specific path simply because it has in the past. That’s particularly true for the British royals. Harry’s great-aunt, Princess Margaret, was not allowed to marry the man she loved because he was divorced; his aunt, Princess Anne, was unable to marry boyfriend Andrew Parker Bowles because he was Catholic. Breaking with tradition isn’t easy. Markle, a notably relatable figure, has become an icon of representation for nontraditional notions and for women who never got to imagine themselves marrying a prince before. And she has stood strong in the face of withering blows from the headline-hungry tabloid media, which has made much of her race and personal history.
Progress arrives in a society when those who reside within it are able to imagine viewpoints and experiences that are not their own. It’s not necessarily about empathy, though that helps. It’s about expanding your worldview beyond what you personally know is true and accepting the possibility that we don’t see or feel the world in the same way. It matters that a princess doesn’t have to be British or white, and that she doesn’t have to keep her mouth shut on global issues, particularly about gender equality and diversity. Ever since Markle accepted Harry’s proposal, she’s transformed the fairy tale into something more accessible, especially for those who may not come from posh backgrounds or aristocratic (and white) bloodlines. She allows us to visualize a more progressive version of the royal family, offering a new acceptable reality — one that may even eventually evolve into being traditional.
It’s ridiculous and restricting to assume that life is meant to be lived one way or that a bride should look, act or be a certain way because of who she’s marrying, royal or not. I got married at Islington Town Hall at 11 a.m. on a Thursday, which is just as valid as someone who had a massive church wedding or said their vows in front of Elvis in Las Vegas. Markle’s willingness to push against tradition and withstand the resulting public scrutiny offers the rest of us more leeway. We can go forth and marry younger redheads (as I did) with hopefully less judgment. The sooner we accept that there are infinite versions of acceptable reality, the better.