Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

On the Harry and Meghan story, the UK's public cannot have it both ways

People yearn for a monarchy that represents a modern nation yet they do not want it to lead by example

If someone wrote Cinderella’s tale today, her character might not wait around for a prince to come and save her. She would, instead, be given a career and aspire to financial independence.

In the Me Too era, if Sleeping Beauty woke up with a kiss that she did not consent to, whether or not from a prince, she might well tell him off. Yet instead of reframing these stories for a modern era, we have accepted them. For one, it is hard to escape the trap of outdated values if we keep telling ourselves obsolete stories.

Although at first glance this appears to be about a prince, the real story is our reactions, attitudes and the way we have perceived and framed this narrative in our minds

Which brings us to the modern day fairytale of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and their move to step back from royal duties. Although at first glance this appears to be about a prince, the real story is our reactions, attitudes and the way we have perceived and framed this narrative in our minds.

Racism has been at the heart of the couple’s story. That much is evident in the headlines and discussions around their recent announcement to step back and how that news has been framed.

The most notable thing about racism is perhaps the denial of it, crouching it in different ways – for example, blaming Ms Markle, calling her ungrateful and accusing her of not understanding the ways of her new family or the expectations of society. These are commonplace racist tropes.

The truth is that this narrative could have been framed differently. It could have been written in terms of an upgrade to modernity and a need for change, touching upon the bravery and courage needed to break from tradition. Also, overcoming racial bias of judging a person for who they are and not by their skin colour.

In the case of Ms Markle, the sexism has also been brutal. She was denigrated for being divorced, successful, and having a career, all age-old misogynistic stereotypes. She was pitted against her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton. Most distastefully, Ms Markle was blamed, as wives often are, for allegedly taking her husband away from his family and heritage.

Again, we could be recounting this story in a different way. We could have said: "Wife gives husband the courage of his convictions to take the brave step away from the royal family" – something he had wanted to do since his mother’s death. Instead of the misogynistic coverage of her desire to bow out of royal duties, we could have been celebrating multi-faceted women and their opinions, interests and talents.

Princes William and Harry, Prince Philip, Earl Spencer and Prince Charles in the funeral cortege for Diana in 1997. AFP
Princes William and Harry, Prince Philip, Earl Spencer and Prince Charles in the funeral cortege for Diana in 1997. AFP

This also did a disservice to Prince Harry. It cast him as weak and under his wife’s spell when he deserved better. Imagine if the story told was of a devoted husband, respectful of his marriage, of a man who treats his wife as an equal and prioritises his family.

The whole incident is a lesson in framing stories, how we perceive them and how that shapes who we are and the societies we live in.

Given the coverage in this case, we should be watchful of similar framing of other cases. Every time reports of this kind trickle into public consciousness, we move closer to buying into noxious ideas that really serve no purpose other than to reinforce toxic perspectives.

We say we want to empower women and see more marriages where partners play an equal role but we act in contrary ways, heaping abuse on the men and women who do in fact treat each other as equal.

We want to draw the line between our own personal and public lives, and yet we deny it to others. In the UK we talk of a more streamlined monarchy with a smaller budget to support it but we are outraged at this proactive withdrawal from the monarchy and a step toward financially independence. People in Britain want the monarchy to represent a modern nation but do not want it to lead by example.

The awful reactions to this incident are cause for despair but it is also a chance to press the reset button.

Maybe we are not brave enough to break with the ideas holding us back. Maybe we just want to be angry at someone. We fall prey to hysteria but we can do things differently. We can do things better if only we learn the lessons from this sorry saga and begin to tell the story differently.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Updated: January 28, 2020 08:36 AM

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