The Bullying of Meghan Markle Continues a Long Tradition for Royal Wives

Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, take their seats in the Royal box on Centre Court at the 2018 Wimbledon tennis championships, England.  (OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

For Brits who have grown up observing what happens to women who marry into the royal family, the ongoing bullying of Meghan Markle is miserable to watch but par for the course.

Before her wedding, excitement that an American woman of color was marrying into the UK's most prestigious family reached fever pitch. Around the world, an estimated 1.9 billion people stayed glued to their TVs to watch Prince Harry put a ring on it. At the time, Markle was described as "radiant" and "a regal beauty." Cute reports quickly emerged that she was so close with Queen Elizabeth II that she was calling her "mama" instead of the traditional "ma'am."

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Within months, that excitement had given way to rumors of prima donna behavior (including "being brusque with servants"), controversies over Markle's treatment of her estranged father and anger over her taking private jets. Most recently (and bizarrely), she was even blamed for Serena Williams losing at the US Open.

The ongoing pile-on might be shocking for Americans, but everything happening to Meghan Markle right now has happened before, and repeatedly, to every woman who has ever married into Britain's royal family—even down to being called a jinx. (In 2005, the term was used in both The Daily Express and The Sun newspapers about Camilla Parker Bowles' imminent wedding to Prince Charles. In 2010, The Daily Star used the word in relation to Princess Diana's engagement ring.)

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Before the target moved to Meghan Markle's back, Kate Middleton was the focus of appalling treatment by the press and public. For most of her and Prince William's courtship, she was portrayed in the British tabloids as "Waity Katie"—a sad figure desperate to get to the throne by any means necessary. Her perceived lack of career ambitions were a source of mockery. And an array of trivialities—in particular a photo of her wearing a sheer dress in a college fashion show—were unfairly analyzed in relation to her worthiness as a future queen. 

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In those pre-marriage days, Prince Harry's ex-girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, was also subjected to harsh scrutiny during the seven years they were on-again, off-again. Davy was frequently labeled "trashy," and mocked endlessly over her appearance (in particular after one unfortunate fake tan). Even after she attended Prince Harry and Markle's wedding with a big smile on her face, she was turned into a meme.

The royal biography Harry: Conversations with the Prince detailed Davy's reluctance to make a lifelong commitment to such a high profile relationship. No wonder she looked so stressed in that church, knowing how many eyes were on her.

Far exceeding what William and Harry's romantic partners have been subjected to is the sheer unbridled hatred reserved for their father's wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Palace's struggle to get the public on board with the woman Princess Diana famously referred to as the "third person" in her and Charles' marriage has been immense. And while Charles' ascension to the throne has undoubtedly been delayed for years because of it, he has not been subjected to the kinds of personal barbs continually thrown in Bowles' direction.

Until fairly recently, when Bowles wasn't having her looks insulted, she was portrayed almost exclusively as an adulterous she-devil. The British public may no longer refer to her as "the most hated woman in Britain" but the "homewrecker" tag follows her to this day.

Bowles' problems were exacerbated by the public obsession with, and posthumous canonization of, Princess Diana. Because of the manner of Diana's death, we acutely remember the paparazzi's obsession with her but forget what caused that hounding in the first place: a public hungry to know her every move, and a press happy to body shame, slut shame and criticize her taste in men on a near-daily basis. Guilt over how it treated her in life, it has been suggested, played a role in the British public's unprecedented outpouring of grief after her death.

'The News of the World' used Fergie's cruelest nickname, "Duchess of Pork," in a 2010 report about her cash for royal access scandal.
'The News of the World' used Fergie's cruelest nickname, "Duchess of Pork," in a 2010 report about her cash for royal access scandal.

Though she was granted fewer column inches, Diana's sister-in-law, Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson—who married Charles' brother, Prince Andrew, in 1986—was subjected to a jaw-dropping degree of cruelty. At one point, the tabloid obsession with her (perfectly average) weight was so intense, Fergie was dubbed "The Duchess of Pork" (a pun on her official "Duchess of York" title). Speaking to the Gemma & Emma podcast in 2017, Ferguson recalled: "One of the worst headlines said 82 percent would rather sleep with a goat than Fergie. It’s never left me."

The thread that unites all of these royal wives, however, is one of tabloid journalism's favorite tropes: the catfight. This year, in an essay for Hello! magazine, Sarah Ferguson recalled how she and Princess Diana were frequently pitted against each other by the press, despite their very close friendship. Alleged wars between Fergie and Parker Bowles have surfaced in the media more recently.

Predictably, a supposed feud between Markle and Middleton dominated the press for months after Markle's wedding, and was blamed for causing a rift between their otherwise close husbands. Middleton has since been given credit for ending the "feud"—probably because that portrayal lines up with the conciliatory image created for her in the years when she was still being pitted against Davy. Back then, Davy was portrayed as repeatedly rejecting Kate's attempts at friendship—a storyline that served to reinforce the press's portrayal of Middleton as a doormat and Davy as low class.

Though Princes William and Harry also deal with public scrutiny—and Prince Charles has certainly had his fair share—there is an underlying sense left over from their younger years that, unless they are doing something particularly egregious (think Naked Harry in Las Vegas), Princess Diana's boys should be left alone. This is in part because, unlike their wives, they didn't choose their high profile positions. There's something about the issue of consciously choosing to join the royal ranks that seems to make wives fair game. The fact that Markle and Middleton are the first so-called "commoners" to do so has exacerbated matters, as has Markle's position as the first royal woman of color since the 18th Century.

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As it stands, Markle is reported to be "unfazed" by the relentless criticism. Good job too, given that the bullying of Middleton only ceased when she arrived. Markle now faces a future in which being bullied will simply be part of her everyday reality. Sadly for her, until Prince George starts dating in about a decade, there's no one left to shift the spotlight off of her.

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