At a purely procedural level, the most shocking revelation to come from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex wasn’t that Harry was barely on speaking terms with his father or that Kate Middleton allegedly made Meghan cry instead of the other way around like the British press reported.
It was that the royal family has an HR department, and Meghan had tried to go there for help in resolving a toxic workplace environment.
The tabloids were spreading falsehoods and endlessly harassing her. The pressure was unbearable. She was struggling with thoughts of suicide. So she went to what we imagine as wing of Buckingham Palace decorated with beige carpets and kitten posters (“HANG IN THERE”), and asked them to do their jobs. “I said, ‘I need help,’ ” Meghan explained to America’s queen, Oprah, in the interview that aired Sunday.
The human resources department claimed there was nothing they could do, according to the duchess. “You’re not a paid employee of the institution,” Meghan remembered being told. Feel free to grab a Werther’s butterscotch from the bowl on your way out!
Twenty-six years ago, Princess Diana gave a famous interview that upended the royal family by revealing that the members of it were actual humans. Her lousy husband was cheating on her with his ex-girlfriend (“There were three of us in the marriage”) and whiny about his wife’s professional success. Meghan’s interview was far more thorough and damning of the monarchy: She revealed that it is a business. It is a billions-of-dollars corporation, systemic in its willingness to throw female and non-White members under the trolley in the efforts of preserving the company brand.
The other residents of the royal household were no help. Meghan had already gone to “one of the most senior people” but was told that her seeking treatment at a mental health facility “wouldn’t be good for the institution.” At one point, an adviser implied that Meghan was bringing the difficulties on herself, the duchess said, suggesting she should just remove the tabloid’s fodder by lying low for a while. She responded that she’d only left the house twice in the previous four months.
Another member of “the institution” acknowledged that, yes, Meghan did seem to be having a rough go of it — but they’d all been there. Public criticism was part of the job. There seemed to be no appreciation of Meghan’s unique struggle as an American Black woman wedded into a lineage whose ancestors preferred to marry their cousins rather than disrupt the bloodline. The Daily Mail referred to her as “straight outta Compton,” and in another article mentioned her “exotic DNA,” and a cottage industry was born of criticizing Meghan for a behavior that had earned Kate Middleton only praise.
Throughout the interview, both Meghan and Harry were careful not to name names, which turned the public’s post-interview analysis into a game of guess-who. Which royal gargoyle brought up concerns with Harry over the skin color of his unborn child? Was it Charles, whom Harry said had “stopped returning my calls”? Was it William, whom Harry said he loved, but whose current relationship was one of “space”? The next morning, Oprah confirmed it hadn’t been Queen Elizabeth or Prince Phillip, so — Kate, maybe?
But this parlor game misses the point that Harry and Meghan were trying to make: The British monarchy was not a solid institution with a few bad apples but a broken institution that made apples rot. Meghan had saved Harry from it, he said, by opening his eyes to the generalized dysfunction, but he still described his father and brother as “trapped.” That’s what broken institutions do: They make everyone in them falsely believe that there’s no better way.
Very few women can identify with the complications of being a princess, but many of them can identify with sitting in front of an HR rep, box of tissues on the desk, and being gently asked whether this all might be a bit in their heads.
Were you inviting the harassment by sending out mixed signals? Are you sure this isn’t a personal issue instead of a personnel one? You can file a complaint but it could make things very difficult for everyone — do you want that? You’ve put in several years of good service!
Meghan thought she had gone to a department designed to help her, but she learned, as so many had before her, that it was actually designed to help the company. A tiara gets you nothing but a few clucks of sympathy and a whisper campaign of bad references as you try to move onto your next job.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.