There was a time when cheering on this kind of Brexit would have been unfathomable. When Charles and Diana divorced, she had the court of public opinion on her side, but the outcry manifested via an indignant insistence that Di get to keep her title. Flee Charles? Yes. Flee Princessing? No.
Her husband might have spent their marriage publicly pining for another woman, but the ultimate indignity would be reverting to plain old Diana Spencer instead of Princess of Wales. We had seen Cinderella. We had seen Sleeping Beauty. The way the world worked was, you swept the fireplace for your mean relatives until someone plucked you from obscurity and gave you a tiara. Whatever you do, Diana, don’t give up the tiara.
So here we are a quarter of a century later, and Meghan is doing the opposite: Keep the husband. Ditch the Duchess of Sussex.
This is progress.
When you think about it, the princess fantasy, uncomfortably but necessarily, has always been a fantasy of being a kept woman. Kept in the prettiest of palaces, sure, but kept nonetheless: discouraged from making her own money, having her own opinions, speaking her own mind. The week after Diana’s passing, the brilliant writer Marjorie Williams summed up the princess paradox as such: “To wish to be a princess is not merely to aspire upward, to royalty; it is also to aspire to perpetual daughterhood, to permanent shelter. To dependency.”
The dependency, of course, was not on your husband so much as on the state, and this was perhaps the most appealing part of the fantasy: An entire country had come together to determine that you should always be fed and housed, that you were dutybound to travel the world in luxury accommodations, that a staff should help you figure out what to wear or how to behave at the various events held in your name. There was a security in this, the sense that it would require a constitutional amendment to put you out on the street.
And, unlike the goal of simply becoming fabulously wealthy — which one could also accomplish by winning the lottery or marrying a nonroyal oil magnate — princesshood came with a sense of noblesse oblige. You would be doing it to inspire people. You would be your own act of charity.
Photos of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, out and about
In bygone eras, when women’s lives were defined by domestic drudgery, you could see why a fantasy of having maids and servants would hold particular appeal. Now, in an era in which millennials can’t even afford to buy condos, I’m fully convinced that the princess fantasy was not only for women: I watched coverage of Harry and Meghan’s wedding at a hotel restaurant. As the couple emerged from Windsor Castle and rode in a Jaguar to their reception, the male bartender turned to me and said, dryly, “Harry, take me away.”
The princess fantasy: A fantasy about, for once in your life, heading to a party without trying to remember whether you’d already put gas in the tank, and whether you had the $20 to do it on the way.
But there were strings attached, as the previous 18 months made clear. For Meghan, the strings involved the British press telling salacious rumor after rumor about rifts in the royal family and how Meghan had caused them: Meghan vs. Kate. Harry vs. William. Duke vs. Queen. After birthing a baby, she chose not to immediately haul herself out of bed and present the child to the public, and this was criticized. Then, when she was photographed, her body had not miraculously shrunk to pre-pregnancy size, and that was noted, too.
She was accused of insidiously “influencing” Harry — as if the point of marriage isn’t to influence each other — though her influence seemed to be mostly encouraging him to be an active father and to eat avocados.
So she said goodbye to all that. She sent the message that her own freedom and voice were worth more than security and pageantry: the princess fantasy was actually a nightmare.
Not only did she escape the kept-princess trope, but she reversed it by bringing her husband with her.
Meghan, take me away.
The decision in itself was privileged. Meghan probably still has a tidy sum in the bank from her former acting days; surely the Hallmark Channel would pay a premium if she needed more cash and were willing to play herself in the biopic.
Still, when the (formerly?) royal couple released their Instagrammed announcement, my own first reaction was inexplicable irritation. Meghan and Harry had known what the job was from the beginning. How could they walk away from the job?
The job sucked, Meghan was telling us. I have been inside your fairy tale, and I am here to tell you that all of it — the silence, the smiling, the squishing yourself into a preconceived box in the name of princesshood — the job sucked. I don’t have to put up with it. None of us should.
This is progress. She will buy her own dang tiara.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.