If any good comes from tens of millions of people watching two incredibly boring rich people complain about how hard it is to be royalty in Netflix’s new documentary Harry & Meghan, maybe some will start to question whether the monarchy should even exist.
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry attend the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala on December 6, 2022, in New York City. (Mike Coppola / Getty Images for 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala)
Harry & Meghan, the new documentary from Netflix that chronicles the love story, marriage, and eventual departure from the royal family of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in their own words, has a lot of grand ambitions. It wants viewers to see Harry and Meghan as two normal people who just happened to fall in love — a “modern fairy tale,” says Meghan. It wants to convince us that being part of the British royal family is a terrible burden rather than an immense and unjust privilege. It wants to drive home a message of social justice about representation and diversity in the twenty-first century. And it wants to indict the vicious and profit-oriented media that intrudes on celebrities’ privacy. Unfortunately, it’s only really successful at the last one.
The nearly six-hour-long limited series becomes extremely tedious and boring by its second half, as it becomes clear that the two will make no direct criticisms of anyone or anything other than the British media. As far as they are concerned, the world is running pretty smoothly, except for the vulturous paparazzi who are always trying to get in their business, preventing them from doing the good philanthropic work on behalf of the British monarchy that they “could have spent the rest of their lives doing.”
A Modern Fairy Tale
The series begins with an overview of how Harry and Meghan met and fell in love, which is intended to be relatable while not being relatable to very many people at all. (Another totally relatable thing they do is refer to each other by their first initials, “H” and “M,” instead of their names. This makes them sound more like harried coworkers dashing off a quick email rather than two people planning to spend the rest of their lives together.)
Harry reached out to Meghan after she appeared in an acquaintance’s video on social media, they went on two dates in London, and then they video chatted for a month after Meghan returned to Toronto to continue filming Suits, the TV show she starred in at the time. After that, Meghan flew to Botswana, where she and Harry spent an idyllic week together on safari. The two then embarked on a secret love affair of biweekly transatlantic flights. Throughout the series, their mutual love of Africa is offered up as evidence of their good moral fiber and lack of pretense, as individuals and as a couple. (“For me, [Africa has] always been quite special,” Harry tells us. “So it was absolutely critical to share it with Meg.”)
The time devoted to sketching their childhoods and family backgrounds does a lot of heavy lifting in this regard as well. Harry is presented as a boy who never quite fit into the posh surroundings of boarding school and the royal family. Amid a flood of negative media coverage of his bad teenage behavior, Harry retreats to Lesotho during his gap year, where he can be a normal guy who builds fences and does charity work with Prince Seeiso, apparently. “Lesotho gave me the space and the freedom to breathe, to live, and to grow,” he says.
Later, he uses the military as an escape hatch from the pressures of young adulthood. Harry’s main personality trait is liking to be barefoot, which is mentioned multiple times during the documentary and proven with constant footage of him walking around outdoors without shoes. What a relaxed man of the people!
To counteract the racist dog-whistling of the right-wing tabloid media that was part of the deep dive into Meghan’s background that accompanied her rise to fame as Harry’s girlfriend, the film expends a lot of effort to demonstrate that Meghan had a mostly white, middle-class upbringing in Los Angeles. Countless group photos from childhood flash across the screen, showing Meghan as the only person of color. The documentary seems to say, over and over, “Meghan definitely didn’t grow up in Compton, like some people said. Not that there would be anything wrong with that!”
Meghan Markle in Harry & Meghan. (Netflix)
In fact, it kind of seems like Meghan is a little bit of a nepo baby herself. Her dad was a cinematographer and lighting director, and she attended the Hollywood Little Red Schoolhouse, a private primary school where the annual tuition is upward of $20,000, later graduating from Northwestern University before becoming an actor.
Harry and Meghan’s whirlwind romance is presented as being driven by their mutual passion for social justice and philanthropic causes. Harry’s choice of Meghan as a partner is characterized as him following his heart over his head, choosing an unorthodox outsider to bring into a pedigreed institution for which people are born and bred.
More than anything, the documentary shows that Harry and Meghan wish they could just be normal rich people.
It’s never addressed that Meghan was, in many ways, an extremely practical choice for a royal partner: a Hollywood celebrity who was already accustomed to public speaking, press appearances, and living a life in the public eye. Meghan retires from acting after they marry — she never really cared about being an actress, the show tells us, she just wanted her voice to be heard! What a perfect fit for becoming a full-time hand-shaker, speech-giver, and money-raiser.
But, oops. It seems like being part of the royal family is way worse than being a regular celebrity. In fact, it kind of sucks. The scrutiny is unbearable, and the expectation to be perfectly gracious at all times without showing any real emotion is deeply inhuman. More than anything, the documentary shows that Harry and Meghan wish they could just be normal rich people.
A Missed Opportunity
The series is at its worst when it makes ham-fisted attempts to draw links between the never-ending narrative of Harry and Meghan’s suffering and broader social themes. The racist online trolling that Meghan experienced is attributed to “misinformation” and “bot accounts” — which are described, incredibly, as a “humanitarian crisis,” as though harassment of celebrities on social media is a problem with the same stakes as fear of vaccines or doubts about the legitimacy of democratic elections. Meghan sharing that she wasn’t doing well in the months after giving birth and struggled with her mental health is presented as a brave act that “resonated for so many people.”
Harry and Meghan clearly see themselves as cutting-edge changemakers whose very existence in an interracial marriage is radical. When things start to unravel and Meghan becomes the target of negative attacks by the tabloid media, they speculate that it might have been because she was too popular and successful, too much of a threat to the institution of the royal family. “If you can destroy people who are symbols of social justice, then it’s a message to other people to stand down,” explains Meghan in one of the many painfully self-aggrandizing moments of the documentary. “If you speak truth to power, that’s how they respond.”
Harry and Meghan in Harry & Meghan. (Netflix)
Meghan’s departure is described by Harry as the royal family having “missed an enormous opportunity” to reflect the diversity of the Commonwealth, which is made up of “2.5 billion mostly black and brown people” — as though colonialism is a problem that can be solved by representation. Queen Elizabeth II, who is only ever mentioned in the film in the most glowing and admiring of tones, is praised for having “fought to keep the Commonwealth together,” a political association of fifty-six countries that are mostly former colonial territories of the British empire. Several interludes in the documentary give the briefest of overviews of Britain’s colonial crimes, but these are always narrated by talking heads, like broadcaster Afua Hirsch and historian David Olusoga, and never commented on by Harry or Meghan themselves.
It’s even implied that Barbados might not have declared independence from the monarchy in 2020 if Meghan had still been an active member of the royal family. The film recalls the disaster that was William and Kate’s visit to Jamaica on the Platinum Jubilee Royal Tour of the Caribbean in early 2022, during which they were met by significant republican resistance, while consequently reflecting on Meghan’s widespread success and popularity in diplomatic visits to former colonies on behalf of the queen. Harry and Meghan seem wistful as they reflect on the good work they could have done for the royal family (and, while they don’t mention it explicitly, the British empire), strengthening ties with former colonies and prolonging the influence of the monarchy worldwide.
Happily Ever After
Much of the documentary is devoted to indicting the press and discussing how awful it is to spend your life under the magnifying glass of tabloid media. Harry discusses watching his mother, Princess Diana, suffer the same thing when he was a child, and Meghan talks about feeling suicidal at the point of greatest negative media coverage. These are serious downsides to what might appear as an otherwise charmed existence.
It’s interesting, then, that the two have chosen to put themselves in the limelight over and over, beginning with their March 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey and reaching a peak with the debut of Harry & Meghan, Netflix’s most watched documentary ever in its premiere week, with 81.55 million hours viewed by more than 28 million households. The series is peppered with iPhone videos the two have recorded of themselves and their reactions to important moments going back several years, suggesting that they’ve been planning to go public with their story for quite a while.
Harry and Meghan in conversation with Oprah Winfrey in 2021.
Presumably, they’re doing it for the money. They reportedly made a deal with Netflix to earn $100 million from the film, which will certainly help make them financially independent from the royal family while preserving the lifestyle they’re accustomed to. They’re aghast when Harry’s family cuts off their security detail in March 2020. In one shot from November 2021, Meghan complains about how long her lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday over their publication of a private letter she wrote to her father has dragged on, while one person curls her hair and another massages her left hand. Recent film clips of the two riding their bicycles in Santa Barbara, California, show them arriving home to a private entry yard where nannies and assistants with blurred-out faces wait to receive them. “I can do things with my kids now that I would never be able to do in the UK,” says Harry.
Viewers are supposed to celebrate Harry and Meghan’s escape from the cold, unforgiving pressures of membership in the British royal family. But Harry and Meghan see no problem with the monarchy as it currently functions, except for its symbiotic relationship with the tabloid media and its lack of diversity. The documentary fails to draw this point out, but in a way, Meghan and Harry’s experience is an indictment of the liberal politics of inclusion. They thought they could transform the institution of the monarchy (whatever that means) by diversifying it, but even they realize that they failed.
If any good comes from tens of millions of people watching these two incredibly boring rich people complain about how hard it is to be royalty, maybe some of them will start to question whether the monarchy should even exist. As Ben Burgis explains, “The idea that any human being would deserve to have a role within a state institution purely because of their bloodline is offensive for the same reason it’s offensive that we live in a world where some people are born into wealth and others into poverty.”
So, sure, the British royal family seems mean and unwelcoming, and I don’t blame Harry and Meghan for wanting to “step back” from a family that was making them unhappy. But the very existence of the monarchy is a paean to hierarchy and inequality, and it can and should simply be abolished. The only downside would be that all the members of the royal family would have to start earning their living through podcasts and Netflix documentaries, and we’d probably hear more from them instead of less.Original post