Harry and Meghan — A Story of Toxic Familism and the Royals

by | Dec 27, 2022 | Commentary

Harry and Meghan are royals, or were royals, but this Netflix docudrama is not really about the monarchy. It’s a story about them, their love, their new family. They want to be seen and heard (and they deserve to be). They feel abused and misrepresented by the British tabloids. They want us all to know that they also have been mistreated by the Royal family, but this is different from an indictment of the monarchy, or colonialism, or the structural racism than underpins British rule.

The doc also is not an indictment of how the royal family is a problematic imperial, racist, misogynist institution. It rather shows how some of the royals have been unkind and abusive, so the focus is on individuals rather than systems of power. Harry and Meghan have faced more extreme demands than most of us non-royals, but much of their story applies to many traditional (heterosexual white) families’ function too — with obligation rather than love, with power rather than discussion, with arrogance rather than reparation.

Too many people suffer the toxic familism of their families — the expected demands, and obligations, as they go to visit family through the holiday. Is there somewhere else they’d rather be? Is the obligation rather than love a very ordinary story for many people — at least for those who have a bit of family in their lives? How many people do I know who say: I would rather stay home with my friends who love me?

There was so much hype for the Netflix docuseries “Harry and Meghan” and millions watched it. Me too. So why do you think? Obsession with royals? Not really. Obsession with Diana’s story and carrying hope that this will be a continuation of it? Maybe. Obsession with romantic love stories? Yes, a bit. Wondering what the critique of the Crown will look like even though we know a lot of the narrative? Yes. Wondering how or if racism will really be tackled as part of the royal family’s DNA? Yes, I am really curious, and pretty doubtful.

Let me start again: full disclosure. I was a fan of Meghan Markle long before she was well known. She was the paralegal on “Suits,” which was a favorite TV show of mine from the start. (I watch TV as my simple pleasure, at night to unwind and connect, so to speak, with people who expect nothing of me. All I must do is watch them.)

So when Meghan came on the British empire scene I wondered who she would be. Clearly gorgeous, and high fashion, and biracial — what was not to like? But I should mention that I had never seen Meghan described as biracial or Black. It had little presence, and as far as I can tell she never described herself as such, or rather the media did not, which I know is not the same thing.

In the end, or maybe at the start, this is the Duke and Duchess’s very personal telling of a political narrative; and they are trying to say there is no personal life allowed for a member of the royal family. But more to the point, the royal family is not just a family but rather a political/imperial institution of obligation and duty, rather than love.

But might I note that many families are more about duty and obligation than love; that the myth of love is used to cover the personal obligations in this sphere. I remember when I had my daughter I promised myself and her and her father that she would do what she chose because she would be free to choose who she loved with no expectation or obligation; that if she loved me, she could choose to visit me from college, or make time for me. I would have to earn this, so to speak.

In the end the docuseries was overwhelmed by a very ideological/illusory idea: that the most important thing in life is family and raising one’s children. In the end Harry and Meghan did not leave the royal household because they thought it was a brutal imperial racist outdated colonial structure — but because they were not being allowed to be the people they wanted to be as royals. This was not a structural political indictment, it was a plea for a different personal choice within it.

They wanted to raise their children the way they wanted to, and thought it should be done. They are not asking for a new royal institutional model, or even a new familial model, but rather for them to have the freedom to raise their children in it as they wish. But even this minimal request was too scandalous.

I am back to a pretty old, constructed query: Can you reform the racist patriarchal family? Yes, you can reform it a bit, but in this case, not enough. Harry and Meghan do not demand a revolution of sorts, which is what they need. I think they are reformists who do not understand that racist misogyny must be more than modernized, it needs to be decapitated as part of an anti-racist feminist belief that will allow the freedom they yearn for.

I wish Harry and Meghan had thought through more what exactly they are asking for rather than mainly declaring what they do not like. Making this docu-series in a post-Roe America asks/demands for more. Could she not express the importance of women’s choice about childrearing and pregnancy just once amidst all her adoration of motherhood? So many women today feel like motherhood is a complicated choice, and others cannot afford a second or third child. Some women who grew up in toxic families want none. When so many of us have lost the right to choose, do you make a doc that totally prescribes mothering at the heart of your/our life?

I wanted to hear more from Meghan, and her mother, about how white privilege punished them in their everyday lives before Prince Harry showed up. I wanted to hear more about how racism defined her life in Britain and her daily interactions. And then I wanted to hear structural racism defined as playing a part in the fire at Grenfell Towers.

My favorite sections of the series were the work Meghan did with the Muslim community in London after this horrible, deadly Grenfell Tower fire. The work she did there mattered. It is interesting that this political involvement by Meghan never was exposed and publicized much and instead her baby bump(s) and designer clothes were.

A wish: clean up the queries I raise and then people won’t dismiss this doc as just a money-making scheme, but rather an act of talking truth to power. I actually think that Meghan might be able to do this.


Zillah Eisenstein is a noted international feminist writer and activist and Professor Emerita, Political Theory, Ithaca College.  She is the author of many books, including “The Female Body and the Law” (UC Press, 1988), which won the Victoria Schuck Book Prize for the best book on women and politics; “Hatreds” (Routledge., 1996), “Global Obscenities” (NYU Press, 1998),  “Against Empire” (Zed Press, 2004), and most recently, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism” (Monthly Review Press, 2019).

Photo by Mark Jones on Flickr.


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