The royal wedding between actress Meghan Markle and Prince Harry is a reminder that even the most consciously egalitarian societies create their own elites.
It’s not just a matter of our shallower selves succumbing to some extended click-bait. Nor is seeking to avoid the massive publicity surrounding Prince Harry’s marriage to American Meghan Markle (and good luck with that) necessarily a sign of superior discernment.
In the great scheme of things, this is mostly just a feel-good celebrity event. A nice-seeming man, whose grandmother is this country’s titular, but purely ornamental, head of state, is marrying a nice-seeming A-list television actor.
Slightly more resonant appeal lies in the fact that the British royal family is finally reviewing its stultifying protocol. Markle has African-American heritage and is a divorcee: both of those characteristics would, not very long ago, have made it difficult for her to marry into the family. The elimination of antiquated rules that have caused misery – including to Harry’s parents and his great-aunt Margaret – is cause for celebration.
It’s also irresistibly cheering that Markle is no simpering handmaiden, but intends to express opinions as a newly minted royal. Styled “Ms” on the wedding invitations, she renounced the shallows of serial television for humanitarian work before her engagement. She clearly has no intention of becoming a mere fashion plate.
But there are deeper reasons so many of us respond to events such as royal weddings, even while we suspect it’s a bit silly of us. Anachronistic though they may be, the doings of royalty are probably a natural human preoccupation because human societies always seek hierarchies.
Democracy has helped us evolve beyond hereditary rule and oppressive feudalism, but even the most consciously egalitarian societies create their own sets of elites. In this country, as in many others, sports stars, actors, newsreaders, musicians, business figures – all manner of “commoners” – are hoisted onto unofficial pedestals.
They have great influence over us, if not actual power, and in that regard, they sit above our elected leaders, whatever our constitutional arrangements say. It’s in this grouping that the royals, with their exclusivity and mystique, now belong. They help fill our need for exemplars and norms: people to look up to, people to inspire us, people we identify with, people who make us feel less alone.
Another driver of our fascination with royalty is the human need for stories and archetypes. Royals have been staple protagonists for nearly as long as humans have been telling stories and our appetite for them endures. One need only look at what’s wryly termed the Princess Industrial Complex, the Disney-led global marketing mania around anything to do with princesses: endless new riffs on Snow White and Cinderella – and even a Polynesian princess, Moana – have been among the biggest marketing phenomena of recent decades.
It’s more than just escapism; it can be reassuring. As Victoria University psychology professor Marc Wilson says, “We can tell ourselves that here is a nice girl who has married a prince, no less – and if this can happen to her, then the world is a fair and just place.”
Naturally, we need to keep our infatuation with fairy tales, fictional or real-life, under control. There is well-founded anxiety about what messages the pink and sparkly princess franchise gives to young girls. As kick-ass as some of these fictional princesses are – and indeed, as Markle appears to be – there is generally the same rather dubious motif: girl meets prince and is swept off to a life of kept splendour. This needs constantly to be balanced by ensuring children are equipped with more empowering messages about what girls can aspire to – including not giving up careers for a man.
It’s also hard to argue there’s much of an intersection between the boutique reality of the royals and the lives the rest of us lead. They do good work for charity and can be a progressive force for societal tolerance and compassion. But for every viewer swept up in the royal pageantry, there will be another stewing about the regressive worship of hereditary privilege and the conspicuous expense.
It may be best not to overthink things. The truth is probably that the sceptics revel in their Grinch-like responses to this event as much as others rejoice in it as a happy occasion.
This editorial was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.