Friday 22 June 2018

Ian O'Doherty: All hail the House of Markle - America has a new biracial queen

As the confetti settles on a star-studded royal ­wedding, Ian O'Doherty writes that the ­monarchy - with Meghan ­Markle on board - has somehow been tasked with healing America's racial divide

Royal glitz: Meghan arriving for her wedding with her mother, Doria. Photo: Oli Scarff
Royal glitz: Meghan arriving for her wedding with her mother, Doria. Photo: Oli Scarff
Meghan eaving St George's Chapel, Windsor with husband Prince Harry
American bishop Michael Curry
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Everyone loves a good royal wedding - even those who say they hate them.

In fact, if the evidence of the last few weeks is to be believed, many of the loudest anti-royal critics seemed more fixated by the event than all but the most ardent fan of the monarchy.

There can be little doubt that the world has moved on since the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, when deference was the order of the day.

In fact, the world has moved on since the last big royal nuptials, between William and Kate, back in 2011.

Meghan eaving St George's Chapel, Windsor with husband Prince Harry
Meghan eaving St George's Chapel, Windsor with husband Prince Harry

In the seven years since the second heir to the throne walked his bride up the aisle, we've seen the rise of social media, the emergence of identity politics and a weird, viciously egalitarian impulse which insists that everyone is equal and nobody should ever be placed on a pedestal.

In fact, we have entered the age of mediocrity, where the strength of people's feelings are seen as important as the strength of their argument and everyone has an opinion on everything, whether they have any understanding of the issues or not.

Yet when it comes to the royals, it seems, all the fashionable causes are tossed by the wayside and people once more retreat to the old classics - are you a royalist or a republican? A monarchist or a democrat?

It seems rather anachronistic and even slightly bizarre that in 2018, the world stopped for a wedding steeped in privilege, inherited grandeur, pageantry, pomp and circumstance.

But then again, even by the standards of a royal wedding, this one was unusual.

British broadcasters will have been disappointed and surprised at the fact that this wedding garnered smaller viewing figures than the 2011 jamboree, which remains oddly defined by the sight of Pippa Middleton's backside.

American bishop Michael Curry
American bishop Michael Curry

Last Saturday's wedding between Harry and Meghan Markle attracted 18 million viewers, which is a large slump from the 28 million who tuned in for William and Kate's big day, but that doesn't tell the full picture. After all, social media and online-viewing on live streaming platforms have largely supplanted TV as the favoured means of watching big events for an entire generation, and it's a sign of changing times that the number of Tweets sent during the ceremony - 3.4 million - is now seen as being as valuable a mechanism as the TV ratings.

Not surprisingly, given the bride's background, the event was an even bigger draw in the US than it was in the UK.

Close to 30 million tuned in Stateside - a figure that well exceeds the Oscars, or even the season finale of Game of Thrones. In fact, the only show bigger for American broadcasters would be the Super Bowl, that broadcasting behemoth which attracts in excess of 100 million every year.

It's often claimed that the Windsors - or to be more accurate, the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha - are a soap opera and they certainly have enough mad family members of demented hangers-on to fill an hour a night of soapy goings on.

Relatives going rogue

But while the English tabloid media were only able to slag Kate Middleton for having a boring family with a pushy mother, the House of Markle brought things to an entirely new level.

Everyone knows that weddings can be stressful for even the most loved-up couple.

That's because, by the very nature of such occasions, there's always the chance of at least one distant relation going rogue and putting a damper on events. Everyone has an anecdote of some wedding they attended that went wrong in hilariously spectacular ways, although that's never much fun for the newlyweds. Yet from the moment the pair first announced their engagement in November last year, the hacks didn't have to dig deep to find the kind of family backstory that can keep a reporter happy for a month.

The fact that he was marrying a 'commoner' wasn't such a big deal since his older brother had done the same thing a few years ago.

The fact that he was marrying a commoner who also happened to be a moderately well-known actress, was beautiful, biracial and came from the kind of splintered, bickering family most of us can relate to, brought the scrutiny to an even higher level.

On this side of the pond, little was made of her biracial background. Or perhaps, if it is not entirely accurate to say 'little' was made of it, it's certainly fair to say that the media in Ireland and England didn't make as big a deal of it as their American counterparts. That's because the rolling dice of racial politics are played for much higher stakes in the US than they are in this part of the world and it has been fascinating to see so many left-leaning American outlets, who would normally be the first to be sniffy about the monarchy, embrace this event with gusto and think pieces. So, so many think pieces.

Writing for Vox, for example, psychologist Sarah E Gaither wrote: "Growing up in the late 80s as a biracial girl, I never had a mixed-race princess whose image I could sport on my backpack or lunchbox."

Now that unfortunate and rather specific scenario has been rectified, Gaither believes that: "With the royal wedding, I will celebrate with those tweeting #BlackPrincess. But for my own sake, and the biracial youth around the world who still don't have a princess of their own, I will also be celebrating with #BiracialPrincess."

That's an awful lot of racially weighted pressure to put on someone who was previously known simply as the cute chick from Suits, but in fairness to Meghan Markle, she didn't let the burden weigh her down too much.

That the royal family, perhaps the most obvious symbol of wealth and inequality and inherited good fortune, should now be tasked with healing America's racial divide and become a beacon of inclusivity and tolerance is not lost on most people, and certainly not on Markle herself.

Her decision to include black Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry may have raised some eyebrows when it was announced, but that was nothing compared to the reaction his sermon received.

Clocking in at an impressive 14 minutes - about 12 minutes more than he was originally allotted - the Bishop remains unrepentant about his grandstanding, which saw some people praise heaven while others just rolled their eyes in its general direction.

Like everyone involved, particularly from her side, the bishop has benefited from his involvement in the ceremony, so much so that he boasted on Wednesday that he now "attracts groupies", which is surely proof that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

But the ones who most definitely were not involved or even invited have been quick to turn a buck as well.

From her father selling pap shots of him buying food in a shop before apparently suffering a heart attack that was strong enough to keep him out of the UK but mild enough to allow him to be papped once more, this time outside a Chinese takeaway a few days later; to the half sister who is flogging a book called The Diary of Princess Pushy's Sister; to the other half brother who grows weed for a living, everyone has been cashing in.

That sister, Samantha, only changed her surname from Grant to Markle when the engagement was announced and she has since denied allegations of profiteering by pointing out that: "It's not cashing in, to share fond feelings and memories. Here's what's fundamentally wrong - if family and friends don't make any money, the journalists and tabloid get to make tonnes of money and they have less right to make any money than the family."

It should be pointed out, in the interests of fairness, that she also wants people to know that she's not in it for the money.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this wedding seemed to attract so much attention wasn't because of the institution involved, but the people.

While William could be seen as the Tim Henman of the royal family and his bride is equally beige and bland, Harry always had a touch of the wild child about him and his active military service, and the fact that he has always liked a pint or two, made him seem a bit more relatable than his older brother.

Similarly, while you could argue that William's family is at least as mad as Meghan's, and probably even more so, the fact that her brood have been so open about their travails has given people the illusion that the couple 'are just like us'.

Of course, the rather obvious reality that he is a royal blue blood and she is an actress means they are not like us in even the most remote way, but everyone has a few bad apples stubbornly dangling from the branches of their family tree and their respective efforts to be seen as 'normal' seem to have worked a treat.

For now at least.

Every country has its own prejudices and touchy subjects. In Britain it is class. In the US it's race.

For some in Ireland, it would appear, it is still the royal family.

With numerous hotels around the country hosting special events to mark the occasion last week, one hotel in Donegal was forced to cancel its planned coverage of the wedding, and even felt compelled to apologise for any 'offence' the very idea of such an event caused some Republicans.

In Greystones, a group of heroic revolutionaries called Anti Imperialist Action Ireland threatened 'direct action' against the Whale Theatre for broadcasting the event, accusing anyone who went of being 'West Brits' who had blood on their hands and "should be ashamed of themselves".

In a warning to wedding-lovers, they said: "Not only will you be celebrating the ongoing occupation of six Irish counties and Britain's normalisation strategy in Ireland, you will also be celebrating the illegal Zionist occupation of Palestine and its ongoing campaign of genocide against the Palestinian people."

That's an impressive leap of the imagination by any standards, although quite how watching a wedding made people complicit in the "ongoing campaign of genocide against the Palestinian people" was never made clear.

But nobody really cares about that stuff anymore - and to credit Mary Lou McDonald, she managed to hold back whatever cutting remark came to mind when she wished the couple well.

Away from all the sociological navel gazing, and fierce ruminations on the future of the royal family and how they are now somehow embedded into the racial conflict zone that is the US, perhaps the best summation came, unwittingly, and rather ironically, from a leading member of an anti-royalist pressure group.

While complaining that the royals had turned the wedding into a "public event" - wasn't that the entire point? - Graham Smith of Republic dismissed the occasion arguing that: "People will watch it but it's just like the Kardashians."

He was right, even if he was right for all the wrong reasons.

The people who tuned in did so because they wanted to see what dress the bride was wearing and because some people simply like a bit of glitz and glamour.

It might not be to everyone's taste, but all the reports celebrating the fact that 60pc of this country said they wouldn't watch the service seemed to miss the real take-out from that stat - which is that 40pc of the country did want to watch it.

The allure of simple escapism remains eternal and while different people expressed different reason for either watching or not watching, the furore caused by the union remains a fascinating, weird phenomenon that says more about the changing nature of society than it does about the Windsors.

Now let us never speak of it again...

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