Misogynoir Nearly Killed Meghan Markle

Meghan Markle, a light-skinned mixed-race pregnant woman wearing a black dress, smiles as she sits in a tan wicker chair

Meghan Markle sits down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey on March 7, 2021 (Photo credit: Joe Pugliese/CBS)

I have never watched The Crown, Netflix’s ongoing historical drama about the British monarchy, and I didn’t watch the royal wedding in which Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s union was broadcast to millions of viewers. In fact, I have actively ignored Meghan and Prince Harry’s love story because of the continued devastating impact of the British empire on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color globally. Those atrocities can’t be wiped away by a mixed-race Black princess. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when Markle revealed the callousness of the actual Crown, also known as “the firm,” in the recent two-hour, no-holds-barred interview she and Harry gave to Oprah Winfrey. Even with the prospect of a self-congratulatory, potentially triumphant “love knows no color” narrative attempting the impossible work of assuaging centuries of colonial rule, the British monarchy refused to address the misogynoir that nearly killed Meghan Markle. As acclaimed author Bolu Babalola tweeted, “They had an affable, palatable woman who had a lifestyle site, was successful in her own right, and was involved heavily in philanthropy and they fucked it.”

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I coined the term misogynoir in 2008, though you probably didn’t learn about it until Trudy started doing some important theorizing of it on her blog Gradient Lair a few years later. At the time, I was thinking specifically about the health of Black women: I was a graduate student writing my dissertation about the way patients—specifically Black women—and future physicians (nearly exclusively white men), were represented in medical school yearbooks in the 1910s. I was simultaneously observing how Black women were portrayed in popular culture and on social-media platforms in the late aughts. I wasn’t surprised to see the hypersexual, angry, and vapid caricatures of Black women in either venue or time frame; but recognizing how little those images had changed in the intervening century was startling. The survival and mutation of the tired Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire tropes had me wanting to name the pernicious and synergistically adroit anti-Black racist misogyny that dominated the public sphere. I landed on the portmanteau “misogynoir,” a word that many Black women have found useful because it succinctly articulates the degrading representations and the resulting disparate treatment they engender for us in society. Meghan and Harry’s highly-anticipated sit-down with Oprah is only the most recent reminder that misogynoir comes for all Black women, regardless of skin color and class privilege. Even Meghan, with skin so light her Blackness is debated on social media, says #MeToo when it comes to misogynoir.

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Over the course of two hours, Meghan discussed being hounded by the British tabloid press—and, more importantly, revealed that the Crown’s disinterest in protecting her from harassment set the stage for the prince and duchess’s eventual departure from their jobs as working royals. Meghan noted that while she was, understandably, hurt by the bad press she received even before the wedding, it didn’t compel her to distance herself from royal duties. In fact, the couple’s 2018 trip to Australia illustrated the potentially placating narrative of a modern Crown that, at least superficially, wanted to do better by its former colonial subjects. Despite her willingness to endure, Meghan was unable to stave off media vitriol that became all the more harmful by the firm’s refusal to address the mounting pressure and pain it caused.

Meghan, and later Harry, described a conversation in which members of the royal family expressed concern over how dark her then unborn child’s skin might be. This conversation coupled with increasing harassment by the press and again, a refusal on the part of the firm to intervene, drove Markle to consider that it might be better for everyone if she wasn’t alive. She went to management saying she needed mental health help; they refused to provide it or allow her to seek it. I want to stress here that Meghan said she was having suicidal ideation and went to the institution where she worked for help, and she was told that nothing could be done. She asked again, and was again told no. Not only did the royal family refuse to protect her from the brutal misogynoir of the press, they also refused to allow her to access the mental-health support that could have mitigated some of that harm.

What makes Meghan’s near-death by suicide a particularly damning case of misogynoir is the degree of privilege she has as a light-skinned, class-privileged Black woman. In response to my tweet calling out the misogynoir she experienced, some people countered that it wasn’t misogynoir because Meghan has self-identified as mixed race and as a “woman of color.” I emphatically disagree. Whether Meghan calls herself a Black woman is irrelevant, as the animus she experiences has everything to do with her being read as a Black woman. In my forthcoming book, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance, I make clear that misogynoir is directed at anyone perceived as a Black woman despite how they identify. In the context of the book, I was thinking about agender, nonbinary, and gender variant Black folk who are read as Black women despite how they identify and subsequently experience misogynoir in a number of ways including this initial misgendering. Identifying as mixed race, or biracial, or as a “woman of color” didn’t protect Meghan from the British press or the living legacy of hypodescent. Additionally, these terms aren’t mutually exclusive from Black identity. Separating people who have historically and currently been read as Black into a distinct racial group because they also have a white parent does not end racism, nor does it mitigate misogynoir. My tweet was a call to consider how much worse the experience of negotiating misogynoir is for Black women with different facial features, darker skin, and less wealth than Meghan Markle.

Whether Meghan Markle calls herself a Black woman is irrelevant, as the animus she experiences has everything to do with her being read as a Black woman.

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Both Meghan and Harry emphasized that they would have continued to be working members of the royal family had the Crown offered them support. Meghan had no plans to challenge centuries-old hierarchies of power or contest the racist xenophobia of colonization and genocide. She was perfectly willing to take on and continue to perpetuate the myths of the monarchy, and in so doing participate in the illusion of a more diverse and accepting colonial rule. In one of the strange ironies of this fairy–turned–torrid tale, the couple sought refuge at Tyler Perry’s house, the house that misogynoir built, when it became clear that the crown would not protect them. Misogynoir both forced Meghan to flee and then became the architect of her safety as she and Harry figured out what was next.

Its own cruelty aside, the unwillingness of the Crown to protect Meghan from wildly inaccurate press seems to fly in the face of what might have been their own interest in distancing itself from its colonial past and present. But for her own sense of self preservation, Meghan could’ve been a casualty of the Empire that made her mother’s and subsequently her own existence possible. As identities, “biracial” and “mixed race” have only emerged in the last several decades, and do not incubate those who claim them from the misogynoir that being Black women engenders—the misogynoir that nearly cost Meghan Markle her life.

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by Moya Bailey
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