It seems like every time the Duchess of Sussex steps out of the house, the British press can't wait to write about how she's not quite getting this royal thing right. Every time she turns up and does her job at an official engagement, there's a flurry of pieces accusing Meghan Markle of "breaking Royal protocol." Seriously, what is that about?
Markle is a shiny new addition to one of the world's most famous families and it's natural that people are interested in her, but why do so many articles around her carry with them the suggestion that she's somehow doing something wrong? As if she's not quite getting it, or falling short of the Royal mark?
The concept of "royal protocol" is a slippery one. When articles use the term, it suggests that there's a rule book that Markle is ripping up with every shoulder bearing ensemble, messy bun, or merest hint that she has a personality. Except there isn't. The "breaks with protocol" reference that these articles most often cite, like Markle's preference for off-the-shoulder style dresses, are often proved wrong on social media shortly after. So why do they keep churning with the story?
The Duchess of Cambridge and the Queen herself have both worn bare shoulders to official engagements, and yet the message that Markle is some sort of rebel for daring to show a few inches of skin (don't worry, you haven't accidentally stepped in a time machine and been transported back to the Victorian era, this is still 2018) persists. Why is that? It's highly unlikely the Queen cares, so why is everyone else so bothered?
Royal expert Victoria Arbiter has spoken out about the use of the phrase "Royal protocol" around Markle and why it's so weird. She wrote on Twitter: "The phrase 'in a break with protocol' really needs to be reined in. There is no royal fashion police, Meghan is not breaking any rules & if common sense prevails it should be clear that Harry is there to guide her 100 percent."
The problem with the idea of "breaking protocol" as used by the British press is that it sets up Markle as an outsider to the royal family, someone who can't quite figure out its rules because she doesn't really belong there. This might seem like a stretch, but cast your mind back to November 2016 when, in the aftermath of Harry and Markle's relationship going public, the prince released a statement condemning the racist and sexist coverage of her in the press.
The statement read: "Meghan Markle has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public — the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."
A lot of stories focused on Markle's "background", or alluded subtly to her "differences" from Harry's previous white girlfriends (code for her mixed-race ethnicity). Former MP Ann Widdecombe aired her disapproval of Markle on national TV, for these same reasons. This is something known as dogwhistle racism and is a tactic whereby covert racism sneaks into rhetoric pretending to be legitimate criticism or comment.
When I read articles about Markle "breaking royal protocol", I hear that dogwhistle. As Arbiter explained to Town & Country, royal protocol as the press seems to understand it, doesn't really exist. "When it comes to the royal world, protocol is a code of conduct," she told the magazine. "It’s etiquette; it’s custom; it has nothing to do with clothes." So if it isn't really a thing in royal circles the insistence on "protocol" outside of them must be a sign of something else.
The other problem with the focus on these so-called "breaks with royal protocol" is that it detracts from the power Markle does have to modernise the royal family. She's made it clear that she's going to continue focusing on elevating and improving the lives of women around the world in her new role as the Duchess of Sussex, so why isn't everyone talking about that?
Arbiter elaborated in Town & Country: "[Markle] is very respectful of the institution, and when she’s ready to make her mark, it won’t be what she’s choosing to wear to Trooping the Colour. It’ll be the causes she decides to support or the charities that she champions or the people she gets behind."
When the press ignores Markle's real power for change in an institution that desperately needs updating, women everywhere lose out. So let's stop belittling her, berating her, and judging her wardrobe choices. She'll be making far more important statements with her actions soon enough.