Meghan Markle and Prince Harry skip the (first) royal baby photo. But Meghan's femininity stays in the spotlight.

When it comes to the royal presentation of womanhood, the Duchess of Sussex is caught between the queen and the commentariat.
Image: Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, attends the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 11, 2019.
Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, attends the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 11, 2019.Samir Hussein / WireImage file
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By Danielle Campoamor

On Monday, the former Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex welcomed her first child with Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. The baby boy will now be seventh in line for the throne, behind his father, Prince Harry. It’s a celebratory time for the royal family, who welcomed Prince Louis, the third child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, a little over a year ago.

The ways in which Meghan’s pregnancy was anticipated, dissected and judged by royal family watchers have been predictably problematic.

But the ways in which Meghan’s pregnancy was anticipated, dissected and judged by royal family watchers have been predictably problematic. Producing an heir less than a year after the couple married faithfully upholds the heteronormative, performative femininity seemingly required of all royal women. At the same time, the pushback that has accompanied Meghan’s even minor attempts to modernize this performance is a reminder of how trapped the women at the center of these traditions can become. The "People’s Princess" of 2019 is no more immune to the prescribed muliebrity inherent in the royal family than her mother-in-law, Princess Diana.

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Meghan has so far bucked some of the royal family’s more recently established traditions. Unlike her sister-in-law, Kate — or any other royal woman that has given birth since the 1980s — she declined to continue the ritual of presenting the baby to the press hours post-birth. We didn't see Meghan perfectly pressed and poised, postpartum belly showing ever-so-slightly under her carefully selected dress, an hours-old baby wrapped in white lace. Instead of consuming the sight of a newly minted mother fighting through exhaustion, standing in heels on the steps of the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, Harry emerged to talk about the miracle of birth solo. Meghan remained where every royal woman should remain post-birth: in bed, presumably, with her baby.

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The royal family did emerge on Wednesday, however, camera-ready as always, to present their son to the world's media.

But the vitriol Meghan faced, the speculation she’s navigated and the pressure she’s endured during the less than a year that she’s been married highlight both the power of the royal family’s gendered traditions as well as the power of our own expectations. When it comes to royal traditions, Meghan is caught between the queen and the commentariat, both of whom seem equally convinced that they have the right to guide her decisions in accordance to their own personal opinions on women and feminism.

Case in point, Fridababy CEO Chelsea Hirschhorn penned a full-page open-letter to Meghan in The New York Times earlier this year, urging the mom-to-be to ditch the postpartum pomp and circumstance. “So when the ‘big reveal’ day arrives but you’re feeling like all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put your vagina back together again — use this stage to do your part for all women who are about to embark on their first ‘fourth trimester,’” Hirschhorn wrote.

Whatever you feel about the postpartum photo op — and I find it a ludicrous attempt to create an illusion of postpartum perfection that doesn’t really exist — the essay is also a reminder that women, especially famous women, preparing to embark on the personal, powerful and oftentimes punishing journey of motherhood are still expected to do their part “for all women.” The implication, inadvertent or not, was that Meghan shouldn’t ditch the pomp and circumstance for her sake, but for ours.

Meghan ended her career as an actress, shuttered her lifestyle blog and shut down her personal social media accounts shortly after her engagement — actions all expected of her in duty to her marriage and the assumption that she'd soon start a family. Her willingness to walk away from so much of what she had created for herself in favor of an aristocracy that would create things for her is far from what most would label feminist. This may have made the royal family happy, but it frustrated progressives who are expecting her to fit into another role: that of the rule-breaking, independent black sheep.

Would I, for one, have liked to have seen Meghan walk out of Frogmore Cottage in sweats and a T-shirt, hair in a messy bun, sans makeup, sipping on a well-earned beer? Of course. But that would be for my benefit, as a feminist mother who has given birth twice and so desperately wants what’s arbitrarily expected of mothers to die a thousand, miserable medieval deaths. It would still be a performance thrust on a new mom; the absence of choice and as such the antithesis of feminism.

Would I, for one, have liked to have seen Meghan walk out of Frogmore Cottage in sweats and a t-shirt, hair in a messy bun, sans makeup, sipping on a well-earned beer? Of course.

My point is that whether she’s donning an oversized hat and dutifully waving to crowds, or she’s writing her own speeches and reportedly “rubbing royals the wrong way” with her “American independence,” Meghan is at the mercy of a stage we, the people, have constructed. We’re the desperate high school girl from “Mean Girls,” looking at Meghan’s army pants and flip-flops and then deciding we, too, must wear army pants and flip flops.

In Andrew Morton’s “Diana: Her True Story,” the original “People’s Princess” discussed the pressure she felt when she was pregnant with William, as reported by People. “William had to be induced because I couldn’t handle the press pressure any longer, it was becoming unbearable. It was as if everyone was monitoring every day for me.” We, too, monitored Meghan practically every day of her pregnancy. Would she have a home birth? Would she look poised and pristine post-birth, like what we’ve come to expect from a royal? Would she “keep it real” for the rest of us, as we’ve come to expect from a feminist? Would she look how we have decided she should look, as a royal, a mom, and a woman?

Did she perform to the standards the royal family have set? Did she perform to the standards we’ve created?

Will she keep performing for us all?