Editor’s Note: Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and author of the new book “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Let’s just stipulate that racism probably played a role in the scurrilous press coverage and barely-disguised slights – including from some within the royal family – that Meghan Markle has been subjected to in Britain.
Even one of the organizations governing media in the United Kingdom conceded last year that “there is a lot of work to be done” when covering issues related to race. That statement was issued amid an outcry from journalists of color over the unflattering coverage that Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, received in the aftermath of their famous sit down with Oprah Winfrey. The current firestorm over their new Netflix docuseries suggests to me that the media’s work in confronting this bias remains unfinished.
But the decidedly chilly reception that the Duchess of Sussex received as a “mixed-race” American divorcee – one of the major through lines of the six-part series in which she and Harry bare their souls – wasn’t really the main point of the project.
Ultimately, this series is about freeing oneself from family dysfunction, healing and moving forward.
Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary series debuted last week with three initial installments. The last three episodes, which debuted this week, offered a powerful reminder that sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away from our family members in hopelessly toxic situations, even though we still love them. Sometimes you have to choose yourself over those relatives, even if they are part of a powerful and exalted institution.
It’s a vivid lesson in how to look after oneself when the people around you not only don’t seem to care if you survive, but also seem to be secretly, actively making sure you don’t thrive. And it provides an in-depth window into surviving familial conflict, navigating outsize personalities and cavernous gulfs dividing close relatives. That can be especially hard when you’re struggling to maintain your sense of autonomy and your own integrity while trapped in a system that affords you very little of either.
At least, that’s the plot line that resonates most for me, because I have lived aspects of their story, although on a much more modest scale. In fact, my guess is that many of the millions of people who have watched the series can relate. We’ve had to learn over the years that no matter how much you may want to heal broken relationships, you have to know ultimately when to walk away and how to take care of yourself.
I “get” Harry and Meghan. I’ve experienced some of the very same lessons in my own sometimes tumultuous, dysfunctional family, which is why I wrote my latest book, “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” What I find fascinating is how clueless many people seem to be about family estrangement and break-ups, rife as they are in these modern times.
The Sussexes both experienced unhappiness in childhood because of divorce. Meghan describes a lonely childhood shuttling between her mother’s home in California and her dad’s.
Harry’s story is not just sad, but tragic: The second son born to Diana, who died in a car crash in 1997, he marched solemnly behind her coffin, showing Britain that even as a 12-year old, he was already a perfect, stoic member of the royal family. That’s a lot to ask of any child.
I’m surprised at how shocked some people seem to be that as members of a millennial generation famous for sharing and sometimes oversharing, Meghan and Harry did not hold back when it came to airing their dirty laundry about the dysfunction within the royal fold.
Theirs is a generation that does not want to be hamstrung by the strictures of tradition, even if it comes adorned with a tiara and conveyed in a golden carriage. When millennials spill the tea, they do so publicly – in videos and on social media.
Now these most famous members of their generation have bared their souls in Netflix’s most-viewed documentary in the first week of its debut. And in the parlance of today – language not apparently familiar to their royal betters – the Sussexes are speaking their truth.
Under the watchful eye of Harry’s grandmother Elizabeth II, beloved as she was, Britain’s royal family was never known for being open and forthcoming. By contrast, Meghan, very much a child of her generation, explains in the the documentary that “a big part of life is connecting and communicating.” A culture clash if ever there was one.
She was remarking on an interview a few years back in which a reporter had simply asked her, “Are you OK?” Her response, as tears welled in her eyes, made world headlines: “Thank you for asking, because not many people have asked if I’m OK.”
Those comments went viral, because they gave us insights into the toll of being a new Duchess. They were also eerily reminiscent of remarks made by a young Princess Diana, who in a now infamous BBC interview described how she too had been hung out to dry in a family that does not always warmly welcome outsiders who marry into their ranks.
We’ve all read the headlines about how Meghan recounted even considering taking her own life as she unsuccessfully tried to navigate what Harry called a “drip feed of constant attack.” He also described what he called “institutional gaslighting” that he and his wife endured. And in one of the most quoted lines from the Netflix series, Meghan described feeling that she had been not just “thrown to the wolves – I was being fed to the wolves.” Buckingham Palace has declined to respond to the allegations made in the series.
At various points in the documentary series, Harry describes ways in which Meghan reminds him of his mother, a woman known for being open, caring and empathic. He seems to suggest that in casting his lot with Diana and Meghan, he understands that he has sealed his fate as an outsider to his royal kin.
What Harry and Meghan are doing is telling their own story, not repeating the royal family talking points as they were required to do while living within its purview. Yes, they are “outing” the royals for their flaws and failings, its secret machinations and disingenuousness.
Harry is also exposing the monarchy’s longstanding tradition of courting the media and blaming it at the same time. But he is also saying, in so many words: History will not repeat itself. I will protect my wife, my children and my own emotional and mental wellbeing – even if it means breaking with the only family I have ever known.
One irony raised by various subjects during the series, is that the royals had a golden opportunity to truly embrace and protect both Harry and Meghan – and use their unique love story, their star power and their readiness to confront outdated traditions to modernize the 1,000-year-old institution.
Meghan might have been the very addition to the family who could have helped build a bridge to the next generation of Britons – and to the overwhelmingly Black and brown inhabitants of Britain’s Commonwealth nations. It’s an opportunity that has been squandered.
And here’s another unpleasant truth that the series makes plain – one that will be hard for some to stomach: The British royal family seems unlikely to survive as an institution in its current form. Its survival is in doubt because – as we saw confirmed in this documentary – it is dusty, creaky and out-of-step with the times. It can also be cruel, unkind, and hopelessly unwilling to adapt or embrace the new views about human connection and diversity that is the source of vitality in many countries around the world.
The series showed the footage and the images don’t lie. Even the young royals, Kate and William, received a chilly reception in majority-Black Jamaica this year, as the island contemplates exiting the Commonwealth. It also showed William’s father King Charles III – at the time still Prince of Wales – sitting stony-faced in Barbados, as that Caribbean island ended its membership in the body.
In short, Harry and Meghan are not villains, nor are they trying to tear down the royal family. In the language of today, they are speaking their truth, as unpleasant as it might be, judging from the reaction of some critics.
Looking for freedom from his family’s longstanding and very public dysfunction, Harry has found it with his American wife Meghan and their two children. In the end, the Sussexes have claimed their independence in the most unroyal way imaginable.