“Harry and Meghan Won’t Play the Game.” The headline, taken from a January 2020 article published by The Atlantic, makes an appearance less than two minutes into Netflix’s record-breaking Harry & Meghan. Right off the bat, the irony is palpable: Clearly, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will play the game to some degree. The docuseries is the first result of a multiyear deal that the couple signed with Netflix for somewhere between $100 million and $150 million, after all.
This is the kind of contradiction that has had many rolling their eyes, and predictably, there are more where that came from throughout Harry & Meghan’s six episodes. In Episode 2, Meghan tells the camera that her mixed-race identity never factored into her life until it was made an issue by the British media. Minutes later, we’re told by her Suits cast and crewmates about how groundbreaking it was that her character, Rachel Zane, was biracial – and how the writers drew from Meghan’s own background to build her. Later, the final episode centers around the idea that, after all the horrors they’ve experienced under the microscope of public scrutiny, they are “focused on what’s next” and “finally moving on.” Yet, here they are.
The inconsistencies and periodic tackiness are made all the more unfortunate by the fact that Harry & Meghan actually has some important points to make, particularly about the unrelenting wave of misogyny and racism that Meghan experienced (and still experiences) at the hands of the media and the British royal institution. Outside of detours into the couple’s first correspondences on Instagram, or how important it was that everything be indisputably perfect for history’s most highly publicized wedding, the series reminds us that we, as a society, are still not as progressive as we might like to think.
The final three episodes, in particular, magnify the racism of the press and the legacy of British colonialism in the context of Harry and Meghan’s tumultuous experience as British royals. Countless headlines describing Meghan as “straight out of Compton” or “gangster royalty” from “a crime-ridden neighborhood” are splashed across the screen at the same time as others associate her with drugs and terrorism. As British writer and academic Kehinde Andrews explains, using the N-word “wouldn’t be civilized,” but “it’s perfectly fine to dog-whistle” with articles that stereotype or shift tactics entirely by calling her a diva or alleging that she made royal staffers cry. Later, Harry recalls the photo posted by BBC journalist Danny Baker following the birth of Archie, their first son, which depicted the couple posing hand-in-hand with a chimpanzee.
Harry does seem passably aware of the historical pitfalls of the system he represents. There’s talk of unconscious bias and, after a recollection of the time he wore a Nazi uniform to a party in 2005 (which he describes as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life”), the way his family views racial issues. “There is a huge level of unconscious bias,” he says. “But once it has been pointed out, or identified within yourself, you then need to make it right. It is education. It is awareness. It is a constant work in progress for everybody, including me.” There are other examples that could stand to be addressed, but it does feel significant that statements like these are coming from a Windsor prince.
Many had hoped that the addition of Meghan Markle to the system would be representative of an evolving Britain. A handful of British historians contribute their own analyses of the Institution; one that made it impossible for “someone like her” to be accepted by a Commonwealth that pens itself as a “voluntary association” of nations to this day. Former West Africa bureau chief of The Guardian calls the Commonwealth “the Empire 2.0,” and Andrews argues that conditions for millions of Black people under the Commonwealth have remained the same for over half a century. Andrews then pegs “commonwealth” as merely a nicer word for “empire.” Reactions to takes like these have varied, but the ongoing coverage of the Harry and Meghan saga has undoubtedly put the Royal Family’s refusal to modernize – and the ways in which this resistance remains harmful to millions of British citizens – under a new level of scrutiny.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Harry & Meghan is self-indulgent from start to finish, nor that it spends ample time trying to counter the tabloid fodder that made Meghan Markle one of the most loved, hated, and potentially misunderstood women in the world almost overnight. It doesn’t offer much we didn’t already know, either – that Tyler Perry reveal is the closest it comes to a revelation fit for reality TV. Instead, it’s a retelling of a story we wouldn’t have needed to hear again if this version didn’t leave us with bigger, more important questions than, Who is Meghan Markle, really?