On April 11, Buckingham Palace issued a statement on behalf of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The note thanked well-wishers, but then got down to business: “Their Royal Highnesses have taken a personal decision to keep the plans around the arrival of their baby private. The Duke and Duchess look forward to sharing the exciting news with everyone once they have had an opportunity to celebrate privately as a new family.” For the first time in 42 years, a swaddled royal baby wouldn’t be paraded down the steps of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital, whose entrance was described by the New York Times last year as “the most stared-at doors in the world.”
“Short of having a birthing pool in Kensington Palace and having a flock of storks fly over, it’s in the book — having the baby at the Lindo is what they do,” Ken Wharfe, former bodyguard to Lady Diana, Prince William, and Prince Harry, once told People. “They won’t change it.” It seems the British press was just as cocksure; when they learned of the planned shake-up, they weren’t happy. After all, royal baby content means big money.
“Meghan you don’t get to claim ‘privacy’ after your star-studded baby shower and wedding that WE forked out £30m for,” read the headline in a story by the Sun’s Lauren Clark. “Being a royal isn’t a part-time job.” Meanwhile, non-journalists are incensed too, some calling for a ‘Megxit.’ Though many people — especially women and, more particularly, mothers — applauded the duke and duchess’s decision, it was clear that others felt cheated. To them, Meghan may have given up her acting career, but she’s still expected to play a role. All in the name of tradition.
Ironically, if Meghan does indeed have a home birth, she’d be carrying on a far more established tradition; St. Mary’s Hospital has been a royal birthing station for the past four decades to only three mothers of the monarchy: Princess Anne, Princess Diana, and Kate Middleton, the current Duchess of Cambridge. Not exactly a long-standing practice for an institution that’s existed since 1066 AD!
There’s no denying that life events of the royal family aren’t solely personal markers for the individuals. Over time, these moments have become shared, social rituals with the greater public. (Or perhaps they’re simply, for better or worse, distractions we welcome into our lives — a respite from the mundane or more pressing.) And consider what makes a person royal. It must either be through marriage — as is the case with Meghan — or through birth and bloodlines. The system may be archaic, but the obsession with royal pregnancies, on some level, makes sense. Babies are key to the monarchy’s preservation.
One could argue that British citizens deserve that early, first glimpse at the nation’s potential future heir. But Baby Sussex will be seventh in line for the throne and may not even earn a royal title. There’s also the media circus to consider; as the Lindo Wing photo op has become more of a convention over the years, it’s also become more and more unwieldy. What awaits outside the doorstep is a Pride Rock–esque presentation with fewer giraffes and zebras and more mounted ladders, clicking cameras, and creepy-looking dolls. Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir called it a “totally bonkers British orgy of bunting, popping corks, and knitted booties.” Definitely newborn-appropriate.
Since Meghan stepped into the royal sphere, she’s been assigned countless narratives that run the gamut. Some have been negative — the story of a social climber, a demanding diva, “Princess Pushy” — while others are more positive: She’s the beloved black princess, a modern-day Cinderella, the modernizer and unassuming savior of the monarchy. She’s become the trademark heroine in an opposites-attract fairy tale: a trans-Atlantic romance between a Yank and a Brit, a commoner and a prince, a biracial black woman and a white man.
And with this pregnancy, the tales keep spinning. She’s a palace-wrecker, the Duchess of Deceit, a menace to the monarchy. Even admirers have projected meaning onto her opting out of the Lindo Wing photo op; Hannah Fearn of the Independent, for example, praised Meghan’s delivery decision as an admission that “giving birth isn’t easy.” While the premise is true (pregnancy is hard), that interpretation isn’t necessarily accurate; Meghan probably isn’t keen to pull on pantyhose and wave to cameras hours after pushing a human being out of her body, but that might not be the primary reason for keeping the birth out of view. The truth is we don’t know Meghan’s truth, and her commitment to her privacy assures that.
And while Meghan’s refusal to an immediate postpartum performance has been called a shunning of royal protocol, the pressure seems misguided. Is it all really about tradition? Or rather a sense of entitlement to and ownership over Meghan’s life and body? What, if anything, can the Sussexes do to repurpose the rigid roles they’ve inherited?
Harry and Meghan's decision to keep mum about their birthing plan shouldn’t be that shocking. The couple has always been notoriously private. Their courtship began clandestinely — secret dates between London and Toronto, and a romantic getaway to Botswana. When word got out about the interracial, international relationship, the press pounced. Accordingly, the prince released an unprecedentedly stern statement to the media regarding their treatment of Meghan, which had included smear pieces hinging on racist and sexist tropes as well as the harassment of her and her family. “This is not a game — it is her life and his,” the memo read. Prince Harry wasn’t playing.
Prince Harry’s disdain for the UK’s tabloid press had been brewing since well before their coverage of Meghan. His mother, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel while trying to escape the paparazzi. Duncan Larcombe, author and former royal editor for the Sun, wrote last year, “In Harry’s mind, it was the press that killed his mother. I know that because he’s told me that several times privately.”
The Sussexes allowed minimal press at their wedding — reportedly four photojournalists outside the chapel, one reporter inside — and have since moved from London to Windsor’s Frogmore Cottage, for “more space and privacy,” according to a Vanity Fair source. But their efforts to keep the press at arm’s length have only done so much, particularly in protecting Meghan, who was 2018’s most googled person.
George Clooney, a friend and wedding guest of the Sussexes, told Australia’s Who magazine, “She has been pursued and vilified and chased in the same way that Diana was and it's history repeating itself.” And Oprah Winfrey, who’s cocreating a mental health documentary series with Prince Harry, also defended Meghan on CBS This Morning earlier this month: “If people really knew her, they would know that she is not only everything that we perceive of her as being — graceful and dynamic in holding that position — but that she just has a wonderful, warm, giving, loving heart. I see all the crazy press around her, and I think it’s really unfair.”
Curiosity can quickly veer into cruelty, and the royal reporters’ reaction to Meghan’s decision is proof. Dismay over an unmet expectation is one thing, but the fury shown feels indicative of something more vicious: a falsely obtained, but long-held license to a woman’s body. And the outcry is amplified by the fact that Meghan is a biracial American and still considered by some an outsider (in other words, unworthy).
There’s a sweet irony in Meghan’s temporary self-removal from the public sphere; though she’s constantly criticized as attention-seeking, she’s now causing uproar for being too private. But there’s also something quietly and specifically powerful about Meghan taking her pregnancy into her own hands, regardless of outside pressure. Baby Sussex will be the first (publicly acknowledged) biracial baby born into the British monarchy. Historically, the British public has claimed ownership — in very different ways — over both black and brown bodies as well as the lives of royal family members. So Meghan’s decision to navigate pregnancy on her own terms, prioritizing the well-being of her child — while occupying these complex roles and identities — is especially meaningful and unprecedented.
Not only will a biracial woman from America — a country where black women are three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than white women — (hopefully) be provided the comfort and environment she desires during delivery, but she is refusing the role of spectacle, of superhuman, that has been assigned to her.
Controversy around the birth plan wasn’t the first time Meghan’s comportment as a soon-to-be mom was questioned. She’s been bump-shamed for being too big and cradling her belly (“We get it, you’re pregnant!”). And then there are the troll-spawned conspiracy theories that the duchess is faking her pregnancy, strapping on a Moonbump for the myriad social engagements she’s expected to attend.
The royal family is under constant scrutiny, and their pregnancies are no exception. Tabloids once dubbed Sarah Ferguson the “Duchess of Pork” on account of her pregnancy weight gain, while the ever-svelte Kate Middleton was accused of faking her pregnancy (her slimness was partly due to severe morning sickness). And Meghan has been the target of significantly more vitriol and allegations of impropriety. She may have given up her acting career, but she’s still expected to perform.
The notion that pregnancy doubles as a public performance isn’t really new. Bouncing back from a post-baby bod has become an extreme, competitive sport. We glamorize the glow of soon-to-be mothers despite the morning sickness, fatigue, and swelling they may experience simultaneously. Meanwhile, the proliferation of Instagram moms promoting a picture-perfect family life is not only fueling a booming baby-product industry, but also providing aspirational — if unrealistic — models for motherhood.
The focus is even more intense on celebs who are expecting. The terms “flaunt” and “baby bump” often comingle in pregnancy-related headlines, and expecting moms are lucrative fodder to sell magazines. So-called cute pregnancies have become, as Anne Helen Petersen wrote in 2017, “one of the female celebrity’s primary modes of publicity.”
But on a deeper level, the way we see pregnant celebrities warrants societal self-reflection. We’ve turned pregnancy into a policed state. In Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, legal scholar and author Renée Ann Cramer writes, “When we watch the pregnant celebrity, we can see how our culture judges which bodies are acceptable and desirable — which performances of femininity and pregnancy are considered ideal.” And as we watch the pregnant Duchess of Sussex, we see what performances of royalty and race are deemed ideal, or simply acceptable, as well.
Meghan is far from the first public figure to prefer a discreet delivery process. Cardi B denied being pregnant for months, and later explained her reasoning, saying, “People be so thirsty to scrutinize and try to destroy something that itsuppose [sic] to be a blessing.” Celebrities like Adele have overtly requested privacy during their pregnancies, while others like Eva Mendes and Alexis Bledel have been stealthier, withdrawing from the public eye altogether. Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner retreated from the spotlight and later presented her pregnancy on her own (admittedly marketable) terms, much like Meghan seems to hope to do. The self-imposed seclusion is almost a retro move; pregnancy was once considered a hush-hush affair, not to be seen.
But now, instead of keeping a birth private for the sake of propriety, it’s become a decision, a choice. And when, as Cramer points out, surveillance of the pregnant body seems to coincide with a greater public ownership of it (which, in turn, can have socio-legal implications on the governance of women’s rights), the move to be out of sight translates to being more in control and demanding of dignity. The absence becomes a statement in itself.
“In a sense, her public role is a job,” says Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester. “So she’s saying, ‘I’m not working when my kid is 1 day old.’” It’s a move that establishes a boundary on behalf of all working moms, royal or not. Meghan’s prioritization of her well-being over her popularity sends a clear signal, even if being royal is considered a round-the-clock job.
Earlier this month, @sussexroyal was launched — the official Instagram account for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The account amassed over a million followers in fewer than six hours, setting a Guinness World Record for the milestone. As it stands now, over 5 million users follow the handle.
The couple’s affairs had previously fallen under the umbrella of @kensingtonroyal, Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton’s official page (the Sussexes have since been removed from the account description). Prince Harry and Meghan had already begun to (re-)enter the social media landscape in subtle ways — last year, Kensington Palace occasionally gave photo credit to the Duchess or Duke of Sussex — but the launch of a personal account indicates a clear shift.
There’s fair concern that this new social media foray will be too picture-perfect. “If [Harry and Meghan] manage to keep cutting out the tabloids, don’t be surprised if the ever-more-curated images we’re left with turn out to be just plain dull,” writes Slate’s Ruth Graham. But while the couple will likely cherry-pick photos and maintain a certain standard of self-presentation — just like most Instagram users — they’ve already shown a departure from other royal social media accounts.
Unlike the Cambridge clan — whose profile photo is a wholesome, autumnal family portrait — the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have a logo: a cursive, monogrammed H and M, topped with a coronet. They signed off from their inaugural post as “Harry & Meghan” — establishing a casual, first-name basis with their followers — whereas other members of the royal family use their titles in social media posts. And some detective work suggests that Meghan herself could be operating the account; some of its wording has favored certain American spellings and terms (e.g., diapers instead of nappies).
In essence, @sussexroyal seems more personal, and more stylized, reflecting the couple’s overall ethos that has so far endeared them to the public. And it displays their social media and marketing savvy. Between the Tig — Meghan’s old lifestyle blog — and her now-defunct personal Instagram, Meghan once had a prolific online presence filled with prototypical influencer material. (And despite the shutdown of her former online outlets as part of her princess prep, last year the New York Times suggested that Meghan may be the “biggest influencer of all.”) Meanwhile, Harry has been instrumental in modernizing the monarchy through his engagement in documentaries, frank interviews regarding mental health (both his and in general), and the casting of his grandmother, as well as the Obamas, in a promo video for the Invictus Games.
Their PR strategy is smart. It keeps them somewhat relatable and accessible — Instagram is the fastest-growing social network, yada yada — and it’s been practical too; a less formal PA system than the standard royal press releases, it recently allowed the couple to redirect baby-gift money to four different charities of their choosing. But while their approach breaks old, restrictive boundaries, it also establishes healthy ones, allowing the couple to bypass the media, whom they have no real obligation or reason to trust; the tabloid-monarchy relationship in particular has been far more parasitic than symbiotic. Moving forward, royal reporters may keep covering the couple in less-than-flattering ways, but the Sussexes now have less of an imperative to engage. Why reward bad behavior?
As this past February drew to a close, Beyoncé — the United States’ reigning monarch — posted a photo of herself and husband Jay-Z. Imitating an iconic moment from the Carters’ Louvre-located music video “Apeshit,” the duo stood proudly in front of a regal, sepia-tinged portrait of the Duchess of Sussex, a lustrous tiara atop her head and her neck draped in layers of pearls. Beside the photo, a message: “In honor of Black History Month, we bow down to one of our Melanated Monas. Congrats on your pregnancy! We wish you so much joy.”
Likening Meghan to the Mona Lisa is oddly fitting. There’s an air of mystery around her, not to mention a growing obsession with her smile. Both have become a thing to behold — among the most recognizable faces in the world — and both became absurdly famous in large part by chance. The Mona Lisa was propelled to fame due to a century-old art heist, while Meghan just happened to fall in love with the then–most eligible bachelor in the world. And, regardless of the truth, Meghan too has become a canvas upon which stories are painted.
Meghan’s move to assert her right to privacy, to parent as she sees fit, and to engage with followers directly allows her to rupture the tabloid ecosystem that she’s expected to rely on and feed into — an ecosystem that has for the most part only hurt her and her family. And in doing all of this, she’s clipping away her assigned narratives and choosing her own.
Maybe Meghan doesn’t want the public to know her, or she feels her status and assigned role makes it impossible. Maybe @sussexroyal will be her and her husband’s way of trying. Regardless, they are clearly edging outside of the rigid rules of royal conduct and into self-determination — perhaps the only luxury never truly afforded to the British monarchy. When it comes to the royals — and perhaps, in our age of precarious digital privacy, everyone else too — privacy becomes a privilege.
When @sussexroyal was born, a month before Baby Sussex was set to arrive, its first post featured a slideshow of many photos, a vibrant rotation of handshakes and hugs, plus an elephant for good measure. The final slide — a photo of the duke and duchess standing on the balcony of Fiji’s Grand Pacific Hotel — was perhaps the most striking.
Other, press-captured pictures from that day show the young couple, facing the crowd of fans and photographers, waving as Harry's grandparents once did. But the image the Sussexes chose to share from that moment was a clear shift from the Queen’s historic portrayal and instead a black-and-white snapshot more reminiscent of their first Christmas card as a married couple. In that photo, the duke and duchess stood holding each other at their wedding reception, their backs to the camera, but with Frogmore Lake in the background instead of a sea of people, fireworks instead of flashing cameras. In both instances, they nudge us all to shift our collective gaze. We see what they see, and only if they want us to. ●
Sandi Rankaduwa is a Sri Lankan-Canadian writer, comedian, and filmmaker who's written for the Believer, BuzzFeed Reader, and Rolling Stone. A BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellow in 2018, she now splits her time between Brooklyn and Halifax.