Degree wives, trophy wives and WAGs: why must we persist in defining women by their relationships?
Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. Or, y’know, you could – if you were so inclined – seize the opportunity to spread yet another rumour about Meghan Markle.
When her relationship with Prince Harry first came to light in 2016, tabloids delighted in hounding Meghan, penning lengthy articles about her divorce, her age (she is a few years older than her husband) and her race (she has a black mother and a white father).
The abuse was so relentless that Harry was forced to issue an unprecedented public statement. “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,” he said.
“Some of it has been hidden from the public – the nightly legal battles to keep defamatory stories out of papers; her mother having to struggle past photographers in order to get to her front door; the attempts of reporters and photographers to gain illegal entry to her home and the calls to police that followed; the substantial bribes offered by papers to her ex-boyfriend; the bombardment of nearly every friend, co-worker, and loved one in her life.”
For a short time, Harry’s statement seemed to have worked: the tabloids had been shamed into silence. But, as the old adage goes, “all good things must come to an end”. As soon as the couple announced their engagement, the floodgates opened once again: Harry had chosen an “unsuitable” bride (phrasing which didn’t go down too well with anybody, particularly JK Rowling). And since then, we’ve seen the Duchess of Sussex lambasted for…
Well, for pretty much everything.
As previously reported, Meghan has been criticised for daring to wear dark nail polish, for choosing a one-shouldered dress, and even for wearing a bra underneath her clothes (yes, really). For sending seven texts a day to her employees, for waking up early, and for having a “formidable work ethic”. For sitting on a goddamned chair.
When she announced that she and Harry were expecting a child together, the vitriol continued – worsened, even. She was slammed for touching her ’baby bump’ in full view of everyone (the absolute horror). For wearing heels while pregnant. Some even criticised her for refusing to cart Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor out onto the hospital steps, all so the world’s press could get photos of him and her, in the hours after his birth.
You get the picture. Essentially, what we’re trying to say is this: all the worst parts of the world’s press seem to have 101 problems with Meghan. And they find new ways to make that clear whenever and wherever they can.
Case in point? According to The Sunday Times, the royal family hates Meghan. Hates her. So much so that certain members of the clan are now referring to the duchess by a cruel new nickname: ‘the degree wife’.
Naturally, they didn’t name their (frankly, dubious) sources – nor did they reveal which royal has been dropping such suspiciously soundbite-worthy nicknames. The writer did, though, explain what is meant by a ‘degree wife’, for those of us who aren’t up to date with our royal slurs. Playing on the idea that university students typically finish their degrees in three years, the nickname implies that Harry will be done with Meghan by late 2021 – three years after their star-studded royal wedding in 2018.
Right. Can we not?
The year is 2019, and yet we are still referring to women as WAGs, as trophy wives, and now as degree wives. You shouldn’t need us to tell you that nicknames such as these are problematic: they capitalise on society’s need to categorise women in terms that men will never have imposed on them (remember, official forms tend to demand women identify as “Miss, Mrs, or Ms,” while men, no matter what their marital history is, will always be “Mr”).
Because, in stripping Meghan down to nothing more than Harry’s three-year project, we are effectively stripping away her identity – and reminding women everywhere of ‘their place’ in this patriarchal society.
As Meghan put it herself in her Vanity Fair interview: “[Harry and I] were very quietly dating for about six months before it became news, and I was working during that whole time, and the only thing that changed was people’s perception.
“Nothing about me changed. I’m still the same person that I am, and I’ve never defined myself by my relationship.”
Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that Meghan is married to a crowned prince, but she’s so much more than just Harry’s wife. Before their marriage, she was an actor, writer and fashion designer, who penned countless essays about racism, human rights and the perils of fame.
Since becoming a member of the royal family, she has made a point of using her position in the world’s spotlight to fight the good fight. She used her first speech to advocate women’s education, championed women’s suffrage in New Zealand, publicly supported the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, worked closely with Grenfell survivors, celebrated Ireland’s abortion referendum, and used the @SussexRoyal account to highlight crucial Instagram accounts that every woman should follow.
In short, Meghan very much remains her own woman: she is in charge of her own destiny, and she is forging her own place in the world. She is absolutely not some project for Harry, with a deadline and an expiry date – nor is she someone to be degraded and dismissed as a ‘degree wife’.
Thankfully, Meghan is unlikely to pay too much heed to the media’s latest snarky take on her role in the royal family. Indeed, as Oprah Winfrey previously noted, the duchess “doesn’t seem to buy into [her bad press]”.
However, we need to – all of us – pay attention to the words used to describe Meghan. If we start to view misogynist terms such as ‘degree wife’ and ‘trophy wife’ as normal, then they will become normal. Worse, they will start to become acceptable.
And don’t we all, regardless of our status, deserve more than being defined by our relationships?