We wouldn’t normally expect sisters-in-law to have identical lives and personalities. There’s something more sinister at play here, says stylist.co.uk’s Moya Crockett.
Imagine, if you will, a pair of 30-something brothers. The older brother has been with his wife, who he met at university, for 14 years. The younger brother recently married a woman he had known for a year and a half beforehand, who he met through mutual friends.
These brothers are very different people, but their respective partners are… eerily similar. They look the same, sound the same, dress the same, act the same. Their upbringings were near-identical, and they share almost all of the same interests. For all intents and purposes, the two women are the same person.
If you knew these people, you’d probably think that there was something a bit odd going on. Right? We don’t usually expect sisters-in-law to have identical backgrounds and personalities, particularly if they met their partners at very different times in their lives – and especially if their partners themselves aren’t all that alike.
Take a look at the tabloid coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement, however, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the opposite was true. Buried amongst all the breathless pieces about Markle’s wardrobe and what Princess Diana would have really thought, a peculiar subgenre of article has emerged – one that is obsessed with pointing out, in astonished tones, all the differences between Markle and Kate Middleton.
The comparison between the two has continued in the year since Harry and Meghan’s engagement, culminating in the breathless reports that the newlyweds will be moving from Kensington Palace – where they neighbour William and Kate – to Frogmore Cottage in Windsor. According to tabloid reports, Harry and Meghan’s decision to move more than a hundred miles from William and Kate is because the sisters-in-law can’t stand each other.
Articles like this have been bubbling away ever since Prince Harry and Markle’s relationship was confirmed last year, but the genre really came into its own when the couple announced their engagement. Countless stories have highlighted the dissimilarities between Middleton and Markle’s backgrounds. Others have promised to reveal “reasons why Meghan Markle is nothing like Kate Middleton… from relationship history to fashion sense”, or picked apart the differences between “their first public appearances with their Princes”.
Even in articles supposedly focusing on areas of likeness between the two women (such as “How Kate and Meghan’s mums share striking similarities”), there is an underlying note of surprise. How interesting, gasps the not particularly subtle subtext, that two such different women have anything in common!
These articles might seem innocuous enough. The British royal family remains a source of fascination to many people, and Middleton was the last ‘outsider’ to infiltrate its inner circle. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of how many of us prefer to digest our news these days: in small, bitesize chunks.
For those reasons alone, some will argue that comparing Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge – and reducing them down to nothing more than a few easily digestible factoids in the process – is just a bit of fun. But there’s something deeper at play here.
For starters, there’s the obvious undercurrent of racism and classism. One significant way that Markle is ‘different’ from her future sister-in-law is that she’s not white – a subject that certain media outlets have danced around with all the delicacy of a hand grenade.
One typical article published online after the engagement this time last year emphasised Middleton’s “traditional English family” and “aristocratic roots”, versus Markle’s mixed-race heritage and the fact that her estranged half-brother has “faced gun charges after allegedly holding a gun to a woman’s head”. It is interesting to note that Middleton – once widely portrayed, rather ridiculously, as a “commoner” – is being painted as a paragon of well-bred gentility now that Harry is engaged to a biracial American divorcee.
By drawing these distinctions between the two women’s backgrounds, these articles are sending a clear message: Middleton is more or less the kind of woman you’d expect a prince to marry, and Markle… isn’t.
More broadly, the tabloids’ treatment of Markle and Middleton speaks to our culture’s obsession with comparing women in the public eye. Comparison, of course, is less than a hair’s breadth away from competition – and so when these publications contrast Markle’s background, personality and fashion sense with Middleton’s, what they are really asking us to do is choose which woman we prefer. They are positioning them as opposites to one another, as though one cannot be what or even where the other is. It’s Top Trumps, royal spouse edition.
On the day that Markle attended her first public engagement with Prince Harry in Nottingham, for example, The Sun ran a story about the “low-key Duchess of Cambridge [being] spotted at King’s Cross Station as the world watches Meghan Markle”. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, speculated whether Middleton will be able to “cope with Meghan mania”, suggesting that “William’s wife is feeling overshadowed” by Markle. Because of course Middleton must be feeling a little bit jealous of her future sister-in-law: that’s what women are like, right?
Pitting women against each other like this is nothing new. We see it whenever a new series of a reality talent show starts on TV, and the media starts obsessively covering the supposed rivalry between the female judges/ presenters/ contestants.
We see it, too, in how Hollywood actresses and women musicians are covered in the press, as though they are in relentless battle with their female peers. Much has been written about ‘female competitiveness’ and whether it is a total myth or a symptom of a patriarchal society, but it’s certainly not a narrative that benefits women.
Ultimately, Middleton and Markle are not opposite sides of the same coin, or vying for space under a spotlight that can only accommodate one. They are not shockingly different, and neither are they eerily similar. They’re just two women, doing their own thing.
One thing they almost certainly have in common, though, is this: a desire not to be turned into rivals.
Images: Rex Features