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Meghan Markle and the Paralyzing Myopia of #MeToo

In the recent ITV/ABC documentary, Meghan alludes to the emotional toll of over a year of incessant bullying by the media. So, in an era of #MeToo, why isn’t it being called out?

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The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. Credit:  ITV
The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. Credit: ITV
The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. Credit: ITV

It was a heart-wrenching moment in the new documentary about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. One clip of the documentary, which aired in the US on Wednesday (and the UK last Sunday), went viral: ITV host, Thomas Bradby, explores the impact of the intense public scrutiny on Meghan Markle’s well-being. Markle responds meekly with a sense of defeat: admitting she isn’t “OK.” To viewers, her vulnerability is clear. She appears both terrified and sad — markedly different compared to other on-camera interviews.

Yet the response, strangely, has been as polarizing as Markle herself. A quick check on the couple’s Instagram account exposes strings of supportive messages along with a disturbing number of criticisms, suggesting she unfairly portrays herself as a victim, and that close scrutiny is fair due to her ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘narcissism.’ Other accounts such as by one former TV writer, who would typically be in a position to empathize with discrimination, but has instead built a new career upon denigrating Markle, consistently works to fan the flames of racism. (Notably, he now aims to profit from this behavior through a book, and on Tuesday his PR team shared that he has suddenly changed his tune).

But the most problematic attacks remain to be by the British tabloid press, who are untamed, and have taken on a vicious and dumbfounding obsession with Markle — everything from calling her a nobody, to criticizing her for working hard and her “disturbing” confidence. This week’s documentary was a meditation on the realities of an unconventional, and perhaps unexpected, rise of a woman of color in a circle that has not historically been authentically welcome and open to difference, and how Markle navigates through that. Above all it was about the impact of incessant bullying particularly of visible minority women, and it’s disappointing to know that in the era of #MeToo, many in a position to speak out are turning a blind eye.

While #MeToo has been criticized for refusing to validate the experience visible minorities have with sexual harassment, much of the myopia involves failing to address other forms of workplace harassment: the bullying and mobbing that occurs without the threat of sexual assault. To be sure, the #MeToo movement has been pivotal in providing a platform to women who have been sexually harassed, and that is clearly a salient aspect. However, if #MeToo is intended, at its core, to ensure that organizational power structures do not lead to abusing the most vulnerable, it must address bullying and mobbing, and as we are on the heels of a major public display of this abuse, now is a perfect time. It’s worth noting that the reported incidence of workplace bullying is almost double that of sexual harassment, and research shows that women of color are disproportionately affected. While Markle’s “work” happens on the world stage, other women of color who may experience bullying work in fields such as medicinelawnursingjournalism, and so on. The impacts are devastating nonetheless.

Second, the #MeToo movement also needs to address, in more fulsome way, the role of bias — which is a close cousin of bullying. The consequences of this bias are more devastating in workplaces where the leadership and management lack diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability (and tokenism doesn’t count: it actually does a disservice by painting a mirage of diversity to attract talent, who then become the target of abuse). Research on Tall Poppy Syndrome is informative and is often amplified among minority groups. This bias plays out clearly in criticisms about Markle’s work ethic as well as the bizarre outrage around her use of a private jet. For other women of color, this legitimization of unfair criticism and false accusations represent a variety of tactics bullies rely upon.

There’s a simple litmus test to decide if criticism is “fair”: examine whether those in the dominant group are judged as harshly. In Markle’s case, several writers have pointed to the fact that she is attacked more than royal family members. As well, the stark contrast of Markle’s articulate nature compared to Kate, makes it more tempting for bullies to twist Markle’s abilities into the negative. As many writers have hinted at, the fact that other family members refuse to speak out against the bullying (and may even be willing bystanders), while seemingly taking inspiration from Markle to reorient their brand, makes this silence particularly tragic.

Last, the #MeToo movement must begin to address the broader issue of power structures as opposed to focussing on gender alone, and this means looking at the role women play in the systematic harassment of other women, which is evident in Markle’s case: most of the criticism on social media, as well as by the British Press, originates from white women. The dynamics of bullying by other women are complex, and relate both to envy and a scarcity mindset. As such, counterintuitive to the #MeToo narrative, allies may in fact be found among men, as evident in both Markle’s case and by business leaders, perhaps because of the influence they wield.

With few advocates and options, Markle and her husband have done what so many women of color have been forced to pursue: litigation, which isn’t easy, but has an additional benefit of allowing targets to warn other potential victims about perpetrators.

The sad irony of #MeToo is that if Meghan had been sexually harassed publicly — it would be condemned, yet the silence around a more insidious type of harassment is deafening. On the heels of this documentary, and fresh outrage predominantly by women of color, it’s crucial that the #MeToo movement begin to address the impact of the more common forms of harassment, bullying, and mobbing inflicted by women, particularly towards visible minority women. If it can happen so flippantly to a member of one of the world’s most privileged families, one can only imagine the experiences of other women who are affected, those who don’t have the platform to speak out.

To Meghan: as long as you are perceived as more accomplished, beautiful, congenial, youthful, worldly, charismatic, intelligent, and articulate than your closest “competitor,” while remaining proud of who you are and what you represent, you will be a magnet for both criticism and inspiration. Remember that your bullies have lost in many ways, so you must not dim your light in surrender. Many of us with experience navigating toxic mistreatment would remind you that even in the most challenging of moments, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, ‘while you come as one, know that you stand as 10,000.’

NOTE: This essay has been co-published with Medium.com

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