In her op-ed for the New York Times last year, Meghan Markle highlighted a question a friendly journalist had asked her as being of vital importance. Namely, “Are you okay?” It’s true that the British royal family, which Markle married into in 2017, does not have the best record in prioritizing the mental well-being of its leaders. Though in fairness, historically at least, they had other concerns.
Alfred the Great got his title fending off the Vikings. William the Conqueror oversaw the momentous Domesday Survey. Queen Anne facilitated the union of England and Scotland (poor Anne lost 17 of her 18 babies to miscarriage and sickness). Queen Victoria helped double the British Empire, all while giving birth to and raising nine children. Georgie VI overcame his terrible stutter and helped lead the U.K. through the Second World War. Over the past 1,200 years, neither monarchs, nor the people they ruled, particularly cared about whether or not they or not they were feeling “okay.”
This reputation for stoicism was so epic that it became the stuff of stories, songs, and legends, inspiring J. R. R. Tolkien, a scholar of medieval literature, to create characters such as King Théoden of Rohan. In The Lord of the Rings, Théoden has a trying time: First he’s possessed by an evil spy, then his son dies, then he and his people are surrounded by orcs in a scenario of almost certain defeat at the battle of Helm’s Deep. Still, he fights on toward victory and one final battle at Gondor: “For he was a gentle heart and a great king and kept his oaths; and he rose out of the shadows to a last fair morning.”
Consider the way that Queen Elizabeth II has acknowledged personal misfortunes in the past. By the end of 1992, two of her children’s marriages broke up, her nephew killed himself, Prince Charles’s marriage with Diana was on the rocks (and in the public eye), she had been pelted with eggs, and a fire had destroyed part of Windsor Castle. In her speech, she said:
1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’. I suspect that I am not alone in thinking it so. Indeed, I suspect that there are very few people or institutions unaffected by these last months of worldwide turmoil and uncertainty.
Contrast this tone of restraint and resilience with that of Meghan Markle’s Times op-ed, which gives excruciating details about her personal tragedy, namely the loss of her second child to miscarriage. She tells millions of readers about how she “dropped to the floor,” noticing the “clamminess” of her husband’s palm “wet from both our tears.” Similarly, this performance of vulnerability is a prominent feature of her and Harry’s multi-million dollar podcast, Archewell, launched last month, which features celebrity and activist guests.
The stereotype of British stoicism is often misunderstood. Taken to excess, it can of course become a vice. Suffering is part of life, pretending otherwise is silly. Still, the role of a leader, especially after an “annus horribilis” such as 2020 is not to indulgently showcase his or her vulnerabilities and encourage others to do the same. When you are in a position of cultural leadership, charged with helping to boost the morale of millions during some global catastrophe, what the public really needs to see is your strength.