Editor’s Note: Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary film producer and author, including two books about gender and family and the forthcoming “Mean,” a book about women behaving badly, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2024. Her latest film, “King Coal,” will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced in early 2020 that they were stepping back from their roles as “senior” royals, effectively quitting the royal family, they described a culture of familial tension, relentless scrutiny and certain misogyny. They no longer wished to be trailed by the media, obsessed over, watched. Harry didn’t want to be constantly reminded of his mother’s tragic death every time he and Meghan were photographed; Meghan didn’t want to be tabloid fodder for what she wore, how she did her hair, where she was from or how much she did or didn’t enjoy the spotlight. They wanted to reach financial independence, live as regular people, raise their children in private.
And yet, here they are, taking part in — co-producing, in fact — “Harry & Meghan,” a new six-part docuseries whose first three episodes dropped this week, detailing their lives with a never-before-seen look into the couple’s “personal archive,” commentary from close friends and family members speaking out for the first time and lots of direct access to Harry and Meghan themselves in interviews filmed over the last few years. The series opens with individual self-taped video diaries by Harry and Meghan from back in 2020 — the first clue that perhaps they never really intended to keep their private life private after all.
Indeed, what we learn from “Harry & Meghan” is that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are less interested in staying out of the spotlight than in staying in complete control of how that spotlight makes them look. But, well, that’s just not how celebrity works.
Which is just one reason “Harry & Meghan” is a royal disappointment. The couple quit the family because they didn’t want the attention. But, very clearly, what they didn’t want was the negative attention, or any criticism whatsoever — a very primitive (and, ironically, very royal) attitude. In life — in real life — there is no good without the bad. The production, then, is an effort not to be revealing in an honest and genuine way, to reveal “the full truth” that “no one knows” — as Harry says in the film’s opening few minutes — but to drum up sympathy for themselves. Indeed, when asked why she wanted to make this documentary, Meghan answers, “When you feel like people haven’t gotten any sense of who you are for so long, it’s really nice to just be able to have the opportunity to let people have a bit more of a glimpse into what’s happened and also who we are.”
But who’s to say that people haven’t gotten a glimpse of who they are? What makes their version — a heavily produced, edited and controlled version — more honest than any version of their lives that’s come before? It’s striking how much the filtered version of events functions in the series as their version of real life. Meghan recalls how when she first got connected with Harry, she wanted to review his Instagram feed as a way to get to know him, and social media posts comprise a significant portion of the archive that guides their narrative together.
Harry and Meghan’s fatal flaw — both the couple’s and the film’s — is in thinking they can control how others see them. None of us can. And that the couple keeps trying, despite also asking to be left alone, reflects a naive outlook and disingenuous attitude that viewers will pick up on, especially against the fact that the documentary strives to portray them as “more grounded” than the rest of the royal family. In reality, they may be the most out of touch of them all.
Just as disappointing is the series’ content, which is a lot of the same we’ve already seen or heard. There are some new aspects — friends who’ve never commented, photos we’ve never seen — but otherwise there’s little payoff and little to change people’s minds about them. It’s self-promotional, self-aggrandizing and, frankly, a little boring. They do not come off as more likeable and, in fact, perhaps a lot less so. Notably, it’s perhaps the first time that much of the dislike is directed toward Harry, instead of just Meghan.
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Whereas once he may have been viewed by the public as a hapless victim of a cunning attention seeker, or suffering from a form of “repetition compulsion” in which he’s repeating in his adult life a scenario familiar to him from growing up Princess Diana’s son, viewers will surely now have less sympathy. With “Harry & Meghan,” it’s clear that he’s willfully chosen to see what he wants to see.
In fact, if “Harry & Meghan” is a ploy to get people truly disinterested in their comings and goings, well, that’s the one area where they may have succeeded. “I just really want to get to the other side of all of this,” says Meghan to the camera in the opening minutes of the first episode. With “Harry & Meghan,” she may finally get her wish.