‘Harry & Meghan’ has all the intimacy of Instagram
There’s a scene early in the first episode of Netflix’s new “Harry & Meghan,” the documentary about the members of the British royal family that separated from the “company,” in which Meghan describes her early courtship with the prince. It started, she says, when he saw a picture of her clowning around on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed. Haz wanted to meet her, the friend said: Was she crazy? Meghan wasn’t sure (first she had to find out who “Haz” was). So she did what anyone would do when they were potentially set up on a blind date: She checked out his Instagram feed. And was won over by all the pictures of wildlife in Africa.
It’s a seemingly charming little site that’s pretty much been buried among everyone the other nuggets that has made news since the first three episodes of the series dropped: the tense revelations that the bad guys in this particular tale after all, is not the royal family (at least not yet), but the morally bankrupt British tabloids, framed by the revisiting of old Diana footage; looks at the relationship between colonialism, the Commonwealth and racism that shaped attitudes towards Meghan, a biracial member of the royal family; the suggestion that Meghan’s relationship with her father was destroyed when he sold his story to the papers rather than come to her wedding; the fact that the main characters refer to each other as “H” and “M.”
But the Instagram detail also serves as a clue to the purpose of this particular tell-all; an easter egg for what is to come. After all, as many commentators have pointed out, the revelations in the documentary aren’t actually confessional or political – the broad strokes of their history and how they see it are post-Oprah-Winfrey interview, fairly well ventilated. The biggest additions are visual: the never-before-seen “archive footage” featured in the trailer and delivered to director, Liz Garbus.
In other words, the personal snapshots depicting the former royal couple at all stages of their relationship. They tell the soft narrative Harry and Meghan want to get out, perhaps even more than they want to get their opinions out about the role of the monarchy in the modern world. A narrative deliberately made for a generation that lives online, and shaped by a platform where the very colors of life can be filtered to taste, framed and controlled. They speak the language of influence, for the era of influencers.
In these snaps, we see them saying good night to each other from across the ocean when they were still in their long distance phase; jumping for joy and giggling in the Botswana bush as they went on their first trip together and decided if they wanted to be a couple; wearing matching beanies and sunglasses; rob (maybe?) a photo booth. Generally laughs and cuddles and otherwise acts completely captivated. Later, having fun with their children. Dismantling royal froideur one hug and facemash at a time.
Even more striking than clips of Meghan feeding the chickens at her new California estate or Harry riding their son Archie around on a suitcase, they add up to a love story filled with affection and made for public consumption. It’s no coincidence that the first trailer – and many of the promotional images – show a black-and-white shot of Meghan and Harry kissing in an empty industrial kitchen after a black-tie event. The documentary itself is terribly long and sometimes tedious, and not everyone will want to sit through the various retreads.
But the images that promise intimacy of the most stage-managed kind are everywhere. That doesn’t mean they aren’t authentic or don’t convey real emotions. They do. But they convey an entirely their own agenda.
Just as the perfectly framed live interview sections of the series do: Meghan in matching tone-on-tone dove gray knitwear, sitting in a soft light gray chair, perfectly framed by three huge curved glass windows in their home in Montecito, letting the (also filtered) sunshine in; Meghan in tone-on-tone white, sitting on a white couch next to Harry in coordinating all-black; the decor and costume together present a picture of relaxed serenity and lightness of the most aspirational kind. As the couple is careful to acknowledge their continued privilege, in part to stave off criticism, they too are illuminated by its golden glow, their pain rendered pleasurable, consumable, palatable.
(Is it a coincidence that a Hermès blanket has slipped into the frame of a snippet in the trailer for the next three episodes in which Meghan is shown wiping a tear from her eye? Doubtful).
In the third episode, Meghan reveals that she chose to only wear neutral colors such as beige, cream and black during her time in the royal family so that she would “blend in” and because no one could be the same color as the Queen or any other senior royal in public environment. The implication was that now that she and Harry had left “the firm” she was free to express her true self in the bright plumage she wanted – except judging by her film choices, that apparently means more neutrals. Which undermines the suggestion of sacrifice attached to her royal wardrobe, while emphasizing her sensitivity to presentation and its various interpretations. Which brings up all the personal photos again.
Who took the different pictures? It is unclear; they are not all selfies. But there are so many of them! The relationship was preserved in its fairytale form for posterity from the very beginning. Perhaps not a surprise given Meghan’s pre-Harry Goop-like lifestyle site The Tig. Of course, she had to shut it down when the relationship became public and royal protocol intervened. Just like Sussex Instagram account had to obey certain palace rules. There was a lot to catch up on, and the documentary partly serves that purpose. Asked by The New York Times if the Sussexes had approval of the final cut, Ms Garbus would say it was only a “collaboration”.
However, another way of thinking about it is not so much a bomb aimed at Buckingham Palace as an image-making exercise for the endless scroll.