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From Monica to Meghan: A brief history of women getting the blame

Roar writer Lilian Fawcett on the burden placed on women in public scandals. 

Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, has caused the collapse of a much-revered institution: the British royal family. Or so the media would have you believe. As the Duchess and her husband, Prince Harry, take a step back from royal duties and seek to become financially independent, Meghan has been largely vilified by the press – and the rhetoric used has been imbued with racism and misogyny. But Meghan Markle is not the first woman to be blamed for the ‘downfall’ of a man, and she certainly, sadly, will not be the last. Rather, pinning responsibility for a man’s supposed wrongdoing on a woman is a long-standing tradition.

At just 19 years old, would-be model Christine Keeler became embroiled in a scandal which would become known as the Profumo Affair, one of the biggest political dramas of the 1960s. John Profumo, at the time Secretary of State for War, engaged in an affair with the young Keeler. It was revealed a few years later amidst rumours of a potential state security risk due to Keeler’s alleged simultaneous involvement with a Soviet naval attaché. The drama made headlines and, eventually, the law courts.

Though Profumo’s political reputation never recovered after the scandal – he resigned shortly after – it was the young Christine Keeler who arguably suffered the most. Rather than a naïve teenager involved in a relationship with a great power imbalance, subsequently caught up in a protracted political scandal, she was dismissed as a ‘call girl’ or ‘harlot’ who had brought down the government. It took nearly sixty years for the media to redress this unfair portrayal with her recent reappraisal in a BBC drama.

An alarmingly similar tale played out when news of Monica Lewinsky and then-US President Bill Clinton’s affair made headlines thirty years later. The Lewinsky/Clinton scandal is much better known: the young Lewinsky had an affair with Clinton while working as a White House intern. When the affair became a public scandal, Lewinsky was lambasted by the press and public as a ‘slut’, a ‘nuisance’ and even a ‘sexual predator’. She was framed as using her sexuality to not only interfere with the President but to threaten the presidency itself.

More recently, Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle has been at the centre of a flurry of media coverage steeped with not only misogyny but racism too. For Meghan, who had the audacity to not only be a woman but a woman of colour, the odds were inevitably stacked against her in terms of the infamous British press. Even before the couple’s announcement that they would be stepping back from royal duties and seeking to become financially independent, the media attacked Meghan for seemingly the most benign behaviours. Particularly when compared with coverage of Kate, the treatment afforded to Meghan is vicious. The Express applauded Prince William, ‘gifted with avocado for the pregnant duchess’, while ‘Meghan Markle’s beloved avocado’ was ‘linked to human rights abuse and drought’.

It will come as no surprise that Piers Morgan was a source of particular vitriol towards Meghan, as well as responsible for perpetuating the myth that she orchestrated the couple’s ‘split’ from the royal family. He stated via Twitter: “she ditched her family…split Harry from William & has now split him from the Royal Family”. Morgan similarly rejects all accusations that discussion of Meghan has been influenced by racism – but as Labour Party leadership candidate Lisa Nandy aptly queried: “how on Earth would you know?”

While the Piers Morgans of British media are unlikely to come around to the idea, a fairly brief dive into British history tells us that woman in the public eye have consistently been blamed for men’s transgressions. However, polls have shown that millennials view Meghan Markle more favourably than older generations. While the Duchess has experienced some of the worst of the British press, we can only hope media coverage begins to evolve and kicks old misogynistic tropes to the curb.

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