Being a member of the royal family comes with a lot of media scrutiny, and sometimes it manifests itself in unexpected ways. When Meghan Markle attended her first solo event, she probably expected a lot of attention, but she made the biggest splash by doing something that millions of people do every day without thinking. But that tiny thing sparked a firestorm of debate.
Meghan appears to be settling down into the life of a royal very well indeed. Since her wedding to Prince Harry, she’s been out and about a lot, and she seems to be gradually establishing herself as a newer, cooler, more down-to-earth duchess. Wherever she goes, though, cameras and fans follow, and they like what they see.
One of the things that appears to make her so popular is her willingness to throw herself into important work. Recently, she’s been working with survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, one of the worst ever modern-day peacetime disasters in the U.K. Subsequently, her first official solo project as a duchess was launching a cookbook to raise money for the people affected.
And Meghan’s first solo engagement took place on September 25, 2018. This was the first time that she had appeared in public without any other members of her family to lean on for support: no Harry, no Queen Elizabeth, just her. The visit was to the Royal Academy of Arts to view an exhibition of Pacific artwork.
But upon arriving at the London venue, Meghan did something unusual for a person in her position. Someone opened her car door for her when it stopped, and she got out. The duchess greeted her hosts… and then she casually closed her own car door. But this tiny gesture proved to be not so tiny after all.
Media commentators went wild over the action. Journalist Emily Andrews, a royal correspondent, tweeted about it alongside a video. “#duchessofsussex arrives at the RA. A princess who still takes the time to shut her car door. Well done Meghan!” she wrote. That post alone has gained over 15,000 likes and plenty of retweets.
And in the comments, people debated. “I really don’t think it occurs to her that someone else is there to do that. It is something she’s always done herself like the rest of us,” one person wrote. “It’s one movement of the arm,” added another. “It’s not even a workout. It literally takes no effort at all to close your own door. She may be royal, but she doesn’t need anyone to close a door for her.”
Some Tweeters took a more sarcastic approach, though. “Because I was so inspired by Meghan Markle, as I left the house this morning I shut my own front door,” one user wrote sardonically. And Omid Scobie of Good Morning America tweeted, “Women doing things themselves SHOCKER,” along with an annoyed-looking emoji.
Etiquette expert William Hanson talked to the BBC about it too. “Usually, if you are a member of the royal family or a dignitary, you have a member of staff to open and close a car door for you,” he said. However, the reason wasn’t airs and graces, it was actually more of a security issue. Royals, of course, are granted the highest level of protection.
Hanson, one of the most well-known commentators on royal protocol in the U.K., also talked to the Daily Mail. “The Duchess of Sussex closing her own car door is yet another silent signal that she is going to be doing things her own way and helping adapt and progress the British monarchy,” he said.
Meghan has indeed been noted for doing things her own way. She’s committed minor breaches of protocol ever since she became officially the partner of Harry. Even at the very beginning of her journey, the duchess committed a small rebellious act when she appeared with bare legs – and no pantyhose – in her engagement photos.
However, many of the “official” rules seem so stuffy that the media welcomes Meghan breaking them. Technically, royals shouldn’t hug the children they meet on their travels, for example, but Meghan has done so. And she’s also held hands with Harry in public more than once – few of the other royal couples would commit even such a mild PDA.
As the story took over the Internet, though, people dug through old photos of the royals and noted that Meghan had actually closed her own car door before. While attending her Grenfell cookbook launch event, Meghan arrived with her mother and Harry and again casually closed her own door without waiting for someone to do it for her.
And Kate Middleton has, in fact, done the same thing, although few people noticed at the time. Actually, she’s closed her own car door more than once. People magazine reported that she did so when arriving to a dinner in 2012 and again in January 2015 when arriving at a charity event for The Fostering Network.
If Meghan and her fellow young royals are proving anything right now, then, it’s that protocol doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. If, indeed, it ever needed to be a big deal at all. Historian Ted Powell spoke to the Metro and discussed how members of the royal family have “struggled with” the concept for a very long time.
“Shortly before Edward VIII became King, he famously decided to walk the two minutes from Buckingham Palace to the Duchy of Cornwall’s offices rather than calling for a car,” Powell went on. “It started to rain, and he put up his umbrella. Inevitably he was photographed doing so and then widely criticized for being caught in the shockingly informal pose of carrying his own umbrella.”
This has of course changed a lot. Nowadays, it’s not at all unusual for members of the royal family, even the Queen herself, to be spotted holding up their own umbrellas. In fact, it would probably seem awkward and “diva-like” for them to require staff to do it. It seems, then, that times have moved on a tremendous amount.
That’s good news for a new duchess. “While Meghan is taking time to adjust to her role she is also making important statements in the activities she is pursuing,” Powell added in the Metro piece. “Maybe she will reinvent royal protocol and silly observations about whether she closes her own car door will fall away.”
Although the car-door closing became the major talking point of Meghan’s first solo outing, she appeared to complete the rest of her duties flawlessly. The duchess took part in a traditional Maori Hongi, viewed the artwork on display, and watched a performance by the Maori cultural group Ngati Ranana. It seemed, then, that she didn’t put a single foot wrong.
“Solo outings” are obviously a concept unknown to the vast majority of people, as are most details of royal life. Meghan lives a life of luxury and security, if not one of privacy. But her willingness to fend for herself and maintain her independence, even in the most casual of ways, has her gaining more and more popularity by the minute.