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In Defense of Meghan Markle’s Medieval Times Curtsy Joke

Over the last five years, Meghan Markle has become a weirdly divisive figure in media, especially in the UK. But few things prove exactly how deep these divisions go like the reaction to the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan, her Netflix documentary series with Prince Harry. In these early episodes, the couple has avoided causing drama so completely that one common line of attack is aimed at Netflix for paying millions for something so boring. 

Still, controversies have arisen; notably, one moment that has come under scrutiny in the British press is when Meghan and Harry discuss her first meeting with the late queen. ITV’s Chris Ship tweeted out the scene along with a fairly neutral description of what happens in it. “Meghan describes meeting the late Queen Elizabeth for the first time and how she did not understand why she needed to curtsy to Harry’s grandmother,” he wrote. “He looks a little uncomfortable about the whole thing.” 

To me, an American in my early 30s, Ship’s description of the scene, while not incorrect, doesn’t sum up the nuances of the joke, which is clearly that Meghan is theatrically exaggerating her own unfamiliarity with the realities of being around the royals. She is the butt of the joke here, not the queen or even royal protocol. The scene is presented about 36 minutes into the second episode of the series, serving as an illustration of Meghan’s excitement and early discomfort while integrating into Harry’s family.

The story begins with Harry’s recollection. “My grandmother was the first senior member of the family that Meghan met,” he says. “She had no idea what it all consisted of. It was a bit of a shock to the system for her.”

Meghan continues: “I mean, it’s surreal. There wasn’t, like, some big moment of, ‘Now you’re gonna meet my grandmother.’ I didn’t know I was going to meet her until moments before. We were in the car and we were going to Royal Lodge for lunch. And he was like, ‘Oh, my grandmother is here. She’s going to be there after church.’ I remember, we were in the car, driving, and he’s like, ‘You know how to curtsy, right?’ And I just thought it was a joke.” 

Harry explains that there is something sensitive about introducing someone to this part of his life. “How do you explain that to people, that you bow to your grandmother and that you would need to curtsy, especially to an American? That’s weird,” he says. 

 But Meghan eventually embraces the challenge. “Now I’m starting to realize this is a big deal. I mean, Americans would understand this. We have Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament,” Meghan says, emphasizing the name of the restaurant in a theatrical bellow. “It was like that. Like, I curtsied as though I was like…” She pauses to curtsy dramatically, but she’s sitting, so she is almost falling off of the couch. 

She comes back up and says, “Pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty,” with the awkward smile of a people pleaser, adding, “Like, was that okay?” At first, Harry does look pretty confused—I think he might not get the joke she’s making—but he cracks a smile as she comes back up with her huge grin. 

I think it’s important to point out that she is not saying that the practice is “medieval,” as in outdated or cruel, as various reports have implied. She’s referring to the Texas-based chain of dinner theater restaurants with 11 locations across North America, where actors and circus performers dressed in garb that hearkens back to the Middle Ages perform for patrons as they eat a four-course meal of garlic bread, soup, roasted chicken, and dessert. Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament is not at all historically accurate, and I have never been, so I can’t testify to its quality. But it looms large in the American psyche, perhaps because it is such a perfect encapsulation of what American commerce can do with even the strangest source material. (It was also in headlines recently because groups of performers from the Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and California outposts have unionized.)

In this scene, Meghan is describing how she learned, in real time, that most of her knowledge of the way things work with royalty was secondhand, and in her eagerness to please Harry and the late queen, she overdid her first real curtsy. She’s doing a slapstick bit to say she had a deep understanding of the importance of meeting the queen, but a shallow understanding of how to properly do the thing that demonstrates it. To me, it’s hilarious, and it’s made even funnier by the fact that, as Meghan expects with the “Americans would get this” preface, her British husband has no idea what she is trying to say, until he sees the grin on her face and gets the gist.

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