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Finn McRedmond: Meghan makes an unparalleled bid for obnoxiousness

It will take more than a pet project to help women the pandemic has affected most

It has been a good week for birthday-induced controversy (who says nothing of interest happens in August?) For his 60th, Barack Obama held a party that garnered accusations of arrogance: ought a popular former president not have a better radar for the public mood? Has he not considered the optics of the occasion amid thousands of cancelled weddings and funerals?

These seem to be harsh criticisms. We have to allow celebration to resume at some point, don’t we? And besides, any alleged wrongdoing here pales in comparison to the far more grievous infraction committed earlier in the week. Meghan Markle turned 40 on August 4th, and marked the occasion with an unparalleled bid for obnoxiousness even the most out-of-touch could only aspire to: a slick PR stunt that generated far more raised eyebrows than hearty congratulations.

Time, said the princess in a blog post, is among “our greatest and most essential gifts”. To that end, Markle has established the 40x40 programme: “For my birthday I have asked 40 friends, activists, athletes, artists, and world leaders to help kick off a global effort by contributing 40 MINUTES OF MENTORSHIP [weirdly placed emphasis: hers] to support women re-entering the workforce.” People across the globe, in any given field, are then encouraged to sign up as mentors themselves?

What exactly, you might be wondering, could Adele or Markle tell someone in need of employment to support themselves? Marry a prince? Win a Grammy?

At this juncture you may be unconvinced that the staggering generosity of a whole 40 minutes of mentorship is worthy of the capital lettered, shouting-across-the-internet tone Markle has opted for. It raises a question: if time really is among the “greatest” and “most essential gifts”, could she not find it within herself to round it up to at least an hour? Though it would corrupt the neatness of the campaign: 40th birthday, 40 friends, 60 minutes lacks the same panache. And it is to celebrate her birthday, lest we forget.


In a climate of ineffective nonsense moonlighting as meaningful feminism, this might just take the biscuit. But the problem she has identified is a very real one. In the past two years, millions of women across the world have left the workforce, Markle correctly observes. Women have disproportionately borne the brunt of the Covid-19 crisis, as industries they populate – hospitality, retail and tourism – have seen a flurry of job losses. Women occupy most care roles too, where day-to-day pressure has been immense. We are desperately in need of a solution to these severe pandemic by-products.

It needn’t be controversial to suggest that none of this will be solved, or even ameliorated, by the mind-boggling solipsism of Markle’s latest pet project. And we should maintain a healthy level of scepticism that a roster of celebrities dedicating an entire 40 minutes of their time – seismically more valuable than our own, it seems – might have any material impact on the grief-stricken and financially precarious trying to get back to work. The shallowness of the whole endeavour is thrown into even sharper relief when we are reminded that this is all in commemoration of the birthday of a princess, something we should for some reason or another be celebrating.

There are the obvious criticisms to leverage. Among the A-listers Markle has roped in to kick off the project is youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, an inspiring woman no doubt, but at just 23 it is likely she does not possess the worldly experience required to help women who have found themselves out of work. Adele (yes, the singer) has pledged support too. What exactly, you might be wondering, could Adele or Markle tell someone in need of employment to support themselves and their family? Marry a prince? Win a Grammy? Be impossibly beautiful?

Feminism is not a sexy celeb-laden project that can achieve gender parity with designed-by-committee press grabs

But perhaps these are teething problems that could be ironed out as more and more opt in to mentorship roles. Rather, the problem is that it points to something far more insidious in the culture: a failure to understand that feminism is not a sexy celeb-laden project that can achieve gender parity with designed-by-committee press grabs; that celebrity intervention is not the key – nor even particularly helpful – to unlocking a fairer society; that most of the hard work required to improve the plight of the economically disadvantaged is done in backrooms by those designing wonkish policy documents.

Progress is not a performative process that allows stars to be thought of as the right sort of people by their fans. But if being thought of as good is a greater priority than being effective, then Markle et al have passed with flying colours. The depressing but unavoidable realisation behind all of this is that it is the former, not the latter, that carries the greatest cultural caché.

With Kellie Harrington’s Olympic boxing gold, and Natalya Coyle’s poise and stoicism in the face of defeat in the modern pentathalon, we can see there are plenty of heroes for young women in our culture. And there is plenty to be said for Markle herself, who remained defiant in the face of a hostile media. But those heroes are built through hours of solitary practice and quiet bravery, not 40 minutes of screen time.