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Una Mullally: Reaction to Megxit reveals worst excesses of fandom

Meghan Markle finds herself in a toxic fan ecosystem fuelled by tabloid press narratives

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during a photocall in London in November 2017 after they announced their engagement. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Asif Kapadia’s excellent recent documentary on Diego Maradona is as much an examination of the cartoonish fickleness of fandom as it is a profile of a living legend. The repetition of observing the cycle of famous people being raised on pedestals, with all the expectations of the public projected on to them, before being torn down, does not seem to limit its frequency.

As Kapadia frames it in his film, it wasn’t the Camorra or the affairs or the cocaine that ruined Maradona’s relationship with Naples the city and Napoli the club, although those things obviously played their part, but rather it was the adoration that came with his remarkable achievements at Napoli. These achievements made possible not just by his talent, but weaponised by a broader narrative, a sense of fate, felt and purpose imposed upon him, the type of things that only a saviour-like character can bring to a time and a place. At many points throughout the documentary, this adoration is depicted as literally suffocating, as Maradona is crowded by fans and press, squeezed and crushed in a manner that is stressful to watch.

Tabloid prey

Kapadia likes to focus his lens on the type of mind-boggling fame that exceptional talent brings, as he did with his documentaries on Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. In the latter, Winehouse’s wholeness as a person and an artist was somewhat reduced by her being tabloid prey. The correlations between her being hunted, and the ultimate tragic prey of tabloid obsession, Princess Diana, are clear.

This pattern is playing itself out again, with the overblown coverage and reaction to Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wanting out of the destructive cycle of tabloid attention. Both have made it clear in interviews and statements that the scrutiny and criticism is not sustainable. Ironically, such resistance and appeals for change increased negative coverage, and probably inflamed it. The sense of ownership that the British press feels over the royal family is classic super-fan behaviour: you will give us what we want, you will play along, you will be who we want you to be.


Celebrity journalism was a bastion of fake news long before Facebook

In order to discuss the ridiculous, mean-spirited coverage of Markle, we also need to remember the insanely fawning stuff too. All of it is stupid. But in soap operas, it is not enough for everyone to be loved, there also needs to be an enemy. Markle now finds herself in a familiar space in the fan ecosystem which is reflected by tabloid press narratives; she is the Yoko breaking up the Beatles, the Courtney Love corrupting Kurt Cobain.

All of this is heavily gendered, because tabloid narratives are often made up of very basic, regressive fundamentals that speak to deeply embedded prejudices: women are conniving, and men are simultaneously strong yet somehow also easily manipulated. The bedrock of the anti-Markle coverage is also made up of racist narratives: outsiders are bad, and difference intersecting with the familiar is a corrupting force.

For a long time now, celebrity coverage as a genre of journalism has been built around manufactured narratives. Celebrity journalism was a bastion of fake news long before Facebook. Inventing plot-driven narratives, where readers or viewers can check in at anytime and know the story, sustains coverage. Sometimes these narratives intersect with reality, but for the most part facts are incidental. If facts were important, then swathes of stories would not rest on rumour, fabricated quotes, or things that are simply made up.

When these soap-opera-type narratives are built – such as one of the longest running storylines in celebrity coverage, the Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie triangle – they are very difficult to escape. Like some kind of weird tabloid AI, they are engineered at the outset, and then take off on their own.

The most successful celebrity coverage narratives – the ones that connect with people the most – often reflect public consciousness. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s desire to retreat somewhat from public life and self-demote their royal obligations happened at the outset of the new year, when no doubt many people were reflecting on intense periods of family being in close proximity over Christmas.


But one of the most powerful plots in celebrity narratives is betrayal. This is the opera in the soap opera. Betrayal isn’t just about the people jumping ship, it questions the fundamental purpose of those still on board. When people declare “I’m out”, those left over are compelled to reflect on their own participation.

Perhaps it is this sentiment that is subconsciously fuelling the outrageously heightened reaction in the British press to “Megxit”. The reaction to their proposed departure is another existential moment for Britain as it searches for a place in the world, and where the pillars of its identity are straining.

Fame, and the fandom that fuels it, dehumanises not just the subject, but also the multiple antagonists, the fans, the people who lose a sense of the boundaries of their emotions and project an incredibly heightened brand of emotional intensity on to those they admire, and believe that they love. But whether it’s a lead character quitting a beloved television show, or an adored footballer leaving their club, losing something forces us to question what we have. The tabloid press’s reaction to all of this isn’t really about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, it’s about themselves.